What they Carry

The Burdens Syria's Children Bring Across the Frontline
Written by
Abbas and his mother, Adira (Image: Nick Ballon and Alma Haser, Save the Children UK)

The children of Syria's civil war take the war with them. Some escape, barely, into hostile neighboring lands. Others remain trapped in the warzone. None are safe. The White House, meanwhile, has sought to ban refugees from Syria and several other Muslim-majority countries, "until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on,” in the words of President Trump. It seems Washington still can't figure out what's going on in Syria, in part because it's easier to simply ignore the reality of war, and also because the stories of these children are out of reach to the American public. And with no stable home, no hope of a decent education, and no country to return to, the displaced remain invisible--or rather, we choose blindness.

Save the Children UK and other humanitarian aid providers have gathered some of their stories and  portraits from the ruins, through a creative collaboration between aid workers, photographer Nick Ballon and conceptual artist Alma Haser. Haser describes her graphic depictions as an effort to "keep the children’s individual experiences at the heart of the project. Throughout, I wanted the artwork to empower and bring to life, rather than take away.”

Life is already slipping away for many survivors. Adira, pictured above, has been carrying her child for months without rest. Abbas, who suffers from epilleptic seizures and cerebral atrophy, cannot walk or talk.

"We carried him in turns," Adira recalls, "me and his father, on our backs or on our shoulders. I was in so much pain myself mentally and physically, but the hope of medical care for my son was all what I wanted."

Ahmed (Nick Ballon and Alma Haser, Save the Children UK)

Ahmed, like countless other refugee children, bears the scars of what mental health researchers call "toxic stress." Since his father died during a shelling two years ago, the nine year-old's memories of the warzone are still raw: "I am afraid of blood, and I am afraid to see a dead body and someone with his head chopped off,"  he says, his voice locked in a constant stammer.


Since his father was shot in his family home, Mohammed's fears are constantly triggered by his surroundings. He remains haunted by nightmares--both the one he sleeps through, and the one he can't wake up from.

"When we were in Syria, fighters came to our home and shot my father. This is what scares me.

I get upset when I am playing and someone comes and upsets me. They come and ruin everything. When I get upset, my heart feels like it is falling down. My head becomes hot and my hands get numb. I get upset when someone comes from behind me and frightens me and I get upset when I am playing and someone comes and ruins the game. There are lots of things that upset me.

I have scary dreams. When I am asleep, a monster comes and starts asking me: “Why are you asleep? Wake up and don’t sleep--you will not benefit from sleeping.” Then it opens its mouth and I think it will eat me and then I open my eyes and think this is real. I wake up and I pray a little and go to sleep....When I wake up [next to my mother]. I open my eyes and I don’t know if this is a dream."


Since witnessing her father's death by a sniper's bullet, seven year-old Razan has drifted in and out of reality. She hallucinates and has begun mentally regressing. Girls like her are among the most vulnerable refugees; sometimes, desperate families try to force girls into marriage while they are still children, thinking it is the only way to provide some form of stability and "protect" them from rape.

Razan is relatively safe for now, but she wets herself constantly and lashes out at her older sister, Fida, her primary caregiver since their mother's death in another raid. 

"She had changed a lot. You would feel like she was not Razan," Fida says. "She looked like Razan, but on the inside she was different. She never came back to how she was before, and until now she’s not the same.... I feel that instead of growing up, she is becoming younger. She forgot everything she learnt, she has nothing anymore."

Having spent most of their youths amid bombs and bullets, refugee children are growing up with no memory of anything outside the warzone. And Washington has ensured that for now, they will ever escape beyond it.

--March 15, 2017


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