Category Archives: Children

The tragedy of Afghanistan’s malnourished children

Every few seconds a sick child is brought in to the emergency room of the main hospital in Lashkar Gah in a race against time to save the youngest casualties of Afghanistan’s hunger crisis.

Amidst the heart-rending sound of dozens of hungry babies crying, and desperate pleas for help from their mothers, nurses scramble to prioritise children who need urgent care. There are many such babies.

Lashkar Gah is a city in the capital of Helmand, one of Afghanistan’s most war-ravaged provinces and lies roughly 400 miles (644km) south-west of Kabul.

Jalil Ahmed is brought in hardly breathing. His hands and feet have gone cold. He’s rushed through to the resuscitation room. His mother Markah says he’s two and a half years old, but he looks a lot tinier. He’s severely malnourished and has tuberculosis. Doctors work fast to revive him.

Markah watches in tears.

“I’m helpless as he suffers. I’ve spent the whole night scared that at any minute he’ll stop breathing,’ she says.

Space has to be made in an already full intensive care unit for little Jalil. A doctor carries him there in his arms, as a nurse follows holding up the bottles of fluid and medicines that are being injected into his body through multiple tubes.

There’s no time for the staff to stop. They must quickly put another baby, five-month-old Aqalah, back on oxygen. It’s her third time in hospital. Doctors say that a few hours earlier, they thought she wouldn’t make it, but right now, she’s just about holding on.

One in every five children admitted to critical care is dying, and the situation at the hospital has been made worse in recent weeks by the spread of the highly contagious measles disease that damages the body’s immune system, a deadly blow for babies already suffering from malnutrition.

The hospital, run by charity Medecins Sans Frontieres, is one of a handful of fully-functioning facilities in a province that’s home to around 1.5 million people. It’s completely overwhelmed. It has 300 beds, but is seeing around 800 patients a day, most of them children.

There’s almost nowhere else for people to turn to. Cutting off the foreign money which ran Afghanistan has dealt a double blow. It’s triggered an economic crisis that has brought an already poor population to the brink of starvation, and it’s led to the near collapse of the public healthcare system that it almost entirely funded before the Taliban takeover.

Child malnutrition has long been a problem in Afghanistan, but data collected by Unicef (United Nations Children’s Fund) shows a massive surge in the number of children with severe acute malnutrition admitted to hospitals, from 2,407 in August 2021, to 4,214 in December 2021.

The increase can, in part, be attributed to it being safer to travel to hospitals now that the frontlines have gone, but also misses a large number of malnourished children not taken to hospital because their families cannot afford the journey. Even if they could, they’d need to travel for hours on rubble roads, and it would be hard to find a medical facility that’s not dysfunctional.

The Musa Qala and Gereshk district hospitals are overrun with malnourished children, but neither hospital has operational critical care. There are no female doctors. The hospital buildings are run-down, cold and dark. Electricity comes and goes. Night time temperatures drop to 4C.

In Gereshk a small heater hooked to a gas cylinder kept in the centre of the rooms provides barely any warmth. Mothers and babies sit huddled under blankets. The smell of disease hangs thick in the air.

At Musa Qala, when the breathing of another baby, one-and-a-half-year-old Walid, became irregular, he had to be carried through alleys and doorways to a decaying building next door which had the only oxygen cylinder we saw at the hospital.

The father of 10-day-old Zakiullah was sent out to find a saline drip solution in the market, because the hospital had no supplies.

Dr Aziz Ahmed who has worked at Gereshk hospital for more than a decade says they have few medicines and barely any staff, and yet have hundreds of patients coming in every day. They have to turn seriously ill children away because they don’t have the facilities to help them, and Dr Ahmed says some have died before they got to a fully functioning hospital.

He and the other staff didn’t receive salaries from August till October. From November, they and some other hospitals in the region have been receiving some payments through humanitarian organisations like Unicef, WHO (World Health Organization) and local charity Baran (Bu Ali Rehabilitation and Aid Network).

“The humanitarian family is just trying to provide a survival bridge for these children while the world figures out the politics, but we cannot fully fund the health system,” says Salam Janabi of Unicef.

“Don’t mix up children in politics. The moment here in Afghanistan is critical for children, and every decision the world makes, the politicians make, will impact them.”

When you travel through Helmand province, destruction caused by war can be seen in almost every area. The scale of it in Sangin town is particularly shocking.

There are swathes of land covered with debris and mud, where once homes and shops had stood. These areas are where foreign and Afghan troops encountered some of their fiercest battles and where British soldiers were posted.

Abdul Raziq is from a community that has lived on the frontline for decades.

“We are happy there is peace now, but we have no food, no work and no money. Wheat and fuel have become too expensive’, he says.

“Hundreds of children in my village are malnourished. In every house, you will find two or three. We have nothing to feed their mothers, that’s why they’re being born like this.”

In a mud home nearby lives Hameed Gul. Two of his daughters, Farzana and Nazdana, are malnourished. Nazdana is so ill he’s sent her to her grandparents because he’s unable to feed her. His 10-year-old son Naseebullah has already begun to work on the fields to help out.

The unending suffering of his family is the legacy of foreign actions, present and past. Hameed’s home was bombed in American airstrikes five years ago. Ten of his family, including his parents, six brothers and a sister were killed.

“We had no connection with the Taliban. My house was unjustly bombed. Neither the Americans, the previous government or the new one offered to help me,” Hameed says.

“We eat just dry bread. About two to three nights a week, we go to bed hungry.”

Everywhere we went, we asked what people had eaten that day. Most described sharing a few pieces of dry bread between whole families.

Children are the most vulnerable in this crisis of hunger. Afghanistan’s youngest generation is being left to die.

In many of the areas we visited, malnutrition deaths might not even get recorded or counted. The world might never know the scale of the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan.

New York girl missing for two years found alive in a hidden staircase room

Paislee Shultis, 6, was found by New York police in a makeshift room underneath a staircase in the girl’s grandfather’s house. Photograph: Saugerties Police Department/Reuters

Two years after she went missing, a six-year-old girl has been found alive and in good health in a makeshift room underneath a staircase in a house in New York state, according to police who said they suspected she was abducted by her biological non-custodial parents.

Officers found the girl, Paislee Shultis, on Monday in a house in the town of Saugerties, two years after she went missing from Spencer, New York, about 180 miles (290 km) to the west, the Saugerties police department said in a statement on Tuesday.

At the time, police believed her biological parents, Kimberly Cooper, 33, and Kirk Shultis Jr, 32, abducted her, they said. The couple did not have custody of the girl, police said.

On Monday, police said they received a tip about the girl’s whereabouts and obtained a search warrant.

They said they went to the girl’s grandfather’s house where they searched for about an hour before locating the child hidden in a makeshift room, under a closed staircase leading to the basement.

Upon removing the step boards, the girl and her mother Kimberly were found hiding in the dark and wet enclosure, police said.

Paislee was taken to police headquarters where paramedics examined her, police told the Daily Freeman, the community’s local newspaper. The girl was in good health and released to her legal guardian.

Police arrested her parents and the girl’s grandfather Kirk Shultis, 57. They face charges of custodial interference and endangering the welfare of a child.

Police said they interviewed Kirk Shultis Jr several times since the girl went missing. He maintained that he had no knowledge of her location and told officers that he had not seen the child.

2021 was worst year on record for online child sexual abuse, says IWF

A child using a laptop computer.
Younger and younger children are being targeted by internet groomers, the research found. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

Internet grooming of children has surged during lockdown, according to new research that found a threefold increase in online sexual abuse imagery featuring seven to 10-year-olds.

The Internet Watch Foundation reported its worst year on record for child sexual abuse online in 2021 as it confirmed 252,000 URLs containing images or videos of children being sexually abused, compared with 153,000 in the previous year. The UK-based charity said it had seen a large increase in self-generated material – where children are manipulated into recording their own abuse before it is shared online – with the fastest growing increase in such material occurring among seven to 10-year-olds.

The IWF said the rise in cases could be linked to Covid lockdowns which required people to stay indoors and led to millions spending more time online. It said lockdowns led to younger and younger children being targeted on an “industrial scale” by internet groomers.

“Child safety experts say younger children have been relying more and more on the internet during the pandemic, and that spending longer online may be leaving them more vulnerable to communities of criminals who are looking to find and manipulate children into recording their own sexual abuse on camera. The footage is then shared among other criminals on the open internet,” said the IWF report.

In 2021, the IWF reported 182,000 instances of self-generated material. Of these confirmed cases 27,000 were seven to 10-year-olds, which is more than treble the number for 2020. Once the IWF confirms that reports of abuse – largely from members of the public, the police, tech firms or IWF analysts themselves – are genuine, they are reported to authorities in countries where the servers hosting the content are based. The IWF said the biggest age group for self-generated sexual abuse material remained 11- to 13-year-olds, with 148,000 reports made to the organisation last year.

“Children are being targeted, approached, groomed and abused by criminals on an industrial scale,” said Susie Hargreaves, IWF chief executive. “So often, this sexual abuse is happening in children’s bedrooms in family homes, with parents being wholly unaware of what is being done to their children by strangers with an internet connection.”

On Thursday the House of Commons will debate a report by a joint committee of MPs and peers into the draft online safety bill, which imposes a duty of care on tech firms to protect children from harmful content, as well as preventing the proliferation of illegal content and activity such as child pornography. Responding to the IWF figures, the head of child safety online policy at the NSPCC, Andy Burrows, said it was “crucial” that the bill is strengthened to prevent online grooming of children.

The figures were released as the UK government launched a new online safety campaign, Stop Abuse Together, to help parents and carers spot signs of abuse. The safeguarding minister, Rachel Maclean, said: “Keeping children safe is one of this government’s highest priorities and we are committed to doing all we can to combat the increased identification of child sexual abuse online.”

Ethiopia’s speed schools give child labourers a second chance

LOYA, Ethiopia, Nov 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Genet’s father died four years ago, it cut short her fledgling studies, forcing the 12-year-old Ethiopian girl to drop out of school and take a babysitting job to help her mother make ends meet.

But a charity’s accelerated schooling programme has helped Genet and more than 2,000 other children in Ethiopia get back to the classroom this term – resuming studies disrupted by conflict, poverty and child labour.

“I’m happy to go back to school for the second time,” said Genet, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, adding that she felt especially fortunate because her younger brother still has to herd cattle to help the family scrape by.

Standing in the yard at Loya Primary School, she showed off a large name tag reading “meteorologist” – one of the individual responsibilities assigned to each of the 25 pupils in her second-chance classroom in the Sidama region.

“It might rain today,” she said earnestly, explaining that her classmates had jobs ranging from plant carer to newsreader.

Children enrolled in the 10-month speed school programme cover the same learning outcomes as others would in the first three years of school – and eventually rejoin mainstream classes in the fourth grade.

“We really work with the most vulnerable children at the margins, who have been denied the chance to learn,” said Caitlin Baron, founder and chief executive of Luminos Fund, the education charity behind the accelerated schooling programme.

“The government has done its part in order to make education access possible. But … the system is so stretched (that) when children are at the margins … there’s no practical way for the government schooling system to actually provide remediation and give children a second chance.”

Still, access to education has improved significantly in Ethiopia over the past two decades with primary school net enrollment tripling between 2000 and 2016, according to the U.N. Children’s Fund, UNICEF.

Four years ago, the government began replicating the Luminos Fund’s model and more than 200,000 children were attending state- and partner-funded speed school classes in 2020.

But amid a civil war, drought and floods, school enrollment has stagnated. Some 3.2 million children of primary-school-age were out of school in 2020, said Yohannes Wogasso, director general of school improvement at the Ministry of Education.

Girls are often kept at home to help with chores or married off, while boys mainly work in the fields in the nation of 115 million, where about 16 million children work.


Launched about a decade ago in Ethiopia, the Luminos programme has helped some 130,000 vulnerable children aged about 10 access education with a curriculum focused on play and songs to prepare them to transition back into government schools.

Some of the children have never been to school, others like Genet dropped out early.

Singing, playing instruments and clapping their hands, children divided into groups of five smiled and laughed as they recited the syllables of the Sidama language in one second-chance classroom.

Located in government primary schools, the classrooms are bright and decorated with banners, each one has a model shop and bank. In one corner, the letters of the alphabet, handmade in clay, are on display.

“For children who’ve been in a labouring environment, that sense of empowerment, that sense of safety that comes from being in a warm, welcoming classroom is a powerful entry point back into the school system,” Baron said.

Prolonged and repeated school closures during the past two years due to COVID-19 have resulted in increased drop-out rates, disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable children according to the U.N. cultural agency, UNESCO.

Even before the pandemic struck, 59 million children of primary school age were missing out on their education globally – most of them in Africa.

Ethiopian schools closed in March last year and reopened gradually from October 2020, with dropout rates lower than initially feared, according to data gathered by the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) programme, a global research project.

Pauline Rose, international research team lead on the RISE Ethiopia team and professor of international education at the University of Cambridge, said speed schools could help children catch up on lost learning.

“Accelerated education learning programmes are vital to address both those who are out of school and learning loss for those who are still in school, but at risk of not remaining there,” she said.


Alemayehu Hailu Gebre, Ethiopia director for the Luminos Fund, which also operates in Lebanon and Liberia, said all government schools should have at least one second-chance classroom to cater for older children.

Research conducted by the Centre for International Education at the University of Sussex found that six years after completing the programme, three-quarters of the students were still in school and progressing faster than their peers.

But despite the government’s push to expand the model, officials say there are limitations that must be addressed.

“This programme is designed only for children who are over-age, and who also have some time to attend a daily programme,” said Yohannes, adding that officials were trying to adapt it to target hard-to-reach groups such as nomadic herdsmen.

Rose said the huge number of children in need of speed schools was also a major challenge in Ethiopia.

“Reaching this number will require a large number of facilitators with relevant training,” she said.

Alem, another 12-year-old girl attending a second-chance classroom, said she dreams of becoming a doctor one day.

For now, however, Alem – whose name has also been changed – still has to clean and cook when she gets home from school.

“We’re trying to reduce the workload and help her. We understand she’s now busy studying,” said Hamaro Hanka, an acquaintance of Alem’s parents who offered her board and lodging in exchange for domestic work when his wife died.

“She has served us already as much as she could so I want to give her an opportunity.”

One in eight children found at risk of becoming child soldiers

A unit of child soldiers march February 6 through the streets of Goma. Some 5,000 newly trained rebels from the Democratic Alliance for the Liberation of Congo Zaire participated in the exercise before being deployed to one of four active fronts.

One in eight of the world’s children – more than 300 million – live in conflict zones where they are at risk of becoming child soldiers, a charity warned on Tuesday, saying boosting school access was vital in fighting forced recruitment.

The United Nations called for a global ceasefire last year to help fight COVID-19, but armed groups have continued fighting in countries including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Yemen.

Tuesday’s report by charity Save the Children said that during 2020 some 337 million children were living near armed groups and government forces that recruit children.

Nearly 200 million of them live in the world’s deadliest war zones, up 20% from 2019, the report said.

“It’s simply horrifying that in the shadow of COVID-19 and the U.N.’s call for a global ceasefire, more children than ever before are caught in the crosshairs of the deadliest war zones … and more likely to be injured, recruited or killed,” said Inger Ashing, Save the Children International’s chief executive.

The exact number of child soldiers is unknown, but in 2020 more than 8,500 children were recruited and used as fighters or in other roles by mostly non-state armed groups, according to U.N. data, a 10% increase from the previous year.

That number is likely to be only a fraction of actual cases, the charity’s report said.

“Millions of children have known nothing but war with appalling consequences for their mental health, ability to go to school, or access to life-saving services. This is a stain on the international community,” Ashing added in a statement.

The forced recruitment of children for use in armed conflict is considered one of the worst forms of child labour, alongside abuses such as trafficking for sexual exploitation, according to the U.N. International Labour Organization (ILO).

Children are more vulnerable to recruitment as fighters or in roles such as cooks or for sexual exploitation if they are poor or not able to attend school.

Girls, who made up 15% of U.N.-reported cases of recruitment in 2020, often act as spies or suicide bombers and are especially at risk of abuse, according to Save the Children.

The report laid out recommendations for stopping “this war on children” including holding perpetrators of grave violations to account and ensuring access to education to protect children from forced recruitment.

U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Virginia Gamba said earlier this month in a joint statement with the ILO and charity War Child UK that governments must put the needs of children at the centre of COVID-19 recovery plans.

She highlighted the need to put in place child reintegration programmes and support community-led initiatives and organizations working at the frontline.

But Sandra Olsson, reintegration adviser at War Child UK, which works to help children affected by war, said funding remained a major hurdle.

“Many reintegration programmes today only receive funding for 12 months or even less, a period far too short when it comes to building resilience and community action,” Olsson said, urging states and donors to “prioritise this critical work”.

Indian states preparing for next COVID wave focus on children

Children wearing protective masks wait to enter the Lokmanya Tilak Terminus railway station, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Mumbai, India, April 14, 2021. REUTERS/Niharika Kulkarni

MUMBAI, – Several Indian states are building facilities with more paediatric beds, plus oxygen, due to concern that children returning to school without being vaccinated will be among the most vulnerable during a third wave of coronavirus infections.

Health administrators have taken heed of trends in the United States, where a record number of children have been hospitalised as the coronavirus Delta variant, first found in India, has surged through unvaccinated populations.

During a second wave of infections in India that peaked in April and May, hundreds of thousands of people died for want of oxygen and medical facilities, and now there are concerns that another third wave will gather during the winter months.

“We don’t know how the virus will behave, but we cannot afford to be unprepared this time around,” Suhas Prabhu, who heads the Paediatric Task Force in the big western state of Maharashtra, said.

“No mother should have to run around looking for a hospital bed when her child is sick.”

The Maharashtra government has stockpiled medicines, and built facilities for additional pediatric beds and oxygen provisions in new centres in Mumbai and Aurangabad.

Built on empty stretches of land or in re-purposed stadiums, the Mumbai facilities have a total of 1,500 pediatric beds, most of them with oxygen.

“We can upgrade this capacity to double if needed,” Suresh Kakani, a senior official with Mumbai’s civic body said.

In neighbouring Gujarat, authorities have set up 15,000 pediatric oxygen beds, health commissioner Jai Prakash Shivahare said.

India provides vaccines to people above the age 18. Most vaccines administered in India are made by AstraZeneca Plc , while shots produced by local manufacturer Bharat Biotech are also being used.

Another local firm Zydus Cadilla and Bharat Biotech are separately testing vaccines for children but the results are not expected until the year end.

Meantime, schools in at least 11 of India’s 28 states have opened after more than a year of closures, raising worries these could become breeding grounds for transmission of the virus.

As of March 2021, less than 1 pct of India’s coronavirus deaths were in the under 15 age group, according to the health ministry, and officials say the severity of the disease in this age group has been minimal so far.

Epidemiologists say there is no evidence to show that the Delta variant or any other mutations affect children more than other parts of the population.

Children in Raqqa still living in ruins four years after battle

A girl wearing a protective mask amid the COVID-19 pandemic sells slippers at an open-air market in the city of Raqqa in Syria [File: Delil Souleimani/AFP]
A girl wearing a protective mask amid the COVID-19 pandemic sells slippers at an open-air market in the city of Raqqa in Syria [File: Delil Souleimani/AFP]

Four years after the battle for the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, children and families are still living in damaged homes with severely limited access to clean water, electricity, and education, a report by Save the Children has found.

Raqqa, once the self-styled “capital” of the ISIL (ISIS) group in Syria, was subjected in 2017 to a heavy air and ground offensive by the US-led coalition to defeat the group and gain control of the city.

At the peak of the bombing campaign, the city faced 150 air raids a day, causing immense damage to the infrastructure and buildings, many of which remain in ruins, according to the report published on Tuesday.

“Children and their families in Raqqa live every day in a ruined city, with limited options, amid drought, pandemic and a Syria-wide economic crisis,” Sonia Khush, the Syria Response Director for Save the Children, said.

Reports estimate that at least 36 percent of the city’s buildings remain destroyed. A drought in northeast Syria has also caused a public health crisis, with a reported increase in waterborne diseases and challenges in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

While thousands of people have moved back to the city, three-quarters of Raqqa’s population rely on aid in order to buy food and other basic goods and services.

Aida*, a widow and mother of four, lives with her children in a severely damaged house that does not have running water or electricity.

The 27-year-old, who fled Aleppo nine years ago, is afraid to let her children play outside.

“I get scared when my children go outside because they might get hurt, so I do not let them go out,” she told Save the Children.

“There is a destroyed building here and I’m afraid there will be something [like a landmine] underneath. You never know. I keep them away from it.”

According to Save the Children, the conflict and its aftermath decimated Raqqa’s education sector, with 80 percent of the city’s schools damaged.

Khush said that while a decade of war has caused a mental health crisis for children and their families, children in Raqqa cannot enjoy basic activities or access services such as playing or getting an education to “find enjoyment in life and prepare for the future”.

“Children are at risk of injury and death even from doing nothing but sitting home in the rubble,” she said.

Khush called for “substantive humanitarian responses” from the international community, particularly from the anti-ISIL coalition members.

“They bear responsibility to subsequently address the consequences of their military action,” she said.

“It is vital that they and all humanitarian donors step up to ensure that basic services are restored and opportunities are provided, to give children the chance of a brighter future after all they have endured over the course of Syria’s conflict.”

Violations against children in conflict ‘alarmingly high’: UN

According to the report, the highest numbers of grave violations were verified in Afghanistan, the DRC, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen [File: Omar Sobhani/Reuters]
According to the report, the highest numbers of grave violations were verified in Afghanistan, the DRC, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen [File: Omar Sobhani/Reuters]

Grave violations against children in conflict remain “alarmingly high”, with the coronavirus pandemic increasing their vulnerability to abduction, recruitment and sexual violence, a new United Nations report has found.

In its annual Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC) report (PDF), released on Monday, the UN said at least 19,379 children affected by war in 2020 were victims of grave violations such as recruitment or rape.

The UN verified a total of 26,425 grave violations, of which 23,946 were committed in 2020 and 2,479 were committed earlier but verified only in 2020.

“Escalation of conflict, armed clashes and disregard for international humanitarian law and international human rights law had a severe impact on the protection of children,” the report found.

According to the report, the highest numbers of grave violations were recorded in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.

While more than 8,400 children were killed or harmed in ongoing wars, nearly 7,000 others were recruited to fight, mainly in the DRC, Somalia, Syria, and Myanmar.

Verified cases of abduction and sexual violence against children increased by 90 and 70 percent, respectively, it said – with abductions often coupled with the “recruitment and use of children and sexual violence” including rape.

The UN said the coronavirus pandemic “aggravated existing vulnerabilities of children, including by hampering their access to education, health and social services, limiting child protection activities and shrinking safe spaces”.

Attacks on schools and hospitals were also prevalent in 2020, including serious attacks committed against girls’ education and against health facilities and their staff.

There was also an increase in the military use of schools and hospitals, especially with the brief closure of schools during COVID lockdowns – making them easy targets for military occupation and use, the report said.

“The wars of adults have taken away the childhood of millions of boys and girls again in 2020,” Virginia Gamba, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on CAAC, said.

“This is completely devastating for them, but also for the entire communities they live in, and destroys chances for a sustainable peace.”

‘List of shame’

Meanwhile, Save the Children in a statement on Monday criticised the CAAC for failing to add perpetrators of violations against children to the so-called “list of shame”, an addendum to the UN’s report which singles out parties who fail to keep children safe during conflict.

The rights group said that “in a disheartening decision”, the UN Secretary General António Guterres again failed to add the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in war-torn Yemen to the list.

“Despite killing and maiming at least 194 children in Yemen in 2020 according to UN verified data, the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition gets a green light to continue destroying children’s lives in Yemen,” Save the Children said.

“Unfortunately, other parties to the conflict in Afghanistan, the occupied Palestinian territory and Syria, also got a free pass for committing grave violations of children’s rights – despite the UN verifying a pattern of grave violations year after year,” it added.

Israel was not added to the list, despite the UN recording 1,031 grave violations against 340 Palestinians and three Israeli children in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and Israel.

Israeli security forces killed eight Palestinian children and one Israeli child last year, and 87 children reported ill-treatment and breaches of due process by Israeli forces while in detention – with 83 percent reporting physical violence.

While Save the Children welcomed the inclusion of countries such as Myanmar as situations of concern, it also noted Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Ukraine were not included.

Commenting on the report, Inger Ashing, CEO for Save the Children, said: “We strongly urge the Secretary General to reconsider his decision and hold parties to conflict all over the world to the same standard. The decision to include an armed actor in the ‘list of shame’ should be based only on a pattern of grave violations against children verified by the UN, not on politics.

“While there have been some positive steps this year, not applying the same criteria fairly and consistently can have dramatic consequences for children,” she said.

Catholic campaign to aid Syrian children who ‘have known nothing but war’

Syrian refugee. / D.Khamissy/UNHCR via Flickr CC BY SA 2.0.
Syrian refugee. / D.Khamissy/UNHCR via Flickr CC BY SA 2.0.

CNA Staff, – Ahead of the 10th anniversary of the start of the Syrian war, the Catholic charity Caritas has launched a campaign to help children in Syria with much needed medical, humanitarian, and educational resources.

March 15 marks the grim anniversary of 10 years of war in Syria. The World Bank estimates that the country has suffered at least $197 billion worth of infrastructure damage during the conflict.

“Syrian children have known nothing but war,” Caritas Internationalis states on its website.

The charity’s “Tomorrow is in our hands” campaign seeks to bolster educational opportunities for Syrian children after the COVID-19 pandemic pushed 50% out of the education system.

An estimated 2.45 million Syrian children were already not attending school at the end of 2019, according to the charity. Now, 2 in 3 children in the country are out of school.

“The lack of access to education by Syrian children risks having a devastating impact on the future of the country. The education sector is in dire need of resources, and donors should fund interventions designed to lift families out of poverty,” it states.

Caritas is seeking to provide meals in line with international nutrition indicators for children at schools and to launch child oriented workshops to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases.

Eight in 10 people in Syria live below the poverty line with an estimated 11.1 million people in need of some form of humanitarian assistance, including 4.7 million people in acute need in 2020. Children, pregnant women, people with disabilities, and the elderly are the most at risk.

The Syrian conflict began when demonstrations sprang up across the country protesting the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president and leader the country’s Ba’ath Party. In April of that year, the Syrian army began to deploy to put down the uprisings, firing on protesters.

The civil war has been fought among the Syrian regime and a number of rebel groups. The rebels include moderates, such as the Free Syrian Army; Islamists such as Tahrir al-Sham and the Islamic State; and Kurdish separatists.

Russia and Iran have been supportive of the Syrian regime, while western nations have favored some rebel groups.

Cardinal Mario Zenari, the Vatican’s diplomat in Syria for the past 13 years, has said that after nearly a decade of war, the Syrian people had now been hit with a “poverty bomb” amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Fr. Firas Lutfi, a Franciscan priest who served as a missionary in Aleppo at the height of the violence, witnessed the trauma endured by a generation of Syrian children who have spent the entirety of their lives in the uncertainty and tragedy of war.

The Franciscan sought to create a place of safety and healing for these kids, many of whom were suffering from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress.

“We observed that the children, the Aleppian children, many had trauma, post-war. Lots of them lost parents, some of them had mutilation, losing hands or legs, and they are afraid of everything,” Fr. Lutfi told CNA in 2020.

Lutfi founded the Franciscan Care Center’s post-traumatic war treatment program in Aleppo in 2017. Since then, its staff of clinical psychologists, volunteers, and social workers have served 1,500 Syrian children aged 6-17 years old.

Many children born in Syria amid the bombings and chaos of the war never received a birth certificate because their birth was not registered with the government.

To give these forgotten children an identity, the Franciscans began the “Name and Future” project in Eastern Aleppo.

“We take care of these children, and we gave them an official registration … We have in each center 500 children,” Lutfi said.

Among those cared for by the Franciscans in the centers in Aleppo are abandoned young people with Down syndrome and autism, as well as pregnant mothers in need of assistance.

Pope Francis offered encouragement to charities seeking to rebuild Syria in a video message in December.

“Every effort — large or small — made to foster the peace process is like putting a brick in the construction of a just society, one that is open to welcome, and where all can find a place to dwell in peace,” Pope Francis said.

“My thoughts go especially to the people who have had to leave their homes to escape the horrors of war, in search of better living conditions for themselves and their loved ones,” he added.

According to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, more than 5.6 million people have left Syria since 2011. 

The majority of refugees stayed in the Middle East, with more than half registered as living in Turkey (3.6 million in 2021) and another 1.6 million refugees also living in either Lebanon or Jordan, which also border Syria.

Within Syria itself there are 6.7 internally displaced persons, according to Caritas.

“I appeal to the international community to make every effort to facilitate this return, guaranteeing the security and economic conditions necessary for this to happen. Every gesture, every effort in this direction is precious,” Pope Francis said.

Foreign volunteers devote time, care to children in Vietnam

Philip MacLaurin teaches English for children at the Binh Trieu warm shelter run by the Friends for Street Children association, which serves children in poverty or in need. (Mary Nguyen Thi Phuong Lan)
Philip MacLaurin teaches English for children at the Binh Trieu warm shelter run by the Friends for Street Children association, which serves children in poverty or in need. (Mary Nguyen Thi Phuong Lan)

The happiest human beings share love or all they have with others, especially with the poor, or homeless, or disadvantaged children.

The Friends for Street Children association, or FFSC, was founded in 1984 by Thomas Tran Van Soi.  Presently, the association has four centers (Binh An, Binh Trieu, Binh Tho and Luu Minh Xuan) and one “warm shelter” in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Yearly, these centers have welcomed a large number of displaced children who have migrated to Ho Chi Minh City from rural provinces. Most of them are from poor families, or difficult situations.

Happily, Friends for Street Children has also welcomed many volunteers from inside and outside Vietnam, who come to FFSC centers to share love with children through gifts, to play with them, or (most importantly) to provide them with the chance to gain knowledge, and develop their potential and life skills so they can have a better life in the future.

One of the volunteers that we most admire is Philip MacLaurin, 60, from London, England, and his wife Frances MacLaurin, 54, from Scotland. They are Catholic, and have a great affection for the poor children in Vietnam.

They live in Ho Chi Minh City and have been doing volunteer work with Friends for Street Children for about 12 years. They truly love the poor children, as well as students in Vietnam, and generously finance scholarships or support other needs to help these children have better lives and brighter futures. Although they must work hard to earn a living in Vietnam, what they do have they use to do charitable works for the poor children in Vietnam.

Philip came here to work as a director of Premier Oil’s Vietnam branch in 2006, and just retired in June 2020. Since he is not working for the company anymore, he told Sister Mary (who is in charge of caring for the orphans at the Binh Trieu warm shelter) that he would have more time to do charitable works. “I really thirst to help the poor young students, show them how to get a good job, or how to achieve success in their life in the future.”

When he was working from Monday to Friday, he spent two days on the weekend to do volunteer works in some of the Friends for Street Children centers. For example, every Saturday he taught English to younger children from 3 to 10 years old, at the warm shelter in the Binh Trieu center. These kids love to study with him because he is very friendly and creates a pleasant learning environment, not forcing them. They especially love his teaching hour when he uses video clips, nice pictures, and English songs like “Baby Shark” and the “Finger Family Song” … things that help kids remember their lessons and relax after a week of study. In fact, the aim of his teaching hour is to bring joy to children, and it also relaxed him after a hard work week.

Even more wonderful is his wife Frances, who came with her husband to Vietnam; she is a full-time volunteer, doing only charitable works. On weekdays, she teaches free English for adult children (grades six to 12) at Binh Trieu’s warm shelter and at Stephan (another warm shelter in Ho Chi Minh City that is not an FFSC center). She is a psychology teacher, and knows how to encourage children to study. She usually has prizes for children who achieve in her classes. Or she might reward them by taking them to the supermarket to choose any gifts they like, or by taking them to get fast food like pizza, spaghetti, or fried chicken at a restaurant. The children have never eaten such dishes, and are very glad to study with her.

Realizing the affection that the MacLaurins have for them, the children are very joyful and happy to see them. When they come to any Friends for Street Children center to teach or attend events, the children say “hello” loudly, then run up and hold them with welcoming hugs. The children truly love them, and consider them like their parents.

In addition, every year the MacLaurins provide scholarships for poor students with good grades in the university. They also help with gifts like money, rice or oil for children whose families are in difficult financial circumstances for the Vietnamese Tet holiday at the end of the year. They particularly like to give their share of contributions in the form of educational programs for the poor children in Friends for Street Children.

We sisters, teachers and volunteers of the Friends for Street Children program really are grateful to Phillip and Frances not only for loving the Vietnamese children and giving significant contributions for our program, but also for giving Vietnamese children a good impression of foreigners.

We are proud to have zealous foreign volunteers like them, and consider them wonderful role models for us to imitate in serving and loving the poor children. We particularly learned about their generosity and love for children in Vietnam when we did an interview with them:

Nguyen: What motivates you to love the poor children in Vietnam?
MacLaurins: We are very privileged in our lives; we had a high-quality education and good jobs. Now we feel we have a lot to offer in terms of our life experience, knowledge and skills. We want to encourage disadvantaged children to achieve their potential and motivate them to have a better future.

How do you feel when helping poor children in Vietnam?
It is always a pleasure because the children are so appreciative, warm and joyful, but it is also heart-wrenching to see the very difficult situations that some children live in. Too many have substandard homes and need to work to support their families. However, if we can do even a little bit to make their situation easier or encourage them in their lives, that is very rewarding for us, and hopefully for them as well.

What do you want them to do when you support them?
We obviously want them to succeed. For us, success does not mean being top in the class, it means achieving their potential, and being decent, hardworking young people, who have good values and care for themselves and others.

We thank God for sending the MacLaurins to the Friends for Street Children program; all of us — staff and children — pray for them every day. May God bless their charitable works, so that they can continue to bring love and happiness to others. May God bless them with pleasure in sharing their love with the disadvantaged children in Vietnam.

As St. Paul said, “Happiness lies more in giving then in receiving” (Acts 20:35).