WASHINGTON, DC: “Have hope, stay strong, you are loved somewhere.” These are the words of American schoolchildren, handwritten on colored paper and displayed thousands of miles away to boys and girls in areas besieged by Syrian rebels.
Hope may seem scarce in Syria, but thanks to a group of dedicated activists in the United States and their humanitarian colleagues in Syria itself, relief and messages of solidarity are within reach.
The Syrian Emergency Task Force, a US-based NGO founded in 2011, connects the heart of America with communities in Syria, while providing life-saving humanitarian assistance to vulnerable children across the country.
âLetters of Hopeâ were launched in 2016 to counter claims by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and its international supporters that the international community has abandoned the Syrian people.
The program collects letters of solidarity from young people around the world and sends them directly to displaced Syrian civilians to reassure them that they are not alone.
âParticipating in the mission of the Letters of Hope is more than a simple sign of solidarity. It’s a movement, âAbby Straessle, SETF’s director of development, told Arab News.
Many Syrian children who receive these letters live under the regime’s bombardments. Attacks have recently intensified in northwestern Syria, already destroyed by an offensive backed by Russia and Iran in March last year.
Children have been hardest hit by the conflict, which began more than a decade ago when anti-government protests were brutally suppressed, sparking a bloody civil war.
The Syrian Civil Defense, a non-governmental organization known as the “White Helmets,” alleges that the regime’s artillery and Russian jets have deliberately targeted schools and deprived children of an education. The Russian government has vigorously denied responsibility for these airstrikes.
A recent report by the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic claims that residential areas, markets and medical facilities have also been deliberately targeted, often indiscriminately.
Syrian children are frequently killed in such attacks on civilian infrastructure. In July, Russian-made Kransnopol guided artillery shells struck a medical center in the southern countryside of Idlib, killing six children.
According to UNICEF, some 512 children were killed in similar attacks last year, most in northwestern Syria. About 1.7 million vulnerable children reside in rebel-held areas, most of whom have been repeatedly displaced by successive regime offensives.
Psychological warfare appears to feature prominently in the regime’s tactical manual. Leaflets are regularly dropped in the air over rebel-held areas, warning residents they “risk annihilation” if they do not leave.
“Everyone has abandoned you,” said one of these leaflets, referring to the international community. “They left you alone to face your loss.”
Letters of Hope began as a direct challenge to this message, reminding Syrian children that they have not been forgotten.
âLetters of Hope shows the Syrian people that even as the governments of the world look the other way and even though the US administration continues to distance itself from the atrocities unfolding in Syria, the American people and the people around the world are in solidarity with civilians demanding freedom in war-torn Syria, âSETF director Mouaz Moustafa told Arab News.
Of course, letters alone cannot provide education for Syrian children, protect them from bombing, or relieve hunger pangs. That’s why SETF has a parallel program in northern Syria called Wisdom House, which runs a kindergarten and a women’s center called Tomorrow’s Dawn.
The center has provided vocational training for hundreds of women, offering professional certificates in cosmetology, nursing, crafts and computers.
âYour beautiful, moving words enter our hearts and give us hope,â Moumena, English teacher and director of Wisdom House, said in response to the letters.
âIt means so much to me personally and to other teachers who care for children. When we see the letters sent by teachers, students and the people who care about us, we feel that we will be safe and there is no doubt that we will be the winners.
âThey give us strength, hope and love. Everyone who sends us these letters has a beautiful, gentle and faithful heart. Again and again, I say thank you from the bottom of my heart to all who stand by our side and send us these beautiful words.
âThe first letter I received said, ‘Be strong, you are not alone.’ These words were and still mean so much to me, âshe told Arab News.
To date, more than 2,000 letters from 17 US states have been delivered to school children in Syria. The letters are collected by SETF volunteers and then transported from the Turkish border to rebel-held Syria.
A recent batch of hand-decorated cards came from the Holy Souls Kindergarten class in Little Rock, Ark. Wisdom House responded with a photo of its classrooms decorated with the letters and its students proudly waving a banner that read, âArkansas stands with the Syrian people.
It was a simple yet powerful reminder that Syrian children are not alone.
For so many around the world, the Syrian conflict and those caught up in the fighting and repression feel very far away. The personal touch these letters carry has created a direct bond between children born under totally different circumstances.
âSchools have suffered several forced displacements over the years and the community was permanently driven from their homes in Idlib in early 2020,â Natalie Larrison, director of Wisdom House, told Arab News.
âDespite these obstacles, the resilience of teachers and their communities, along with the incredible dedication of Maison de la Sagesse supporters, has enabled the Kindergarten and Women’s Center to succeed and thrive.
“We hope the children’s smiles are enough for our world leaders to understand the importance of keeping them safe and giving them a chance for a free and happy future.”
The fighting and human rights abuses in Syria are no longer making headlines around the world. Analysts say this indifference, coupled with the inaction of the UN Security Council, has encouraged the regime to continue its bombing campaign.
Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Assad to the Black Sea resort of Sochi. The Kremlin hopes to convince the world to welcome the Syrian president back into the international fold and recognize him as the rightful ruler of Syria, despite his documented history of war crimes.
The Russian government has also pressured European countries to declare Syria “safe” for refugees to return to areas under the regime’s control.
The experience of Syrians driven out by war tells another story. Omar Al-Shogre, a Swedish speaker and human rights activist who worked closely with the Syrian Emergency Task Force, spent years in one of the regime’s most notorious prisons.
âThere is something the Syrian people fear more than dying in the bombing. He is being held by the intelligence services, âhe told Arab News.
âIt basically means going through physical, sexual and psychological torture for as long as you manage to stay alive in this detention center. The Syrians refuse to return to Syria because someone is waiting for them. That someone is the intelligence services.
For the children of rebel-held Syria, only the continued lobbying of groups like SETF can keep them from being completely forgotten.
âOur vision for the future is to continue providing quality education to even more Syrians until every child has the chance to attend a school like Wisdom House,â said Larrison.
âAlthough Syria’s future is uncertain, we hope the world realizes the importance of protecting these beautiful children and communities in Syria by telling their stories.
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