As Syria marks six years of civil war, delegations from Russia, Iran and Turkey have arrived in Astana, Kazakhstan, for a third round of peace talks. Syrian rebel groups have stayed away, blaming Russia's unwillingness to end air strikes against civilians in rebel-held areas and its failure to put pressure on the Syrian army to abide by a widely violated ceasefire. 

In Geneva, a fourth round of parallel UN-led talks, dubbed Geneva 4, have also just ended, fruitlessly, with opposition demands for “political transition” looking increasingly forlorn as the tide of war shifts decisively in favour of Syrian president Bashar al Assad. Between Geneva 3 and Geneva 4, Russian-backed Syrian government forces retook the city of Aleppo and are now bearing down on the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, along with Kurdish-led Syrian fighters backed by the US.

Syria

 

Sisters Nour and Ghina in Azraq refugee Camp, Jordan. PICTURE: World Vision

When sisters Nour and Ghina were separated while leaving Syria, they feared they might never see each other again. They had to leave because their home became a war zone, “I was happy in Syria, I had my friends, my school...life was good. Then the war began and everything changed,” Nour, the younger sister said. 

For the last three years they’ve been living in Jordan’s Azraq Refugee Camp, finding strength in each other during the difficult times, “I love my sister because always someone positive to be around,” Ghina said. “I can't imagine being without her. I never want to imagine living without my sister. We do everything together.”

They share the same dream too - “our biggest dream is to do well in school and stay at the top of our classes.” While Nour wants to be an electrical engineer, Ghina would like to travel the world and experience different cultures. 

Although the future of Syria is uncertain, they’re determined that fear will not hold them back, “we dream to be able to continue to dream,” Ghina said.

 

After six years of war, a map of Syria now shows much of the west of the country in government control, a large swathe of territory in the north controlled by Kurdish forces, strips of territory held by ISIS and patches north and south controlled by disparate anti-government groups, including the Free Syrian Army, Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham, and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as al- Nusra, which is seeking to reassert itself and recently claimed responsibility for twin bombings near a Shiite shrine in Damascus, which left 40 dead. It is a patchwork of misery.

If the war has swung towards Assad, peace and stability are still not close and with each passing year, the consequences of war have become more catastrophic.

In six years, somewhere between 270,000 and 450,000 people have been killed and more than 11 million of Syria's pre-war population of 22 million (roughly the same population as Australia) have been forced from their homes. More than six million are displaced within Syria, almost five million turned into refugees. Half of them are children.

A generation of Syrian children is emerging whose lives have been shaped by war and displacement: bombings, death, injuries, grief, toxic stress, recruitment into armed groups, child labour, child marriage, sexual violence, exploitation. This is what they know. 

According to the United Nations children’s organisation, UNICEF, at least 652 Syrian children were killed this past year, while more than 850 children were recruited to fight.

Aid agencies, working with the UN, do what we can to keep people alive, with food assistance and basic needs; primary healthcare; medical and nutritional aid for women and children; water and sanitation services; child protection; cash assistance; and support for access to education, but a generation of Syrian children has have had their education profoundly damaged.

According to the UN, 1.7 million children inside Syria aged 5 to 17, and 700,000 Syrian refugee children are not receiving any education, with a further 1.3 million at risk of dropping out. It is an educational wasteland. Syrians see their tragedy in the faces of their children.

To mark Syria’s six years of war, World Vision interviewed children about their fears and dreams: Syrian refugee children living in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, and children in Australia, Canada, NZ, Germany, Ireland and Korea.

Almost half the Australian children said they dreamed of success, while an unexpectedly high 35 per cent said they were most afraid of war and terrorism, without ever having experienced it.

The fears of Syrian refugee children were more precise and based on what they have seen: bombs falling, families destroyed, homes obliterated. The survey found that 43 per cent of Syrian children feared airstrikes, shelling and explosions the most.

But their dreams were not very different – to be safe, to be happy, to have a life, to return to Syria, to become teachers and engineers and doctors, even though their education has been stopped in its tracks. About half the Syrian children surveyed said they dreamed of peace and returning home to Syria, a third said they dreamed of having a career, and a further 12 per cent said they dreamed of being reunited with a lost loved-one.

Australia is distant from Syria, but we have a role to play. The Australian Government must continue to agitate for peace and work with the international community to enable rapid and unimpeded humanitarian access to civilians in need. The Australian Government should also work with Australian NGOs to address the funding gaps that exist in the education sector, including expanding learning spaces, investing in remedial education, catch-up classes, non-formal education and psychosocial support for crisis-affected children.

Given the scale of global needs and Australia’s relative wealth and ability to assist, the Australian Government should also build on its commitment to accept 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees by committing to increase its overall refugee intake to 20,000 this financial year, 30,000 in two years’ time (2018-19), and 42,000 in five years’ time (2020-21). Special consideration should be made for Syrian refugees as long as the conflict and related refugee crisis persists. 

Tim Costello is World Vision Australia's chief advocate. This article was first published in The Huffington Post.