Where to find the courage to help during crises?

Aid workers at the core of crises – where to find the courage to help?

FCA staff in Ukraine, South Sudan and Syria face seemingly insurmountable challenges every day.

Text: Ruth Owen

WORKING IN CRISIS CONDITIONS means frequent threats to your safety and a constant challenge to your mental well-being. In this story, three FCA Country Directors share the unique challenges they face in their work amid conflict and humanitarian crises. They also reveal what inspires and motivates them to continue their work despite the challenges.

In the picture, a man standing in the middle of the buildings in the courtyard points his finger at something behind the photographer.
Seme Nelson, Country Director of Church Aid South Sudan, is motivated to see the change that his work brings. “Every time we witness a change, for example among children going to school, I get the feeling that our work is contributing to social change, improving people’s lives and opportunities to claim their rights.” Photo by Ulriikka Myöhänen / FCA

“Every time I come to work, I know that what I do has a direct impact on other people”

Seme Nelson studied peace, conflict and development studies at universities on three different continents. However, he decided to return to his native South Sudan, where he now heads the FCA’s Country Office.

“The challenges in South Sudan are manifold. The country is unstable and its economy is fragile. Many live in poverty, exacerbated by conflict, refugees and war in neighbouring Sudan.

South Sudan was basically founded on a background and legacy of violent conflict and internal civil wars. It’s continued to affect the entire stability of the state. We have also faced threats to our security at FCA. Our Pibor office was ransacked by local people in 2016 amongst widespread attacks on NGOs. And in 2022 our Fangak office destroyed fighting between armed groups, but our staff remain, as do I.

In 2020, I considered remaining in Japan, where I did my master’s degree. But I considered whether what I do would make a significant difference to people’s lives or not. When I remain here in South Sudan, every time I come to work, there is a very direct connection between what I do and how it impacts people.

What has continued to push our staff to continue to work despite the difficulties and challenges is the impact that our programme makes on the people. Every time you see these beautiful stories of change. From young people, mothers, kids who are able to go to school. You feel like our work is contributing to transforming societies, improving people’s access to livelihoods and helping citizens demand their rights.

When the Sudanese conflict broke out in 2022, a lot of Sudanese fled to South Sudan along with former South Sudanese refugees who decided to return to their country. At present, I think only five per cent of these refugees from Sudan are living in refugee camps or settlements inside South Sudan. Probably 80 per cent of them are housed by South Sudanese – people who have decided to open their homes to welcome Sudanese refugees to share the little that they have. The media always wants to document stories of suffering, of desperations, but for me I think we should highlight positive stories like these more.
Yes, my country is founded on a story of conflict and desperation – the process of state building has almost started from zero. But if we look at the infrastructural transformation of the country from 2005 when the second civil war ended, there has been a tremendous growth process. The country has a city called Juba that we’re proud of today, that never even existed before! Regardless the situation of desperation in this country, the generosity, strength and courage of people is something worth acknowledging.

“It is important to distinguish between political problems and solidarity with people who are suffering”

Mazen Khzouz’s home is in Jordan, but his work requires him to spend long periods away from his family. As FCA Country Director for Syria, he believes it is important for him to be close to the communities he works with.

A man with an FCA lanyard around his neck looks at the camera
Mazen Khzouz, FCA Country Director for Syria. Photo by Mohammed al-Masrab

“I’m not the kind of person who’s satisfied with only doing the basic in my life. I need to do more. I need to be closer to people who I serve.

Syria is suffering the effects of a long conflict, economic collapse and a devastating earthquake. The country is under severe sanctions, which are contributing to the impoverishment of the population and increasing suffering. Sanctions have led to a lack of access to all basic necessities and a lack of money. Prices have skyrocketed, purchasing power has been eroded and unemployment is very high. An estimated 90% of Syrians now live below the poverty line. The cost of living has more than doubled since 2023, as measured by the Minimum Expenditure Basket.

The security situation in Syria has improved in relative terms compared to the most difficult years of the conflict. Humanitarian actors are now in a better position to reach vulnerable groups. However, the security situation remains volatile and new outbreaks of violence are possible. Sporadic attacks, inter-group clashes and multiple checkpoints between population centres can also slow down progress in the areas where the FCA’s work is taking place. Journeys to schools and communities can take as long as three or four hours.

Social tensions increase during disasters. It gets frustrating when some people get help and others don’t, even though many need it. Tensions are also a risk for our employees. To mitigate them and ensure staff safety, we build strong relationships with community leaders and local actors.

When we understand that people are struggling to meet their basic needs – to feed and clothe their children – it is easy to understand their strong reactions. We at FCA Syria wish we could do more and reach even more of those in need.

All our employees are Syrian. Staff members have lost loved ones in war, earthquake and even cholera. It is common for one of our staff to help at least two or three other relatives or households with their income.

My family back in Jordan are wondering how much I can endure from the situation, but the proximity to the country helps a lot. I explain to my family we have a strong evacuation plan and I give them assurance that we are safe.

The media constructs a certain image of Syria, which influences the perceptions and opinions about the people and that’s a very big mistake. We need to differentiate between people who are suffering and whatever problems there may be in the political domain.

The Syrian people do not deserve to be mistreated. They are human beings. They have children. They deserve to live a decent life as much as you and I do.”

A woman is standing in front of the camera being interviewed by a television crew.
Patricia Maruschak, who grew up in Canada’s Ukrainian diaspora, returned to her roots in Ukraine when FCA was looking for a Country Director for its office in the war-torn country. Photo by Antti Yrjönen / KUA

“I miss my family, but I want to see Ukraine prosper and be free”

Patricia Maruschak is the granddaughter of Ukrainian immigrants to Canada and grew up in the Ukrainian diaspora. She lived and worked in Ukraine from 2006 to 2010, before returning in 2022 to head up the FCA Ukraine office.

Ukraine has been at full since its neighbour Russia invaded in 2022. Frequent air alarms across the country, when there is a threat of attack, lead to constant disruptions to daily life. This impacts greatly on children’s education and their psychological wellbeing, as well of that of their teachers.

Recently in Chernihiv, one of the schools where we have done repairs was damaged because there was a bombing very close to the school. The alarm went off, everyone went downstairs, and were standing for the daily moment of silence for the fallen. During that moment there were three huge explosions close by. Everyone had to immediately lie on the ground, the children were very scared. It’s the teachers’ job to keep them calm in a situation that’s uncertain for everyone. In the meantime, people from the street were also trying to get into the shelter.

All over the country, when an air alarm goes off, everyone has to go into the shelter. Teachers have to try and continue with learning where sometimes there’s no separation for classes. Imagine trying to continue a lesson with 7 or 8 year olds when there are now another 100 children in the room!

We train teachers in ‘psychological first aid’ to help children in the moment. Then we also train them in ongoing mental health support for kids, who have had trauma experiences, or have family members who are away fighting or have returned severely injured and have their own traumas. And then we also help teachers take care of themselves with coping strategies.

Many of our staff never worked in NGOs previously, coming mainly from the business community, but now they’re proud to be helping fellow Ukrainains.

Our procurement officer was an IDP (Internally Displaced Person) at the beginning of the war, because her community was occupied by Russian troops for a while. Meanwhile, our head psychologist has been displaced twice, firstly from Donetsk due to Russian occupation in 2014 and then from the south-east of the country when the fullscale war began in 2021. It’s not just a job for our people, it’s also their life.

I miss my family a lot. But there are clear needs here and the ability to make an impact in Ukraine is very high. We work with capable and experienced Ukrainian education experts. It’s a pleasure and a good challenge to work alongside them and personally, I want to see Ukraine succeed and be free and capable of making its own choices.”

Seme, Mazen and Patricia will speak at the World Village Festival in Helsinki on 25 May 2024.

The Women of Raqqa – Fighting for Their Right to Study

The Women of Raqqa – Fighting for Their Right to Study

Aisha held secret classes. Amina studied in them. Nour is prepared to wait for hours at checkup points to finish tests. The women of Raqqa are doing whatever they can to fight for a better future.

THE CITY OF RAQQA in Northern Syria, along with its surrounding regions, were once known as a modernized region, receiving a flood of industrial investments, with an orientation towards the future. The adults had a good education; the children studied in schools to obtain one.

In 2013, the terrorist organization ISIS took over and placed heavy limits the way the people of Raqqa, particularly the women and girls, moved and dressed. The terrorists seized farmers’ crops and merchants’ goods, thus also seizing locals’ way of life.

However, the greatest enemy the terrorists faced was education. From the get-go the terrorist organization closed the schools of the areas, turning them into bases, prisons, and torture centers. Boys were recruited to fight, teachers were made to apologize for teaching ; but the girls had the worst fate, as ISIS organized training sessions on how to offer their bodies to terrorists.

Currently, Finn Church Aid is operating in the countryside of Raqqa, which the terrorists left in 2017. The region has over a hundred schools damaged in battle with tens of thousands of students. Many have had their school life interrupted for as long as ten years. The various parties to the conflict still patrol the area, and going through checkpoints makes life hard for schoolchildren.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. Locals, including girls and women, have been able to return to school. This story features a trio of survivors from Raqqa.

Aisha held secret school classes as a teacher during ISIS, participated in FCA training during her escape, and returned to her home region to become a principal. 

“Previously, the women of Raqqa were active members of society, involved in politics. We lived our own lives and, like me, could move alone to a university town for studies. 

The terrorists know about the power of teachers, and they certainly tried to win the teachers over to help them get young girls to molest. Thinking about what they did to us still gets me raving mad.  

A laughing Syrian woman sits in a chair. She has a smartphone in her hands.

There are more than one hundred schools in the rural area in which FCA operates. Aisha is one of the female head teachers. About 75 per cent of the teachers are women.

At the start of ISIS’s reign of terror, we tried to continue our work, until we understood that they were sending their members to our classes to report to their leaders what we were teaching. As a countermeasure we locked the school doors, but they broke the locks and interrupted our studies. Next, they took the study materials.  

Halfway through 2014, the only thing I could do was continue instructing my students at my home. We had several female teachers, and we organized a school secretly at my house for four months. We organized teaching in shifts, with approximately a hundred children participating. When our work was revealed, the terrorists arrested me and interrogated me.  

I fooled them and said that I only instructed the children Arabic and the Quran instead of English, French and natural sciences. They were enthusiastic about this, asked me to continue and promised they would deliver suitable study materials. After interrogation I packed my bags and escaped from the city to the countryside – they never caught me. I left

the Raqqa area in 2015, escaping at the last moment. After the night I left, ISIS announced that women under 50 were under curfew and locked up in their houses.  

I spent the next years in the Hama countryside, a scene of many battles. During the worst ones I could not teach at all. Then, I found out FCA had started operating in my area, organizing school repairs and activities for the students. I participated in teacher training, a particularly important experience for me, learning about offering psychosocial support and new study methods, like giving the students group work. My students’ critical thinking skills improved, allowing them to focus on their studies better. 

Before the war, my students made plans for their future, but during the reign of ISIS, the only thing the kids worried about was their own safety. Girls married young and had children, leaving us a huge burden as education experts. We are still trying to change the thought patterns of the girls who lived during the ISIS era to understand that getting an education is worth it. ISIS taught these girls to get married and start a family – we are teaching them to go to university and build a new future.  

After three years, I returned to the Raqqa countryside to become the principal of this school. It is a personal decision not dwell too much on the war years. Regarding the past, I only wish to remember the times before 2010 and after 2023. The rest of it is not worthy of my attention.” 

Nour, 18, travels from the Kurdish zone through 20 checkpoints to a school supported by Finn Church Aid to participate in her final exams.

“My first memory of ISIS? When they prevented us girls from going to school and forced us to cover our faces. I was in the second grade. We lived here, under the rule of ISIS, for two years, until my dad found a smuggler who took us to Hama. In there I continued my schooling in the second grade. It was weird, as I was older than other students, and taller by a head’s length. 

Two female students listen to their teacher in a class room in Syria. The teacher is standing her back facing the camera.

18-year-old Nour (in the middle) had to pass through 20 checkpoints to make it to final examinations. She and her sister take turns to go to school every other year. 

We returned to the Raqqa area in 2021. Me and my sister are of different ages, but due to breaks in my education we are both going to the ninth grade. I should really be three years further in my studies. My father does not have enough money to send us both to school, meaning we have taken turns to go through the school. First, my sister continued her education, now it is my time, and my sister has prepared me for the national exams.

I live in the Kurdish zone without a public school. I woke up early in the morning and travelled here to participate in my finals. Normally this trip takes me half an hour, but it can also take as many as six hours now. There are 20 checkpoints along the way, asking a lot of questions and inspecting personal IDs.

I spent this morning afraid I could not make it through the checkpoints in time. In that case, I could not have made it to the final exams and would have had to remain out of school for a year. All this trouble – I go through it just to get a Syrian final certificate from school.

I want to finish my education but also fear that my family’s financial situation will prevent it. I find the higher-grade tests challenging. I need a real teacher – just studying with my sister is not sufficient. Travelling between different regions is also expensive and takes its toll.

During the rule of ISIS, girls married at 13–15, and this became normalized. I am now 18 years old and already feel too old to be wanted. I want to continue my studies, and my father fully supports me. He does not want to marry too young.”

Amina, 14, went to a secret school held by her dad, but only learned to count and write years later. Now she is one of the best students at her school.

“I do not think I had a broken childhood. ISIS came when I was four. Those were bad, frightening times, times when we could not sleep at night or go out with my mom due to being female. When we needed something from the markets, my dad had to go out and get it.

When terrorists finally left the Raqqa area and I could start my schooling, I was 8. I could not write or count, but my father, who is a teacher, supported me. Even during the ISIS rule, my dad tried to teach me and my neighbors’ children in secret. ISIS found out and threatened my father over it. They also tried to force my dad to send them to one of their ”schools,” but my dad was very strictly against it.

I was eight years old when the terrorists left. I have worked hard to make up for the gaps in my education since then. Just this morning, I participated in the national test for the ninth graders despite being younger than the others. I am an excellent student – one who is always getting the best grades.

A Syrian teenage girl smiles at camera in a class room.

When terrorists finally left the Raqqa area and I could start my schooling, I was 8. I could not write or count, says 14-year-old Amina.

I will continue my studies, and I am ready to walk to the nearest girls’ high school even if it takes 45 minutes to get there. In the future, I want to train myself to be a pediatrician to help kids who have gone through war. And I want to remain in the vicinity of Raqqa – this is my home.”

Text: Ulriikka Myöhänen
Photos: Antti Yrjönen
Translation: Tatu Ahponen

Finn Church Aid is repairing damaged schools in Raqqa and supporting students and teachers with cash grants. Among those receiving grants are teachers and students travelling to school finishing exams from the Kurdish area. The work happens together with the Syria Humanitarian Fund, under the UN.

Aleppo, My Beloved

Aleppo, My Beloved

Aleppo, a city of wonders, has seen thousands of years of history. These days, however, most would associate the city with urban warfare, snipers, and bombs. In addition to the terrors and deprivation of war, the city also suffered a devastating earthquake in February 2023. The people of Aleppo have witnessed something akin to hell – but still hold their hometown dearest in their hearts. 

In Aleppo, northern Syria, the last glimmer of daylight shimmers amid the rubble. The call to prayer echoes in the air. The clock strikes ten to eight – the sun is setting. Although Syria has lived through a decade of horrifying humanitarian crises, magical moments like this still happen.  

This was once a thriving city. History books tell us that Aleppo is one of the world’s longest continuously-inhabited cities. Those walking the streets experience whispers of the past, like the Al-Madina souk – an ancient marketplace of the 14th century. In the souk’s alleys, merchants traversing the Silk Road once sold fabrics, porcelain, spices, and perfumes of the Orient.  

Now it is June 2023, and the bazaar is ruined. Fires have ravaged its alleyways during the last decade. Bombings destroyed stalls and shattered its historic features. February’s earthquake increased this devastation exponentially. 

A narrow path weaving through the rubble takes one on a trip down memory lane in a city that has gone through extreme changes.  

The housing in Aleppo has been severely damaged in the war and in the earthquake. Many families are dealing with a foundational problem: there is insufficient housing, and few have the funds to renovate damaged apartments.

AMINA al-Sindyan, 63, shakes her head gently while watching her grandson showing off his somersaults. The grandmother proudly identifies as a native Aleppo girl. She has lived in this city all her life, apart from 2013-19, when her family fled the war to Latakia in western Syria.  

Amina has lost her home in Aleppo twice: first to fighting, then to the earthquake. Currently living with her family in a makeshift shelter set up in a school, she longs for her hometown as she remembers it before the crises.  

“I still remember what it was like, going out to buy things. All the shops were open – I could find everything I needed.”  

Families in Aleppo are now in dire financial straits. The value of their money has crashed, and Amina al-Sindyan gives us an example – the bride-prices customarily paid in Syria when daughters marry. 

“One of my daughters got married before the war. We got a bride-price of 50 000 Syrian pounds. It was a good sum and it supplied everything the new family needed. Recently, my other daughter also got married. We received a bride-dowry of one million, not that that would buy much these days,” Amina says, shaking her head in exasperation.  

MONEY is not the only thing in her mind. Born in the sixties, she comes from an open-minded family. Even back then, the father of the family considered his daughters equal to him and wanted them to enjoy a wide range of rights. Amina and many others in Aleppo have felt the atmosphere of their hometown becoming more tense over these issues during the past decade. 

Sondos Ali al-Mhana, 11, is the granddaughter of Amina al-Sindyan. They live in a shelter for families that lost their homes. Grandmother al-Sindyan wishes that her granddaughters would have a bright future, despite the current challenges.

The reasons for this change? War, terrorism, and all their consequences. As we talked to the citizens of Aleppo, they repeatedly brought up how fighting has led to changes in the city’s population. 

Aleppo is a university town. Many of the city’s prewar inhabitants were educated, and these were the ones who had the money and opportunities to escape the violence. At the same time, less educated people from the countryside fled to the cities. 

“Our educational backgrounds and the way we raise our children are vastly different,” Amina al-Sindyan says. She offers a recent example; discord at an emergency shelter for families who lost their homes in the earthquake.  

Living through years of war in Latakia, western Syria, the women of the al-Sindyan family got used to wearing jeans and t-shirts. After returning Aleppo in 2019, they realised this is no longer possible. After the earthquake, their neighbours in the emergency shelter told al-Sindyan’s 11-year-old granddaughter to put on a headscarf and did so very directly.  

Thus far, the family has not obeyed the neighbours’ orders. 

“I want my grandchildren, especially the girls, to go to school. This is currently impossible due the poor financial situation of our family,” Amina says. She tells us that, despite her open-minded father, she once married a man who severely restricted her life during their life together. 

“The girls either go to school or have to get married. I don’t want any woman to have to live how I’ve lived.” 

THE GRANDCHILDREN of Al-Sindyan, among two thousand other children, take part in activities in a school in Aleppo organised by Finn Church Aid after the earthquake.

Here, children can exercise, play and make music while also receiving support, including lessons on how to protect themselves from the earthquake and how to process their fears and traumas. 

During lessons, little hands go up in the air and questions are asked at a rapid pace. We request Yusef Mouhammad Bdeoi, 7, to show us how he would protect himself from an earthquake. He complies, burrowing under his desk and covering his head with his hands.  

“Many children have misconceptions about earthquakes. They tell me how they ran out of their houses. But people often died in collapsed stairwells while fleeing their homes,” says Jalila Mouhamad Wilfe, 45, who teaches the lesson and explains the importance of these skills.  

Jalila is a psychology teacher. In the past, she talked to her students about child marriages, child labour and being in a family, but since the earthquake, lessons have been dominated by just one subject. More than 72,000 families in Aleppo lost their homes when the quake hit the city, already traumatised by the horrors of war. 

Yusef Mouhammad Bdeoi is in first grade in his school in Aleppo. With support from Finn Church Aid he has attended classes on how to react in the case of an earthquake.

ON THE OTHER side of the city, curtains undulate in the breeze of the evening on the balcony of School Principal Ramia al-Naser‘s home. The calm and domestic image strikes an absurd contrast to the rest of the neighbourhood, where apartment buildings collapsed one after another on the morning of February 6. Mrs. al-Naser’s home has also half collapsed, and for safety reasons she is living with her three children and husband in an emergency shelter set up at her school. Memories of the earthquake are still fresh. 

“I woke up to a loud noise that seemed to be coming from inside the earth. We ran outside and realised that everything was destroyed. Our neighbours’ cries of distress echoed through the streets. 50 residents in our apartment building died that night,” al-Naser says.  

As a mother, she says, the experience was particularly hard on the family’s 11-year-old son Salim, who was shaking for three days after the disaster, unable to speak a word. Four months later, the boy still asks his mother every morning if there will be another earthquake today.  

Ramia Al-Naser hopes that her family can soon find a home to replace the destroyed one. However, money is a problem for many families who have lost their means of subsistence. 

“A rent for a family of our size in Aleppo used to be USD 10 per month. Now, a similar apartment goes for USD 50,” she reflects. 

The average income of an Aleppo resident is around USD 30 per month. Beyond income, housing is another fundamental challenge: it’s easy to see how Aleppo’s housing stock has been destroyed in many places by the war and the earthquake. The homes simply no longer exist, and few people have the means to repair them.  

ALIA Dwabili, 52, who lives in the historic quarters of the old city and has received a cash grant from Finn Church Aid to renovate her home, also knows this. A narrow, steep staircase leads up from an alley protected by a high wall. Here, above the roofs of the old city, is Alia’s home, and when the first earthquake struck, she fled these same stairs, still drowsy after sleep. In a way, she was lucky; the next quake collapsed the roof over her bed.  

Alia Dwabili lives over the roofs in the old city in Aleppo. Her house was severely damaged in the earthquake in February 2023. Dwabili used the cash assistance she received from FCA to repair her apartment.

Alia Dwabili was born in Aleppo and has lived in the city throughout the crises. At one time, her neighbourhood was the worst battleground of the conflict. Indeed, Aleppo was a scene for urban warfare in 2012-16. Alia, just like everyone who experienced this period, could tell countless stories about how the lines between the different sides cut through neighbourhoods and where the snipers’ nests were. 

Aleppo’s recent history of warfare repeats a pattern seen in the region’s history over hundreds and thousands of years. The city, known as the centre of what is now northern Syria, has seen power struggles since well before the dawn of time, such as during the Crusades, the Ottoman Empire, and the time of Syrian independence. 

During all these times, the plight of the civilians has also been clear. After every battle, bombing and now the earthquake in the 21st century, Alia Dwabili has faced a harrowing task. She, along with other members of the neighbourhood, has had to collect the bodies of the neighbours that have died.  

“No words can fully describe how that feels,” she says, moved to tears. Nevertheless, she thinks it feels good to find words for the things that have happened to her over the past few years. 

Locals describe Alia Dwabili as the soul of the neighbourhood – a woman who lacks everything yet offers help to everyone around her. They tell us how she runs a clinic in her home, bringing together health professionals and women in need of aid under her roof. On a June evening, Alia offers coffee, pats us on the shoulder and wipes tears from the corners of her eyes. Then she slaps her hands together, laughing happily, her charm exuding to all around her.  

lintuja sinistä taivasta vasten
lintuja sinistä taivasta vasten

THE SKY over Aleppo is cloudless and the city’s signature breeze sweeps the rooftops and street corners. Flocks of birds engage in a flurried dance in a blue sky. Darkness descends, revealing the stars.  

For families in Aleppo, late evenings and early nights have always been when the city’s two million people can come alive. Thus, it will also be on this June evening of 2023.  

Locals sit in the Aleppo fortress, in the heart of the old city. Before the war, the city’s people used to gather in the evenings to drink in cafes. Few afford to do so anymore.  

The inhabitants of Aleppo meet up at the square of the old fortress in the evenings. Few can afford to spend time in the cafés anymore.

Now, hookah pipes are lit and picnic boxes opened on park benches. Children run around the squares and people catch up with acquaintances. Romantic Arabic songs echo from loudspeakers, and, in the cafés, some people are tempted to dance on their seats. Their wrists move gracefully.  

There is something magical about the nights in Aleppo, and every person we met who grew up in Aleppo mentions the same. It’s put into words most beautifully by Alia Dwabili. 

“Aleppo is my passion. I love this city so, so much – I could never imagine leaving it.” 

FCA’s earthquake response in Syria is supported by Syrian Humanitarian Fund (SHF). 

Text: Ulriikka Myöhänen 
Photos: Antti Yrjönen
Translation: Tatu Ahponen & Ruth Owen

Across the world, FCA’s local workers come face to face with catastrophes both in their work and in their personal lives 

Across the world, FCA’s local workers come face to face with catastrophes both in their work and in their personal lives 

Karam woke up when the earth started to shake. Marianna fled a war. Susan skips workdays to fetch water. These FCA workers now tell us what it’s like to live in the middle of a catastrophe. 

DID YOU KNOW that Finn Church Aid employs over 3 000 people? Or that 95 % of them are locally hired experts? Our local workers are the most crucial part of our relief work. For many people, catastrophes are a remote affair – for them, they’re a part of everyday life. 

In this article we meet some FCA experts who have lived through the war in Ukraine, the drought in East Africa and a devastating earthquake in Syria. They don’t see their work as just a job. What is at stake for them is the future – for their families and for their countries.

A man poses for a photograph.
Syrian Karam Sharouf has lived his entire adult life surrounded by catastrophes: a decade of war, pandemic and in February 2023, a devastating earthquake tore down thousands of homes and schools in North Syria. PHOTO: KARAM SHAROUF / FCA

Karam Sharouf from Syria has lived through a variety of catastrophes for his entire adult life. Still, he sees light at the end of the tunnel.  

“It started with a bomb-like sound, just like what we have been hearing throughout the war. I thought we were under attack again. Eventually, I realized that the earth was shaking. 

It was the morning of February 6, 2023. I was asleep in our home, on the fourth floor of a building, in the Syrian capital Damascus. In a state of shock, I grabbed my wife and child. Things were falling and breaking apart around us, but fortunately there were no injuries.  

I am Syrian. I am 33 years old. I have lived my entire adult life surrounded by catastrophes: a decade of war, then the pandemic, now a devastating earthquake. Our country is going from a crisis to crisis, and many Syrians are just waiting for a chance to get out.  

I have been working with FCA since 2019, when I became FCA’s first local worker in Syria. Even before that, however, I had ten years of experience in the organization. The earthquake has kept us extremely busy. In Syria, we have not had the opportunity to prepare for catastrophes like the earthquake and the pandemic, since we have dealing with bombs and attacks for the last decade. How to deal with something like an earthquake? We have had no idea.  

Just before the quake, Finn Church Aid had expanded its reach to Aleppo, as well as Raqqa, often remembered as the capital of ISIS. People in these cities have been living under enormous pressure and, after all the bad things that have happened, all they have wanted is a moment of calm. What they did not need was another catastrophe, like this earthquake – causing many to lose their homes or families. 

So, all things considered, it’s all very difficult, but I still see light at the end of the tunnel for us Syrians. That’s what keeps me going. After all, our mission is making people feel empowered. 

The future of Syria depends first on us, the locals, even if the international community’s help is also necessary. When people work hard for their country, this creates a sense of togetherness and unity. What annoys me is how white people treat us Middle-Easterners. I’ve seen none of that while at FCA, even though we are in constant contact with Finland and our other countries of operation. Almost all of the staff at FCA’s Syria office are Syrian. That is quite exceptional and gets us a lot of positive feedback. 

Marianna Zhurbenko, who has fled the war in Ukraine, would not hesitate to open her home to other refugees. 

A Ukrainian woman sits by a desk. There is a laptop on the desk.
Marianna Zhurbenko fled the war herself before becoming a humanitarian worker. She now works as planning coordinator in FCA. PHOTO: Antti Yrjönen / FCA

“I remember staring incredulously at the sky from the window of my home in Gostomel, west of Kiev. It was 24 February 2022, helicopters were flying overhead, and my phone kept ringing incessantly as my friends called in distress, telling me and my family to flee. All the sudden the war had started, and the front line was only 500 metres from our home. It felt like they were playing a movie just outside our window. 

The artillery fire started in the evening. That’s when my husband and I decided to flee. We packed our 9-year-old son, our six-month-old baby, and our dog into the car. We fled first to Kyiv and then to western Ukraine.  

I and my sons lived there for the next few months. I stayed awake, listened to my 9-year-old crying. Fortunately, the baby didn’t understand anything about the situation.  

Unknown families took us in to live with them. We tried to offer them payment for water and electricity, and they refused to accept it. The war has united us Ukrainians like never before. I, too, would open the door to other families if they were facing such a situation.  

My own values have also been changed by the war. Material goods no longer matter to me, while life, health, family, and love are vastly more important than before. 

We were able to return home in May 2022. Kyiv was empty and our yard was full of mines and ammo fragments. The mines were cleared, and now our children can play there safely again. 

Before the war, I was a supervisor in a sewing company. After we returned home, it soon became clear that this couldn’t continue. Although my workplace had not been destroyed in the fighting, all the workers had fled elsewhere and had no intention of returning.  

I started in June as a planning coordinator at the Finn Church Aid. I’m in charge of obtaining aid and making sure that all aid going to FCA’s schools, for example, finds its way there.  

I was an internally displaced person and I know how that makes people feel. It’s great to be able to help children, and I like what I’m doing here.” 

A Kenyan woman poses for a photograph.
Susan Abuba Jackson fled to Kenya from South Sudan in 2017. She now works in a refugee camp as a teacher. PHOTO: BJÖRN UDD / FCA

Susan Abuba Jackson, living in a Kenyan refugee camp, is a teacher. Sometimes, however, she must spend a whole working day just fetching water. 

“I am a teacher. The ongoing drought makes life hard for my students, but also for me. I have five children at home. Some days, instead of going to work, I must fetch water to keep my children from suffering. If I can’t feed myself, I don’t have the energy to teach. There are four of us teachers in the school. The class sizes are so huge that teaching while hungry and thirsty becomes impossible. 

I came to Kenya from South Sudan in 2017, fleeing the war. I remember seeing one person shot I fled with my children here to Kenya while my husband stayed in South Sudan as a soldier. 

I worked as a teacher in South Sudan for 12 years. Upon arrival here, I started as a primary school teacher. For the last two years, I have been working as a kindergarten teacher in a school run by Finn Church Aid in the Kalobeyei refugee camp. 

I like working with children. They are flexible, they learn quickly and are very outspoken. Early education is also especially important for children. It is foundational to all sorts of learning.  

The drought is currently our biggest problem. Normally we have 500 pupils, but many are dropping out of school because there is no water in the school, either. We can’t even offer them food if there is no water. 

The children here have a lot of special needs. Many have seen war, have been traumatized. Their parents may have died, and they may be living alone with older siblings. It is up to us to look after these children and make sure they get a good education, but in a situation like this, that is very difficult.” 

Text: Björn Udd
Translation: Tatu Ahponen

Returnees to Syria compound challenging disaster response effort

Returnees to Syria compound challenging disaster response effort – FCA is supporting the survivors of the Syria earthquake with warm clothes and cash distributions

Syrian families who lost their homes in the recent earthquake have already spent weeks in temporary shelters. FCA is responding to the most urgent needs, while also continuing essential school rehabilitation work.

FINN CHURCH AID’S(FCA) emergency aid distributions in Syria are in full operation with 4,000 adults and children in the Aleppo area reached by mid-March. Families who lost their homes in the devastating earthquake received warm winter clothes and hygiene items. 

“We received the aid packages just in time. The classrooms are cold. We don’t have enough clothes or mattresses for my children to feel warm,” described a mother in Aleppo, who received aid at the end of February. 

The family are currently living in emergency accommodation at a local school. 

The series of earthquakes that started on February 6, 2023 caused enormous destruction not only in Turkey but also in Syria, where the humanitarian situation was already difficult due to the 12-year war.

Lia Mohamad al-Hayek was born on February 6, the same day that the earthquake shook Syria and Turkey. Lia has spent the first weeks of her life in emergency accommodation together with her mother, father and two siblings. In the photo, Lia is in the arms of Anadel, an FCA employee.

The earthquakes killed at least 6,000 people in Syria. According to estimates, more than 100,000 families have had to leave their homes. 

Around 50,000 families are living in temporary shelters and with local families in in Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Latakia where FCA is active. The situation is the most severe in Aleppo and Latakia.

Life is cramped in emergency accommodation

Karam Sharouf, FCA’s Syria program manager, has spent a lot of time on the ground in Aleppo. He says that five weeks after the earthquake, the conditions are still extremely difficult. 
“There is a huge lack of resources in international aid to Syria. We need more funding,” says Sharouf. 

In Syria, the humanitarian situation is also challenging  because the regional resources, for example in terms of education and healthcare, have long been insufficient. When fighting subsided, people started to return to their homes. In short, the earthquake got people moving again and this brings with it increased demand for support.  
“Many Syrians who fled the war to Turkey have now returned to the Aleppo region. There have been Syrian refugees in Turkey in Kahramanmaraş and Antakya. Their homes were destroyed. According to estimates, there have been tens of thousands of returnees to Syria after the earthquake,” Sharouf describes. 
Families who have lost their homes live in cramped emergency accommodation in Syria. Families sleep side by side on mattresses pushed together on the floor. There is no privacy. It’s not always possible for the female population to have their own toilets and washing facilities in the shelter. 
“More than 60 people could be staying in one room,” Sharouf describes. 

Lapsia ja aikuisia istuu lattialla. Pieni lapsi istuu pyörätuolissa ja pitele tuttipulloa.

Ward (right) from FCA talks to a family in emergency accommodation in Aleppo. The family lost their home and have no savings to rent a new home. The mother is expecting her fourth child, and the wheelchair serves as a stroller for the youngest in the family.

Cash assistance helps those who have lost their livelihood

FCA has so far granted a total of 400,000 euros from its disaster fund to help earthquake victims in the Aleppo region and western Syria. Supplies are still being distributed. 

The families will soon also receive cash assistance from FCA. With the help of cash, families can buy the things they need: for example, food, clothes or hygiene items. 

“A large number of people have lost their means of livelihood. We support 350 families in Aleppo and Latakia with cash distributions,” says Sharouf.

kaksi pientä tyttöä kävelee käytävällä. He pitelevät toisiaan kädestä ja hymyilevät.
6-year-olds Fatema al-Asi and Masah Jaber met in a shelter organized for earthquake survivors in Latakia. They are from different neighborhoods but ended up in the same shelter. The girls say they play a game where they walk down the road to the store to buy candy.

Young people do not see their future in Syria

Millions of people in Syria were in need of humanitarian aid even before the earthquake. One humanitarian disaster after another has made life difficult. According to Sharouf, Syrians are really frustrated. 
“Young people are now trying to travel abroad to get a future for themselves. There is no solution to the war, the economic situation is getting worse, and people don’t have jobs. In addition, health care and the school system are in a weak state”, he says. 
FCA‘s work in Syria has for years focused not only on meeting the basic needs of people living in difficult situations, but also on supporting the country’s education sector. 
We rehabilitated schools damaged during the war and train teachers in addition to organising. remedial education and extracurricular activities for children. Our work also focuses on psychosocial support, the needs of which have increased in the aftermath of the earthquake. 
In 2023, FCA will perform rehabilitation work in up to 77 Syrian schools which have suffered damage during the war and earthquake. 

Text: Ulriikka Myöhänen
Photos: FCA Syria Country Office

More information and contacts for journalists:

FCA Country Director for Syria, Mazen Khzouz (English and Arabic), mazen.khzouz@kua.fi

FCA Executive Director, Tomi Järvinen (English and Finnish), tomi.jarvinen@kua.fi, tel. +358(0)40 641 8209

FCA Manager of International Communications (English), Ruth Owen, ruth.owen@kua.fi, tel. +358(0)504097848

FCA grants another 200,000 euros to help earthquake-struck Syria 

“It is vital to aid the disaster area quickly” – FCA grants another 200,000 euros to help earthquake-struck Syria 

“In this situation, it is absolutely vital to make humanitarian aid accessible to the people affected by the earthquake, by all means necessary,” says Mazen Khzouz, the Finn Church Aid Country Director in Syria. 

IN THE EARLY morning of February 6th, the most destructive earthquake in the region’s history struck Turkey and Syria. In Syria, one of Finn Church Aids programme countries, it is estimated that six million people are in urgent need of humanitarian aid following the earthquake. 

This week, Finn Church Aid (FCA) has allocated another instalment of 200,000 euros from its disaster fund, to help the people affected by the earthquake in Syria. A total of 400,000 euros will be used for the emergency aid work initiated by the FCA’s Syrian Country Office. 

Northern Syria is currently experiencing a cold winter. According to the latest figures, the magnitude 7.8 and 7.6 earthquakes drove tens of thousands of families away from their homes. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, reports that at least 18,500 families have been accommodated in schools and other temporary shelters. 12,600 of the families are located in Aleppo, which is one of the areas that was struck hardest by the earthquake. 

Two women holding a baby wrapped in a blanket.
Baby Karam was born only an hour before the massive earthquake shook his hometown Aleppo, Syria. Together with his mother Wafaa, Karam now lives in a shelter built in a school. PHOTO: FCA SYRIA

In a humanitarian crisis like this, it is vital that aid reaches those in need as quickly as possible. The winter cold makes the need for help even more urgent. Since the earthquake struck unexpectedly, early in the morning, the people who fled their homes did not have time to prepare or pack. Amongst the people whose houses are still seemingly intact, many are afraid to return home. They fear buildings collapsing because of structural damage and the danger of new earthquakes. 

“In this situation, it is absolutely vital to support the people affected by the earthquake with humanitarian aid by all possible means, and proving them with equipment needed to survive the winter,” says Mazen Khzouz, the Finn Church Aid Country Director in Syria. 

“Such equipment includes warm clothes for children and adults, blankets, flashlights, mattresses and shelters.” 

During the past week, Finn Church Aid has assessed the situation and visited temporary accommodation facilities in Aleppo and Hama. 

Millions of people in Syria were already in need of humanitarian aid before the earthquake in February, due to the war and the violence that has been raging for more than a decade. FCA has been working in Syria since 2017, providing humanitarian aid. The Country Office was established in Damascus in 2019, and before the earthquake FCA’s work revolved around on supporting children’s access to school and education

“The humanitarian crisis caused by the earthquake highlights the already existing vast need for aid in Syria, and increases the suffering of the most vulnerable population,” says Khzouz. 

Kaksi miestä seisoo Syyriassa katsomassa sortuneita rakennuksia.
Millions of people in Syria were already in need of humanitarian aid before the earthquake in February, due to the war and the violence that has been raging for more than a decade. FCA was able to make a swift decision of its humanitarian aid work in Syria because it was already present in the country. PHOTO: FCA SYRIA

Finn Church Aid is one of the few international aid organizations operating in Syria. That is why the decision to start the aid operation was made swiftly. The emergency created by the earthquake has also prompted the Finnish people to help. 

“With the donations given to us, we will be able to support the most vulnerable people in the Syrian crisis. A quick response in disasters like these is very important. It is potentially life-saving,” says Finn Church Aid Executive Director Tomi Järvinen

The dire needs of the Syrian people have touched the hearts of private Finnish citizens and churches alike. The Helsinki and Espoo congregations have, amongst others, donated to the FCA emergency aid fund in order to help the Syrians. 

“We kindly want to thank every donor. Every euro counts. The destruction in Syria is enormous. When you take the pre-existing humanitarian crisis into account, the area will be in need of aid for a long time,” says Järvinen. 

More information: 

Pictures from the regions Hama and Aleppo in Syria. 

FCA Country Director for Syria, Mazen Khzouz (English and Arabic), mazen.khzouz@kua.fi
FCA Executive Director, Tomi Järvinen (English and Finnish), tomi.jarvinen@kua.fi, tel. +358(0)40 641 8209
FCA Manager of International Communications (English), Ruth Owen, ruth.owen@kua.fi, tel. +358(0)504097848

Education brings safety and hope for children in emergencies

Education brings safety and hope for children in emergencies  

Education is a powerful mean to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty and instability, writes FCA’s regional direction Ashraf Yacoub.

A decade into the conflict, millions of Syrians inside the country find themselves displaced and unable to access food, shelter, work or essential health services. The Covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the already decimated economy, which has severely impacted the ability of households to purchase basic necessities. 

The situation for children across Syria has never been worse. Nearly 90 per cent of children need humanitarian assistance, an estimated 2.45 million children are out of school, and 1.6 million children risk dropping out. 

Education is a powerful mean to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty and instability; it is a way to initiate and sustain recovery and reduce the disastrous impact of conflict.  

As a Finnish organization, we have extensive experience and expertise in education programs. In 2020, we had to adapt to new ways of working, such as providing solutions for remote learning. An initial slowdown of project implementation was an opportunity to focus on school rehabilitation until measures were in place to resume educational activities safely. 

During my visits to Syria, it has been uplifting to see the results of our work. In 2020, Syria programme reached over 35,000 beneficiaries, including 4,900 students and teachers benefitted from the formal and non-formal educational activities that we supported last year. 

When it comes to Syria’s future, I’m most worried about the over-politicization of the conflict, which hampers reconciliation, rebuilding and humanitarian aid. But the resilience of Syrian youth gives me hope. Given the opportunity, they are capable of building a better life for themselves and their communities. 

Ashraf Yacoub  

Regional director, the Middle East 

This text twas originally published in our Annual Report 2020 that came out recently. Would you like to know more about what was done?

Read more:

Amid uncertainty, IDPs in Syria dream of becoming engineers, teachers or car dealers 

Crises may pave the way to a brighter future

Crises may pave the way to a brighter future

As I am writing this, the Covid-19 pandemic is dominating the news and daily politics for the second year running. In fact, this topic has overshadowed other news to such an extent that it is hard to remember what went on in the world before Covid-19 testing, vaccines and coronavirus variants. Climate change, protracted conflicts, swarms of locusts destroying crops – does any of that ring a bell?

The work carried out by Finn Church Aid focuses on providing education, securing livelihoods and building peace. The objective of long-term development cooperation is to help entire communities become stable and self-sufficient.  

We also respond to more urgent needs. After a massive explosion in the port of Lebanon’s capital Beirut in August 2020, we delivered emergency assistance to those affected. When Covid-19 stopped trade and food deliveries at state borders in several parts of the world, we continued to provide emergency food assistance.  

Some of the areas where we promote development cooperation, humanitarian assistance and peace do naturally overlap, just as global crises are inextricably intertwined. Many of our programme countries faced profound challenges even before the Covid-19 pandemic. Changes in climate and protracted conflicts have caused food crises, health crises and displacement of millions of people. 

In South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, devastating floods have left two thirds of the country’s 11 million inhabitants in need of some form of humanitarian assistance as they are suffering from food insecurity and malnutrition. 

Syria also has a disastrous decade of suffering behind it. This conflict-ridden country has spiralled into an economic crisis that, for Syrian people, translates into a shortage of food and lost income opportunities. An entire generation of children has gone to school in emergency conditions. 

Poika kirjoittaa vihkoon luokassa.
Muhammad Abdo Hijzai from East Ghouta is a 13-year-old boy who participated in remedial education in, for example, mathematics, supported by Finn Church Aid. Photo: Abu Talib Al-Buhaya.

The global pandemic has ruthlessly exposed the weaknesses of many countries. In Nepal, more than 25 per cent of the country’s GDP has in recent years consisted of remittances by Nepalese working abroad. With the pandemic forcing migrant workers to return home, families have struggled for more than a year, trying to cope without an adequate income to guarantee a decent living. 

But the pandemic has not brought all progress to a halt, even if we sometimes feel like it. In a number of projects, the situation has forced us to take a big leap forward in technology. For instance, in Kenya we distributed radios to enable women to participate in peace dialogues. Our objective in such projects was to make communities better equipped to resolve conflicts involving natural resources. 

Without a doubt, we will face more challenges in the future. Our climate is becoming increasingly harsh, and in these changing conditions, it is likely that more epidemics will circulate in the population. Natural disasters will force people to leave their homes in growing numbers. According to forecasts, a high population growth rate in Africa will result in massive migration within the continent.  

But the good news is that resilient societies are able to take better precautions and prepare for disasters. In time, the Covid-19 crisis will pass, and this is when Finn Church Aid’s efforts to improve education, support livelihoods and forge peace will bear fruit and produce even more tangible results. Those who have participated in our projects have been building a stronger foundation for their lives, enabling them to pursue a brighter future. 

Ulriikka Myöhänen, Communications Specialist.

This text twas originally published in our Annual Report 2020 that came out recently. Would you like to know more about what was done?

Read also

Amid uncertainty, IDPs in Syria dream of becoming engineers, teachers or car dealers

Emerging stronger after Covid-19

Amid uncertainty, IDPs in Syria dream of becoming engineers, teachers or car dealers

Amid uncertainty, IDPs in Syria dream of becoming engineers, teachers or car dealers 

Syria has 6.7 million internally displaced people (IDPs), many of them children displaced by conflicts, violence and natural disasters. We work with the EU’s European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) to make sure that schools can be an anchor in children’s lives, even in the midst of crises.

“We’ve had to move many times. I hate the feeling of living in chaos and uncertainty,” says Syrian Rida Issa.  

Syria is home to a generation of children who have lived all or at least a big part of their lives as refugees or displaced in their home country. Rida belongs to that generation. During the armed conflict, his family kept rebuilding their home in East Ghouta, over and over again. 

When the fighting ceased, the family returned to their old neighbourhood. But their home was in ruins, and now Rida lives with his grandparents. 

Rida Issa goes to school in Eastern Ghouta. He has lived part of his childhood in internal displacement. Photo: Abu Talib Al-Buhaya.

Some 6.6 million Syrians who fled the war live as refugees in neighbouring countries like Jordan or Turkey, and some even further away on the Greek islands or central Europe. An equal amount – 6.7 million in a country of 17.5 million people – continue, like Rida’s family, to live in internal displacement within Syria.

For the time being, the fighting in Syria has abated. Nevertheless, in 2020 the country reported having more than 1.8 million new internally displaced persons, almost all of them fleeing conflict and violence. 

  • At the end of 2020, there were a record 55 million internally displaced people in the world. More than 26 million people have fled their home country and been given UN refugee status (2019).  
  • In 2020, 40.5 million people had to flee within their home countries. This is the highest annual figure in a decade. 
  • About 85 per cent of internally displaced people have fled their homes due to conflict or violence. The rest have fled natural disasters, most of which were weather-related (floods, heavy rains, cyclones).  
  • The report authors say that it is particularly worrying that these figures were recorded despite the Covid-19 pandemic, when movement restrictions obstructed data collection and fear of infection discouraged people from seeking emergency shelter.  

Sources: Global Report on Internal Replacement 2021 by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and a Relief Web news article on the report. UNHCR.

Internally displaced children face many risks. Their chances of attending school and receiving healthcare and protection are compromised. Not only are children torn away from their familiar environment and communities, but they may also be separated from their families and put at an increased risk of child labour and child marriage.   

Living a conflict-torn life as a displaced person affects each child in different ways. Below, Syrian children in Finn Church Aid-supported schools tell in their own words how they feel about it. 

Remal & Enas: Saddened by memories of guns and an absent father 

Year 4 pupil Remal Tahina goes to school in the Daraa area. Remal finds learning difficult but hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps as a car dealer. 

Remal Tahina has difficulties at school. Photo: Abu Talib Al-Buhaya.

“During the war, we had to leave our home village for somewhere else. I still remember the grenades, missiles, tanks and rifles. There were always guns nearby. 

Once a mortar shell dropped close to our home. My grandfather could’ve been injured, but luckily he was in the mosque.  

My family includes my father, mother and two sisters. My father is working in the United Arab Emirates because he couldn’t find work in Syria. My uncle offered him a job at the car dealership and he accepted so he could support us. I miss him all the time. He only visits us during the summer and brings presents. Once I got a bike.  

At school, I have difficulty reading and writing. My friends start fights with me and then say they’re only joking. That bothers me.” 

  • Our work in Syria focuses on rebuilding the war-torn education sector.  
  • This includes repairing school buildings, providing necessary supplies and offering remedial classes for students who have been or are at risk of dropping out of school. 
  • In 2020, a total of 9,345 students were able to continue their learning in refurbished school buildings. A total of 4,749 learners participated in our learning support activities. 3,000 students received a school uniform and school supplies. We offered training to 108 teachers on psychosocial support and teaching in disaster conditions. 

Enas Alasimy, 12, also talks about how the war has affected her. During the war, the Alasimy family spent seven years as refugees in Jordan.  

“I don’t remember much about the war because I was really young. I’ve heard people talk about gunfire, shootings and firearms.  

I’m having trouble at school. I’m too scared to raise my hand and participate because I’m afraid the teacher will hit me if my answer is wrong. 

When I grow up, I’d like to become a teacher to help shy students like me not to be afraid.” 

Enas Alasimy spent seven years as a refugee in Jordan. Now she is 12 years old and says she doesn’t remeber much about the war. Photo: Abu Talib Al-Buhaya.

Muhammad: Long days at the construction site  

Muhammad Abdo Hijzai, 13, from East Ghouta goes to Finn Church Aid-supported remedial classes in maths and other subjects. With nine family members, money is tight in the Hijzai family and Muhammad has to go to work.  

Muhammad Abdo Hijzai has to help his father at work. When the sun goes down, he opens his school books again. Photo: Abu Talib Al-Buhaya.

“When school ends at one in the afternoon, I go to help my father. He is a construction worker; we plaster walls together and prep them for painting. My dad can’t do all the work alone, so that’s why I help him.  

After about six hours of hard work, we stop when the sun goes down. When I get home, I open my school books. I do it to achieve my dreams and make them come true. I can’t spare much time for homework, but I do my best: I study one to three hours a day. 

On weekends I play with my friends because we don’t work on Fridays. I wish I could be with them more often, but I can’t leave my father to cope with all the work on his own. All of my older siblings are girls, so they can’t get involved in this type of work.” 

Aya: Half a life in war 

Aya Darwish, 14, who lives in East Ghouta, noticed how difficult it was to resume studies after years of war.  

Aya Darwish, 14, lives in Eastern Ghouta. She dreams of opening an own art gallery in the future. Photo: Abu Talib Al-Buhaya.

“I’ve always drawn. I draw when I’m sad. I draw when I’m angry. Ironically, I think my drawings are at their best when I’m at my worst.  

I have clear memories of this long war we have had to go through. Things were really hard, and I don’t even have to go into details. By the age of 14, I have spent seven years in war. For half of my life, I have seen the worst things happen in life. That’s why I am grateful for every good thing that happens to me.  

In those seven years, I almost forgot what it was like to go to school. After that time, it was difficult to start studying English again because I hadn’t used or heard the language for a long time. Remedial classes have helped me a great deal.  

I don’t think painting will ever be more than a hobby, but I still dream of opening my own art galleries. That would give me an opportunity to exhibit my paintings and share my view of the world.” 

Dreams stay alive, despite difficult conditions  

For children living in conflict areas and as displaced, schools are crucial because they help build a sustainable future and give children the skills to earn a living.  

Omar Al Zuhaili, 14, has lived in internal displacement during the war. He wants to achieve his dreams, whatever the circumstances. Photo: Abu Talib Al-Buhaya.

When he was small, Omar Al Zuhaili, 14, had to flee his home village. But he has been able to return and now attends a refurbished local school. 

“I want to become an architect because I like drawing and designing buildings. I want to achieve my dream, whatever the circumstances. I encourage my friends to complete their studies,” says Omar. 

Education is also a powerful tool to eradicate child labour. Rida Issa, who is 14, knows he’s lucky because he doesn’t have to go to the construction site to help his father. Rida stresses that there is nothing embarrassing about working, but says he hopes that his classmates who have to work will be able to complete their schoolwork.  

“I want to become an electrical engineer because I love inventions. I once designed a small spider from scrap metal. It had a small engine which made the spider vibrate and move,” says Rida.  

Text: Ulriikka Myöhänen, Middle East Communications Specialist

Sources: Global report on Internal Displacement. Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (2021). Lost at Home. UNICEF (2020). 

Ten years of war have passed, and Syria’s humanitarian disaster deepens

War-torn Syria has descended into a financial crisis that worsens the country’s humanitarian situation. Children living through the war need moments in which they can just be children.

“How can I ever repay my country? I have been told that it is too tough for someone my age to ask, but I am growing up in this country. I eat the food that my father, a farmer, has planted in this soil. That teaches me what is happening here. I want to do something for my country when I can.”

These are the words of a Syrian eight-grader from Eastern Ghouta, Ghadeer Al Aghawa, who we interviewed in January.

I was horrified when I read the interview. Does a child really have to be burdened by such thoughts? Her reflections underscore the grim reality: a disaster marks an end to childhood.

Syria has been through a tumultuous decade since the war started in 2011. The intricate conflict involves the government, opposition groups, other countries supporting the various parties, and extremist groups, and the turmoil has a staggering impact on the emerging generation.

The country hosts millions of students who have gone to school in exceptional circumstances.

At least five million children have been born in Syria during the war. An additional million were born as refugees in Syria’s neighbouring countries. According to UNICEF data, thousands of children have been injured, and every ten hours, a Syrian child dies because of the war.

There are no signs of relief as Syria enters another decade in challenging circumstances.

The country faces an unprecedented economic collapse, worse than anything witnessed during the war thus far, writes The New York Times. The currency is weak, salaries have decreased, and the prices of necessities have soared. Syrians suffer from a chronic lack of petrol, which they need for cooking and heating the buildings where many families live.

Marwa Omar Safaya teaches computer science at an FCA supported school in Eastern Ghouta and observes first-hand how the country’s situation affects the children.

“During severely cold winter days, I notice how the children’s hands turn blue. Nothing protects their small bodies from the cold; the price of a coat nowadays equals a month’s salary,” she says.

Opettaja liitutaulun edessä

Teacher Marwa Omar Safaya has seen the war’s impact on children.

The reasons behind the economic collapse are manifold, and many of them are interrelated, such as widespread destruction, international sanctions and the collapse of Lebanon’s banking system.

Statistics by UNOCHA underscore the situation’s severity. The number of people in need has increased by 20 per cent compared to the same period last year. Of Syria’s 18 million people, over 13 million need humanitarian assistance, and six million need it urgently. The World Food Programme (WFP) warned in February that a record number of 60 per cent of the population suffers from a lack of food.

Amid these needs, it is challenging to reconstruct cities ruined by a decade of war. The coronavirus pandemic and the measures curbing it further complicates daily life.

During the first lockdowns, experts worldwide expressed their concerns on how closing schools might affect learning globally. UNICEF and the World Bank said that already a few months of school closure might scar a generation, and worst-case predictions fear entire “lost generations”.

In Syria, the pandemic is only the tip of the iceberg. The country hosts millions of students who have gone to school in exceptional circumstances. Teacher Marwa Omar Safaya feels the pain of her students.

“We try to convince them that life has a lot to offer and that miracles happen when you go to school and work hard. At the end of the day, they only think of how they can complete their mandatory studies to find work and earn food to their table,” Marwa describes.

Tyttö kirjoittaa tussilla taululle maski kasvoillaan

Eight-grader Ghadeer Al Aghawan is disappointed by the lack of computers in her school.

Eight-grader Ghadeer Al Aghawan says she is grateful for all that has been done for her school during the past years, but some things still disappoint her.

“We have IT classes but only theory. We do not have any equipment to practice what we learn, and that is sometimes frustrating. I know that outside our small town, the rest of the world is dependent on computers and technology. I feel like I am falling behind.”

Ghadeer’s disappointment is understandable. The digital divide between different societies is deep, and the divide increases inequality.

Finnish schools, for instance, utilised the internet for learning already when I was at Ghadeer’s age in 2007, and students did school assignments on computers. In Syria, this chance does not exist for most people, even today. It would not even be possible to introduce digital systems amid war. Computers require connections, connections rely on infrastructure, and infrastructure is built with money.

One thing is obvious: the schools play an essential part in disasters like the war in Syria. The schools offer a safe space and room to breathe for children enduring challenging circumstances. Ghadeer has found solace in school.

“For now, I only try to do my best at school”, Ghadeer says.

She has faith in a better future.

“Even after all the fighting, good things have happened, and I’m waiting for the good things that are still to happen.”

Children living through war need to experience moments in which they feel like children. And schools are the best place for that.

Ulriikka Myöhänen

The author works as Communications Specialist for the Middle East at FCA. FCA supports access to quality education for internally displaced people in Syria.