Iraqi kids, unrelated to the author, in the rubble after Allied bombers blasted a neighbourhood in the centre of Fallujah during the Gulf War, Feb. 19, 1991. (Photo: Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)
I was allowed to stay up late and watch the Muppet Babies movie on television by myself on the night of Jan. 16, 1991. I was two months short of being 12. I went to bed quite late, only to be startled shortly afterwards by my mother. She was attempting to wake my father. She was yelling, "The war has started!" Years later I can still clearly recall the fright with which I got up. The haunting sound of the sirens still rings in my ears when I think about that night.
I wrote the following poem a few days into the Gulf War, perhaps as a means to cope with a new emotion:
Missile Attack Siren
So frightening when heard,
It is what we all feared,
Quick you have to seek refuge
To avoid casualties, small or huge,
Perhaps you have to wear the gas mask,
Agreed is a difficult task,
It is a great relief when all is clear,
Then, it is not the missile attack to fear.
My father worked as a civil engineer in Saudi Arabia for a number of years. We were expats. We lived very close to the city of Dhahran when the Persian Gulf War broke out. Most of our neighbours and friends had left the city before the war started. Our apartment building was deserted. We had never felt more alone.
My parents had "sealed" the master bedroom in preparation for the war. Windows had been taped up with layers upon layers of duct tape. The minute opening under the air conditioning unit was sealed with old rags and then plastered with duct tape. We all slept in the master bedroom. Every time the siren sounded, we would seek refuge in that room. My parents would close the bedroom door and put wet rags under the gap beneath the door. We would then proceed to wear our harrowing gas masks and await anxiously for the "all clear" signal to be broadcast on radio.
My mind could not help but regurgitate the question: "Will we live?"
My seven-year-old brother would, without a doubt, refuse to wear his gas mask and my parents would engage in a scrimmage to put it on him. My baby brother would be outfitted in some sort of a yellow suit that resembled a space suit. It was a horrendous feeling not knowing what the outcome would be after the sirens were sounded. My mind could not help but regurgitate the question: "Will we live?"
Every time the Scud missiles were intercepted by Patriot missiles, the windows of our home would rattle just as if they were about to shatter. It felt like an earthquake. There was one Scud that fell at a barracks merely a few kilometers away from our home, killing 28 soldiers.
There were reports that there may be a water shortage or the supply could be tainted, so we filled a few buckets and our bathtub with water. For weeks, we used to bathe outside the tub since it was being used for the water storage.
Schools all over the city had been closed for more than a month after the war started. I had not stepped outside the house for that duration. And when my school finally opened, with only a third of its population, gas masks were a requisite. Imagine carrying a gas mask to school instead of carrying a lunch bag.
I penned another poem during the war. It should provide further insight into the multitude of first-time emotions I was experiencing at the time.
No War, Please
We don't want to live with wars,
It's like being stuck behind bars,
Really annoying to hear jets and explosion,
It's so much of a tension,
Nice it would be....
To be again free!
War causes great destruction,
Enormous loss of population,
Our homes should be filled with happiness,
Not loneliness and sadness,
Better to have peace,
We don't want wars, please!
We were lucky that the war did not last long and the casualties were not visible. There are others who were not so lucky. They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We were also fortunate to not have been forced out of our home as the war was short lived. It spanned a total of only about six weeks.
Each day, war forces thousands of people to flee their homes: people just like you and me. They are forced to leave everything behind, sometimes even their hope for a future. I had to neither leave my home nor my belongings behind. I still to this day have many of my toys from my childhood, including my Barbie dolls and countless pieces of Barbie furniture. I recently gave my Barbie treasures to my daughter and she was simply ecstatic. She does not realize yet that I am lucky to have been able to pass them on to her.
By the end of 2015, an unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced to leave their homes. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. This means that one out of every 113 persons in the world were forced to flee their home. In other words, every minute 24 people are displaced.
As individuals, we may not be able to necessarily change the dynamics of war or alleviate the terror that a child caught in the middle of a war feels. However, we should be able to make a difference in the lives of refugees.
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In this image, 12-year-old Bassam, 11-year-old Tamer, 16-year-old Lubna and 11-year-old Farah act out different jobs at the refugee camp. Many Syrian children in Lebanon's Anjar refugee camp are forced to work to help support their families.Bassam and Tamer started selling tissues after their father was injured during a shelling blitz in Syria. The brothers often work 12 hours and earn about $3 a day, and have faced abuse while on the job.Farah weeds and clears land for sowing to support her family of 10. In this photo, she and Lubna pose as factory workers peeling oranges to make tinned fruit. These laborers often work 11-hour days for as little as $8 a day."What makes me very tired is that I have to keep bending down. When we try and stand up, they ask us to bend down," she said. "We spend the whole day like this. The money they give us is not enough."Many of these working children are also forced to miss out on educational opportunities in order to work."Education is very important. I feel it is especially important for girls. When girls get education, they are respected in society," said Lubna. "Some girls even have jobs in factories. They shouldn't be working -- they should be studying."
Hatem, 15, has been living in a refugee camp in Lebanon for four years. He saw his school get hit in an airstrike in Syria and fled, fearing his house would be targeted. Hatem says he is "sad and scared" about his destiny. He was enrolled in school for two years, but had to stop because his family couldn't afford to continue funding his education. He loved going to school -- his favorite subjects were math, English and Arabic. The teenager had planned to go to university and join the army, but those dreams are now gone. "Because I am working now and I have been off school for three years, I have missed a lot of studying and won't be able to fill the gap," Hatem said. He now sells clothes at a marketplace and practices dabke, a modern Arab folk circle dance, to keep himself busy.
Anicet, 10, fled Burundi with his grandparents almost a year ago, and currently attends a temporary learning space run by Save the Children in Tanzania's Nyarugusu refugee camp. Malaria is one of the camp's greatest killers.When Anicet grows up, he wants to be a malaria doctor. In this image, he practices his dream job while his friends act as patients and mosquitoes."I want to be a doctor so that I can help people, make a difference and save lives," said Anicet. "This would make me a very important person and it would help me get something in my life."
Many young girls and children are sent to collect firewood in the forest surrounding Nyarugusu refugee camp so their families can cook the food they receive. Women and children who venture into the woods face many dangers, including assault. Here, Esperanse, 15, shows what it is like for young girls and women to search for firewood in the forest surrounding the camp. She herself narrowly escaped an assault from three men. "There are a lot of dangers that come when we go looking for firewood. ” says Esperanse. "We can get snakebites, or even encounter men who want to abuse us. Even if we’re able to escape and run away, we have to throw down all our firewood and we lose what we came for." "My wish for the future is to have a place where I can live peacefully, a place where I can feel established, where I can feel that I'm at home, without all of these other problems," she added.
Children in Tanzania's Nyarugusu refugee camp re-enact crossing the mountains of Burundi on foot to seek refuge. Iveye, 6, is pictured on the far left carrying her 18-month-old sister, Rebecca, on her back. It took the siblings and their family five days to travel from their home to Tanzania, and the journey was far from easy."When we reached the [Burundi-Tanzania] border, the police on the Burundian side would not let me cross into Tanzania with my daughters," the girls' father, Pierre, said. "So I separated from them and snuck across the border using a secret path. When I had safely reached the other side, I came out and signaled to Iveye and her sisters." "When they saw me, they ran across the border right under the gaze of the policemen who could do nothing to stop them," he added.
Samira, 10, sitting, and Zeina, 11, standing, are best friends. Samira would like to be an actress and Zeina an artist. Both girls left Syria with their families to escape the violence. The house next to Samira's was shelled, killing the family next door. Now the girls live in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. "In Syria, when we got snow or wind, it was OK," Samira said. "But here, when the wind blows, we get a bit scared, as we're afraid the tent will get blown away."
Walaa, 11, left Syria with her pregnant mother because bombs had blown up the hospitals, schools and supermarkets in their area. They had no access food, water or health services. When she was walking home one day, Walaa saw her school explode. This picture uses Walaa's original drawing to depict the moment her school was bombed.
Here, children in Nyarugusu refugee camp show the different ways they play and express themselves in the camp's "Child Friendly Space," known as CFS. For many kids, CFS is an oasis and cocoon of safety where they can socialize with each other.Fifteen-year-old Jacob, center, dreams of becoming a professional dancer. When he realized that he and his family had to flee Burundi, he performed dance routines in his local town market until he earned enough money to pay for his and his grandparents' transport to cross into Tanzania."I feel good about myself when I dance," said Jacob. "I feel that dancing will help me achieve my goals in life."
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