“It made me happy to go to school to meet friends and learn things that I never knew,“ says 7-year-old Aya Kassem. Aya had her leg amputated two years ago after a mortar exploded nearby as she was walking home from kindergarten in Jaramana, Damascus. She underwent a number of operations and has had to learn to walk again with an artificial leg provided by UNRWA.
Despite the physical trauma she has endured, Aya is excited to return to the UNRWA al-Qdairiyeh School in Jaramana camp this September and work towards realizing her dreams. She is one of thousands of Palestine refugee children in Syria who are coping with enduring physical and emotional trauma as a result of the protracted crisis. Education is a critical source of normalcy and stability for children faced with prolonged displacement and hardship, and allows them to hope for a brighter future.
Seven-year-old Aya Qasem, originally from Jaramana camp in Damascus, is one of the thousands of Palestine refugee children who are excited to return to school this September. Her favorite subjects are mathematics and English. Like many, she has overcome unimaginable odds to get there.
Aya will be among more than 45,000 Palestine refugee children in grades one through nine who will return to UNRWA schools in Syria this September. Education plays a critical role in providing stability and hope for the thousands of children who have been impacted by displacement, hardship and violence. Of the 560,000 Palestine refugees registered with UNRWA in Syria prior to the crisis, more than 50 per cent have been displaced at least once – one third of the displaced population are children.
Aya’s life was changed forever two years ago. On October 33, 2013, she and her sister were on their way back home from the UNRWA kindergarten in Jaramana camp when a mortar shell landed nearby in the street. They were taken to the hospital where Aya’s left lower leg was amputated, the first of a number of operations that she has endured. Jaramana camp, Damascus.
Aya’s father, 34-year-old Mowafaq Ali Kassem, used to work in a factory to support his family of five children, including his young son, Muhammad, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and passed away in 2014. Mowafaq quit his job after Aya lost her leg in order to help with the many responsibilities at home; when his wife is away, he takes care of cleaning the house and preparing food for the children.
UNRWA first met Aya and her family in late 2013. “I was going back home from school with Maram, and I was wearing my brown shoes,” said Aya. “As we were walking the mortar exploded. The shoe just flew and my leg flew with it. I lost my leg – my leg was gone.” Here, Aya is pictured coloring in the living room, while her sister Maram (left) and her late brother Muhammad (right) look on.
When she was able to leave the hospital, UNRWA provided Aya with a wheelchair. Six months later, she was fitted for her first artificial limb by UNRWA doctors. Aya is one of the 869 Palestine refugees who received prosthetic devices from UNRWA in 2014. 40% of those who received artificial limbs had sustained injuries as a result of the crisis, with 16% of recipients aged between 5 and 15 years old. Jaramana camp, Damascus.
Sadly, Aya’s story is just one example of the ongoing conflict’s devastating impact on civilians in Syria, including Palestine refugees. In addition to physical injuries sustained as a result of the crisis, Palestine refugee children in Syria are suffering from psychological trauma caused by displacement, hardship and insecurity. UNRWA has trained 55 counselors in Syria to provide psychosocial support to 45,000 students who attend UNRWA schools. Jaramana camp, Damascus.
Many children also face physical barriers in attending school. Of the 118 UNRWA schools in Syria prior to the crisis, only 48 are operational today, and the remainder are inaccessible or damaged due to the conflict or have been repurposed as temporary collective shelters. Remaining schools are overcrowded and running double or triple shifts. With support from the Ministry of Education, UNRWA is providing education facilities in 47 government school buildings. Qabr Essit, Rif Damascus.
Aya is an inspiring example of bravery and resilience. With her prosthetic limb, she feels like herself again and dreams of becoming a dentist in the future. She believes that she and her friends must study hard so they can give back to their community. “I love going to school!” she says. Jaramana camp, Damascus.