About a third of homes in Syria were thought to have been damaged or destroyed by 2017.

By Roger Childs

The Syrian civil war started in early 2011 when pro-democracy demonstrations as part of the so-called ‘Arab spring’ were brutally suppressed by the authoritarian Assad government. Various rebel groups were formed including Kurdish militias in the north. ISIS took advantage of the chaos to expand from the east. The government bombed many rebel targets and thousands of civilians were killed. The Americans and their NATO allies began air strikes in September 2014, mainly against ISIS. Russia and Iran supported Assad, and Turkey backed the rebels. More than 5 million people have been displaced and many fled to Europe.

UNICEF work in northern Syria

The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) receives no UN funding and is totally dependent on donations. It is neutral and apolitical meaning that its presence in the world’s trouble spots is accepted by virtually all regimes.

 As its name suggests, it emphasizes the needs of children (aged 1-18) for:

  • clean water
  • nutritious food
  • education
  • play and having fun
  • being protected from exploitation
  • being able to speak about their concerns.

Because UNICEF operates in “emergency” situations such as war zones, countries suffering from famine and in the aftermath of natural disasters, meeting these needs is a huge challenge. One of the most difficult areas in recent years has been Northern Syria. 

Huge problems in a complex political environment

Tania McBride is Head of International Programmes for UNICEF New Zealand. Over the last 12 years she has worked in some of the world’s most dangerous counties – Palestine, Haiti, Pakistan, Jordan, Gaza and Northern Syria. The civil war in Syria has been going on for more than ten years and the political situation is complicated. There are many groups and countries involved including Syrians, Kurds, Turkey, Russia, the United States and other NATO countries.

Because of the fighting millions of people have been displaced and some have move up to 5 or 6 times. The situation is constantly changing and in 2014 UNICEF was unable to operate from the Syrian capital of Damascus. Then in 2019 Turkey, the Syrian government’s enemy, invaded the north-west. It is inevitably the civilian population which suffers most and in some areas there have been many air strikes a day, and tragically hospitals and schools have sometimes been targets.

It is too dangerous for UNICEF to work on the ground in the region so under a United Nations Security Council resolution the organisation currently operates crossing over the border from Turkey to provide services, supplies and programmes for children, working with local communities and groups.

The Syrian government’s campaign to recapture Northern Syria last year made things even worse. Within 3 months another 1 million people were displaced. Then earlier this year Covid-19 started spreading, but ironically a lockdown provided a break in hostilities.

In total about 2.8 million people in Northern Syria need humanitarian help.

Functioning across the border

From its base in Turkey UNICEF partners with NGOs and civilian groups to help children. The key emphasis is on WASH – Water, Sanitation and Hygiene. Specifically

  • making safe drinking water available
  • building latrines
  • providing soap and detergent.

The refugees live in crowded camps and are supported by 26 Primary Health Care Centres. An important service provided by the medical teams is inoculations against measles, polio and other diseases.  Prior to the civil war, levels of schooling and health services in Syria were high by Middle Eastern standards. 

Unfortunately, with Syrian troops moving into the area, the camps and health centres had to be moved. At one stage it was estimated that 500 children were being moved per day as the roads were clogged with vehicles full of people with their meagre possessions escaping from the advancing government forces.

Once the camps were re-established the emphasis was on health, then schooling. For children setting up schools in tents is designed to encourage learning and to provide some sort of normality. Teaching is in Arabic and English. Then with the Covid-19 outbreak, masks and distancing were needed and PPE gear was required by adults working with the children and their families.

Serving all children

UNICEF’s priorities in the area have been to protect children at a community level. Obviously much of what is done is using local groups to help the young people recover from violence and exploitation. Parenting programmes are an important part of the process. Planning for the cold winter starts in July and the kids receive boxes with warm clothing made in Turkey.

Children with disabilities are not forgotten. Obay was often teased because he was in a wheelchair and he hated school. However he is now a success story. Other kids love wheeling him around and Obay now enjoys learning and observes I have friendly class mates. 

Overall the problems of helping the hundreds of thousands of needy children in Northern Syria with the constantly changing political situation are enormous, however, UNICEF battles on. 


This article is based on a recent talk given at Southwards by UNICEF NZ’s Head of International programmes, Tania McBride. If you want to leave something in your will to UNICEF, which relies totally on donations, go to https://legacy.unicef.org.nz/