A young Syrian girl named Miriam was recently released after being held captive by ISIS for more than a year. The news didn’t make headlines here. She was among 253 people — half of them children — who were kidnapped on Feb. 23, 2015, from her village in the Hasaka region of Syria. Miriam and her group were among the lucky ones to be released thanks to the local Assyrian church that paid the high ransom. Another girl captured last year in another Syrian village was not as fortunate — ISIS has said she has been married off to a high-ranking official and will never be released.
As we commemorate the International Day for Protection of Children, June 1, we would do well to remember all the children whose lives have been forever changed by war. In Syria, more than 9 million children are directly affected by war. Outside of the Middle East, the world has forgotten the more than 500,000 children forced out of Eastern Ukraine by violent pro-Russian forces and so many other regions who face the same scourge of violence and conflict.
War destroys buildings but it also changes lives forever. Many children don’t survive the ordeal as was the tragic case with toddler Alan Kurdi, found dead on a beach in Turkey. Others are indoctrinated and made into child soldiers. Those like Miriam survive the ordeal but are marked psychologically for the rest of their lives. As a Christian, she also carried the extra burden of knowing that ISIS could have forced her to convert to Islam or be killed.
When millions of children are continually in harm’s way, we need to wonder what kind of future they will have and what the long-term impact will be on both them and society. For those in Miriam’s village, for example, the only alternative left is to leave the region — thus increasing the chance of Christians disappearing from their ancestral lands.
Over the last few years, I have met many children from Ukraine, Iraq and Syria. Hearing their experiences has been painful. But while they know what war is, they also know peace. Peace is simple for them. As one child told me: “Let’s apologize and forgive for the harm done and learn to play, laugh and work together in peace.”
While kids dream of peace, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported that worldwide military expenditures reached a record high at $1.7 trillion USD in 2015. According to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, only one percent of this amount could suffice to respond to global the most pressing humanitarian needs.
In the meantime, organizations like the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and many others are welcoming an increasing amount of much-needed donations to provide the basics of life for children like Miriam and her family so that they can live in dignity while waiting for a peaceful solution in Syria.
If only we had the courage to bring children to the peace negotiations, maybe a resolution would be found faster than we think.
(Hétu is the National Director of the CNEWA Canada.)