What must the world look like for children fleeing war, famine, political persecution, instability, only to live precariously?
Forced by circumstances, a Syrian family in southern Turkey lives in a smoky, barely-heated room, bedding down on dirty blankets. Its members experience bouts of debilitating depression Schoolchildren attend class at a Unicef school in the Eslahiye Camp in southern Turkey (Athanasiadis)
Pupils hold up their hands to catch the teacher’s attention at a Unicef school in the Eslahiye refugee camp in southern Turkey (Athanasiadis)
A young Afghan boy runs past the crumbling neoclassical edifice of Darulaman Palace in Kabul. The historical building, constructed in the 1930s, is the former palace of Afghan King Zahir Shah and also served as the Ministry of Defence.
A young boy stands on railings close to a UN food voucher distribution point in the Domiz refugee camp in northern Iraq.
Internally-displaced Pashtuns from southern Afghanistan look through a car windscreen refashioned as a window in a windswept mudhut dwelling in a camp close to the Afghan city of Herat.
Afghan migrants sleep on the ground at a makeshift camp in the Pedion tou Areos (Champ-de-Mars) in central Athens, after arriving overnight in Athens from the islands of the eastern Aegean Sea.
Internally-displaced Afghan girl stands in a muddy patch of as-yet-undeveloped land in Kabul. The photo was taken in 2011, as real estate prices exploded in the Afghan capital, one of the few places in the country which were relatively safe from insurgent attacks, creating tensions between developers and internal refugees seeking safety.
An internally-displaced boy whose arm was blown off by a landmine looks at the camera in an ICRC center in Kabul.
A Syrian girl attends classes at a refugee camp in southern Turkey.
A Syrian boy carries bread to his family’s trailer home in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp .
A Libyan child stands amid a crowd of praying men in the courthouse square in Benghazi during the early stages of the 2011 Libyan Revolution.
Libyan children led by an adult cross a bridge against the backdrop of palls of smoke rising into the air.
A six-year-old victim of the Libyan Revolution looks out from a panel of “martyrs” in a museum in the city of Misrata.
Standing in northern Iraq, a woman carries her child against a backdrop of the Tigris River, where Syria and Turkey meet.
A young boy holds a wooden gun during a graduation ceremony in the western Libyan city of al-Zawiya on 17.12. Libya’s fledgling army is faced by a range of challenges to its authority and that of the interim Libyan government.
A couple of things happen when children come into contact with traumatic events such as war and uprooting: unforgettable, life-defining experiences, and an acceleration in maturity which we sometimes describe as “losing one’s innocence.”
Children inherit the consequences of their elders’ mistakes. They are often unprepared receptacles for the same oppressive societal trickle-down that socially and psychologically formed their parents.
From 2011 onwards, as I worked on journalistic, documentary and UN assignments in Afghanistan and countries affected by the Arab Spring, I encountered crowds of children — accompanied and not — subjected to terrible pressures: laboring in informal workshops; begging or selling drugs in order to support their families; and sleeping rough in the snowy streets of Istanbul or in Athenian parks and squares frequented by sexual predators.
Everywhere I went, older people said that the wars and refugee living had created a vast cultural gap that made their children uncontrollable. This turned into a chasm when they settled down to new lives in countries and cultures that were very different to the Syrias and Afghanistans they left behind.
The banal thing about watching children suffer dreadful conditions is that they show little outrage. They appear accustomed to their new reality. Worse, in cases of extended displacement, they may even have lost the ability to compare with a once-upon-a-time normality, as their previous lives were interrupted when they were still too young, or they were born during the dislocated years.
Watching kids emerge from leaky basements in provincial Turkish or Jordanian towns to grapple with a harsh and school-less reality, I often experienced a sense of mute injustice. They had been deposited there through no choice of their own. But I also admired their toughness and scrabbly adaptability: pragmatic, primed for survival, and extremely multilingual. I’ll never forget the Somali 12-year-old in a Greek refugee camp who scrolled through near-fluent English, Greek, Turkish, Arabic and Farsi during a five-minute discussion. For all the present hardship, it was also clear that the experiences would craft impressive adults.