March 18, 2015
As of December 2014, more than five and a half million children living inside Syria were in need of direct humanitarian aid, according to a UNICEF report.
While they lack basic necessities like food and shelter, Syria’s children have also suffered deep psyschological wounds by witnessing violence, and, in some cases, participating in it.
All parties to the conflict, including FSA-affiliated brigades, Kurdish People’s Protection Units (the YPG), and hardline Islamist militias have utilized child soldiers, according to a UN report released last May.
A group of Syrians living inside and outside the country are trying to create a new reality for children, one where they can experience at least some aspects of normal childhood.
Sununu magazine, distributed in rebel-controlled parts of north Syria, was founded last year, features stories, drawings and exercises to encourage reading and appropriate play.
“Our idea was to create a new world that would be a safe haven for refugee children—so they could have fun, and learn, be exposed to various cultures appropriate to their age,” Elie Sakali, one of the founders of Sununu children’s magazine, tells Syria Direct’s Ammar Hamou.
The mission sounds innocuous enough, but editors must work around realities on the ground.
Apart from finding funding, Saqli says, “the other problem we face occurs in places under hardcore Islamist control, who consider the magazine un-Islamic and demand the inclusion of Islamic material in it.”
Any mention of religion or beliefs goes against the magazine’s policy, Saqli says.
“We avoid imposing what we believe upon him, because it is the child’s right to form a free personality.”
[To visit Sununu’s website click here].
Q: Do you think that the organizations responsible for supporting Syrian refugees have fallen short in terms of supporting children?
Certainly. The programs designed for children are few and far between in terms of providing basic needs like food, medicine, heating and shelter…issues like psychological support currently seem like a luxury. But in my opinion, these psychological programs are no less important than the others—the children are the ones who will build Syria in the future.
This war will end one day and these children, these young people will return to their cities. What kind of future awaits Syria if we leave children to their fate without any sort of education?
A Syrian girl holds a copy of Sununu. Photo courtesy of Snunu.
Q: What message do you want to send to Syrian children through this magazine?
The idea of starting a magazine for children began at the end of 2013, and the first magazines were published in June 2014.
The magazine springs from the reality that Syrian children face, and from the events that put them in an unsafe place. It became clear to us that the thing children miss most is the world they left behind in all its small details, so our idea was to create a new world that would be a safe haven for refugee children—so they could have fun, and learn, be exposed to various cultures appropriate to their age.
The magazine is not beholden to any political entity, we don’t have any nationalistic, or racial, or religious ideology.
Q: How does Sununu choose its topics and drawings? Are they based on advice from psychological specialists who have a connection with the status of Syrian children?
We rely on several different foundations for choosing materials and building personalities—social, psychological, physical, and knowledge-based. For example, at first we can’t present a child with an item around another child celebrating his birthday, and blowing out candles, because most of the children have not had the opportunity to practice a tradition like that, due to circumstances surrounding their displacement or because of the their families’ culture.
We might present the child with an item like this at later stages, after we have built up the concept of life and how beautiful it is. That we have been granted life, and are among the lucky who get to live on this planet.
We face a large problem because of religious culture, which imposes certain frameworks that we must carefully observe so the magazine does not meet with refusal from the child’s parents, and so the child does not fall into the problem of mixed-up concepts or contradiction.
Economic circumstances also play an important role. You’re working with kids who don’t have any material possessions. That requires us to search for material that presents the child as a natural part of society, that doesn’t put him in conflict with his own material weakness, which he has no control over and is no fault of his own.
Q: According to certain studies, Syrian children’s exposure to bloody sights have led them to play aggressive, war-like games. What do think about that?
These types of games were widespread in Syria before the war, games involving soldiers and plastic weapons. The war’s brutality made the games more violent. Some children have even been forced to carry arms, the most heartbreaking part of wars.
Accordingly, we need to direct children elsewhere by all means possible, and provide them with the opportunity to live the life of a normal child.
Q: Recruitment of children—how can we put an end to this phenomenon?
Raising awarenes among families is the most important point, because the child doesn’t know what he’s doing. In our magazine, we try to warn children, directly and indirectly, of the danger of dealing with weapons. We’ve included several items that help children understand the danger of weapons and the leftovers of war, such as mines.
Q: Do your activities for children go beyond issuing a magazine, to encompass field activities for example?
Right now, our mission stops at distributing the magazine. Keeping in mind that we presented several materials on the dangers of the war’s leftovers [undetonated explosives, etc.]. We used to distribute colored pencils with the magazines, but we don’t have the capabilities or personnel to undertake any activity on the ground or to hold workshops.
Q: Is the magazine printed regularly? Are you thinking of expanding the realm of distribution so the magazine will reach locations inside Syria?
Yes, distribution is regular. Sometimes we are forced to delay an edition until we can secure the publication costs. The search for a permanent funder is still ongoing.
Right now distribution it is limited to places of refuge on the Syrian-Turkish border, on both sides, and in some schools for refugee children. We hope to get the magazine to a larger number of kids, even in places under the regime’s control.
The child is not at fault for the current conflict. The revolution is a stage in the path towards achieving a homeland we can live in and participate in building.
Q: What are you hoping to accomplish?
We strive to fill a child’s emptiness in order to help properly develop his personality and direct his time towards useful and entertaining activities. We try to build the child’s intelligence, sense of worth and knowledge, and encourage creativity and improve social behavior.
We try to encourage different skills like reading, and artistic and literary taste. We try, as best as possible, to free the child’s mind in a manner their age demands, and keep them at arm’s length from those things that damage a childhood.
We try to fulfill the child’s needs in using their imagination and communicating with others.
Q: Do you think that entertaining and educational activities for children are able to overpower the phenomenon of child aggression, and Syrian children’s tendency towards violence?
They can play an extremely important role, for sure. Entertaining and educational activities open up children’s horizons, and use up their energy in areas far away from violence. Educational programs might uncover a child’s tendencies and abilities and make him more capable of exploring himself and his environment.
Despite that, they are not sufficient in and of themselves. But in their absence, we open up a space for the child to search for an alternative to fill his time during the ongoing violence. He will only find violence as his future, especially in the absence of social awareness among a percentage of families.
Q: What sort of future do you expect for the children of Syria who lived through the war?
The current situation is very frustrating on all fronts, political and military, but hope always remains. The most important means of preventing the appearance of negative scars for children in the future are educational programs. The children of Syria have been left alone, and the majority of educational or psychological support programs have been undertaken by individuals, or Syrian organizations with limited means.
Additionally, educational programs can not remain in the hands of politicians. The countries that take in the largest number of refugees, like Turkey, need to pass strict laws and establish committees, under the supervision of the UN, to regulate all educational bodies. The forming of a person is of utmost importance.
Q: Psychological treatment might be considered taboo among some Arab societies. What are the steps we can take to avoid this problem?
Any future programs for children’s psychological support need to be accompanied by awareness-raising campaigns for the families, at least around the necessity of helping children overcome the psychological dangers of war—especially after the terrible things Syrians have seen, I think that society has become more accepting of these proposals.
Q: What are the biggest obstacles that have faced the magazine as it launched?
The first problem was funding. We thank the Dutch government, which contributed support to help get the magazine off the ground, but Sununu magazine faced the same problem in searching for someone to continue funding the magazine.
The other problem we face occurs in places under hardcore Islamist control, who consider the magazine un-Islamic and demand the inclusion of Islamic material in it. But from our point of view, any mention of religion or beliefs goes against the magazine’s policy. We avoid impacting the child and his mind or imposing what we believe upon him, because it is the child’s right to form a free personality.
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