Michael Alexander speaks to North East Fife MP and SNP Foreign Affairs spokesperson Stephen Gethins who has just returned from a sobering visit to refugee camps in Lebanon – close to the Syrian border – where he saw at first hand how a Fife charity is supporting traumatised children.
Scooping up her 18-month old son and screaming at her three other children to drop everything and run for their lives, mother-of-four Cedra (not her real name) dodged a hail of bullets as Isis fighters closed in on the street outside her family home in the besieged city of Idlib, North West Syria.
At first she thought her family had made it through the chaos unscathed as they stopped to draw breath in a war-torn neighbourhood some distance away.
But as she glanced down to check on her youngest son still bundled tightly under her arms, the heartbroken mother let out a despairing wail as she realised he had been shot dead by a sniper.
Today, Cedra and her surviving family live in a refugee camp 300 kilometres to the south of their hometown in Lebanon.
However, the memory of her young son lives on as his picture adorns the wall of a ‘safe house’ for traumatised children in refugee camps, she now runs with two other Syrian refugees.
The “amazing” Sam’s House project was set up by Fife woman Donna Jennings whose five-year-old son Sam died suddenly while playing in Cupar in 2009 and whose picture also features poignantly on the wall next to that of the Syrian youngster.
“Cedra is doing an amazing Job, and creates a wonderful, caring safe and fun atmosphere for the children,” said Donna, who established Sam’s House through her charity For the Love of a Child which she runs from her home in Cupar.
“She told me that the Sam’s House has given her and her family hope and how bringing love and care and support for the children is so vital.
“She said ‘before the Sam’s House we had no hope, but now the children are happy and are able to be normal children, and they have a sense of hope and a future.’”
North East Fife MP Stephen Gethins has been supporting and helping to raise the profile of Donna’s project for many years.
As Foreign Affairs spokesperson for the SNP and sitting on Westminster’s Foreign Affairs Committee, he has been doing a lot of high level work on the Syrian conflict and is interested in efforts to resolve humanitarian problems on the ground.
However, when he was invited to the Lebanon during Westminster’s Christmas recess last week as part of a cross-party delegation visiting refugees, Donna was delighted to arrange for him to visit Sam’s House and to see for himself what difference the project – fundraised by people back home in North East Fife – makes.
“It was amazing to be able to go in and see where folks’ money from Fife has gone to create a safe space for kids aged two to five who have fled the conflict,” Mr Gethins told The Courier.
“As a result of what they’ve seen, a lot of these tots are suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Donna’s expertise in therapy helps those kids.
“It was good to visit and to meet Cedra who lost her wee boy. They have 60 kids who are benefitting. It’s very basic. They have created a safe space.
“But what struck me was they need some toys.
“One of the things I’m going to be doing over the next while as a result is to work with Donna on a fundraiser – to raise money for the kids.”
Mr Gethins’ three-day visit to the Bekaa Valley region of Lebanon, close to the Syrian border, was organised and paid for by Aid to the Church in Need – an international pastoral aid organisation of the Catholic Church, which yearly offers financial support to more than 5,000 projects worldwide.
Hosted by a Lebanese archbishop, he was joined by MPs Brendan O’Hara (SNP, Argyll and Bute) and Afzal Khan (Labour, Manchester Gorton) – incidentally also members of Westminster’s all-party group on freedom of religion or belief – to see the relief work being carried out in Lebanon in some of the most challenging circumstances.
The war in Syria has been going on for eight long years now and there are 1.5 million refugees in Lebanon meaning that more than one in four people living in that country is a refugee.
That is putting huge strain on the Lebanese economy as well as the families forced from their homes because of the war, Mr Gethins said.
However, the MP said it was “humbling” to hear some of the personal stories of those affected by the conflict and to see for himself some of the work that is being done to help those regardless of their faith and background.
“Refugee families continue to live in very basic conditions with some having spent years living in very basic shacks covered in tarpaulin to keep them dry,” said Mr Gethins.
“It gets pretty cold and wet in the mountains near the Syrian border as I can attest.
“Many also rely heavily on aid for food as well as shelter and many of the basic services we take for granted such as health care and education.
“This is especially important since well over half of all refugees in Lebanon are children.”
Mr Gethins noted there had been headlines recently about refugees trying to cross the English Channel in flimsy boats.
However, with UN figures showing that 56% of refugees in Lebanon are children, and with 42% of all refugees worldwide under the age of 11, he said it was important for people not to lose sight of the brutal reasons for Europe’s refugee crisis.
Her said the scale of the refugee problem in Lebanon put “half a dozen refugees in the channel into stark perspective.”
“It is sometimes easy to forget that we still face the worst refugee crisis since the second world war and the challenges faced by families are very real,” he said.
“The assistance provided by Aid to the Church in Need and other charities is absolutely crucial to the survival of those forced from their homes in the most dreadful circumstances.”
It’s almost 10 years since little Sam Jennings collapsed and died suddenly in his mum Donna’s arms during a family day out at Cairnie Fruit Farm near Cupar in 2009.
It inspired her to do something positive in the five-year-old’s name rather than allowing herself to be consumed by the pain of his loss.
In the wake of Sam’s death, Donna used her knowledge as a drama-therapist to write a book, The Listening Stone, to help children cope with difficulties in their life including grief.
She and husband Tom also founded their charity For the Love of a Child.
Initially, the charity raised funds to help buy toys and art materials for children in Afghanistan. But after the project they were working with closed, Donna turned her attention to helping young refugees fleeing to Lebanon from Syria.
Donna, who is also mum to Joy, Zoe and Jacob, was invited by a friend to visit refugee camps in Lebanon
She noticed a gap in care for traumatised pre-school age children in the camps she visited in Bekaa Valley, just across the Syrian border.
Working with education-based charity MERATH (Middle East Revive and Thrive), and delivered through a collaborative partnership with the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (LSESD), Sam’s House, which cost £27,000 to set up and which she hopes is the first of many, offers a safe, therapeutic space for children to explore and process some of their trauma. It’s also somewhere for them to play.
With 80% of parents using the facility reporting signs of improved psycho-social well-being in their children, Donna, who has visited Lebanon four times, said the project was having a “huge impact” on families and the refugee community – and she greatly welcomed her local MP’s support.
However, after eight years of ongoing crisis in Syria, the scale of humanitarian need for Syrian refugees in Lebanon continues to be daunting.
According to the United Nations and aid agencies, Lebanon continues to receive new Syrian refugees seeking assistance, with estimates close to 1.5 million Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon, of which UNHCR conservatively reports 488,000 are school-aged children.
While the Ministry of Education is making good strides to increase educational access to Syrian refugee children, UNHCR reported that by the end of the 2016/2017 academic year only 202,259 children were enrolled in the public school, leaving at least 286,000 without access to formal education.
The recently released 2017 VASyR (Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon) reported that of those school aged children, only 11% percent of children between 3-5 years old attended an early childhood program in 2016/17.
In addition to the extensive trauma and hardship families have faced in Syria and as they fled to Lebanon, the hardship often continues for families once they settle in Lebanon.
The general environment in Lebanon has becoming increasingly unwelcoming to Syrian refugees over the past year.
Lebanon closed their borders and stopped officially accepting Syrian refugees in January 2015.
They also imposed a hefty $200 annual renewal fee for those refugees who did register upon entering the country prior to 2015.
This has left more than 80% of refugees reporting that they lack legal documents to be in the country.
Lebanon also implemented strict employment restrictions, allowing refugees to legally work in only four sectors (agriculture, hospitality, environment – garbage collection, construction), with sponsorship from an employer.
“Stephen Gethins’ visit is so important and vital to us at For the Love of a Child because he is able to highlight the plight, of this on-going crisis,” Donna said.
“Though the media coverage of the situation for the refugees has waned, the situation is still bad, and the sheer numbers of children not in education is still high.
“We would like to expand the work and set up more Sam’s Houses but this costs money.
“We are hoping that with Stephen’s support we can raise further awareness and support get support on a governmental level through DFID, to help financially support the project and expand the work so we can open more Sam’s House as there are still many young children who need early psycho-social support.
“It’s fantastic that Stephen was able to visit the Sam’s House in the Bekaa Valley as he has now first-hand experience of the great impact it is having, and he is able to share this. Stephen would like to help us with raising funds through a social media campaign.”
“We have just set up a new child sponsorship campaign. For £25 a month you could sponsor one child to attend the full programme for a year.”
*For more information about the charity and to donate, go to www.fortheloveofachild.org.uk