11/13/2013 12:10 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Syrian Children Are Starving to Death

Human bodies aren't like machines that shut down immediately without fuel -- starvation kills slowly.

It's likely one-year-old Rana was malnourished the entire year she'd been alive, since aid hadn't reached the village in her lifetime. Doctors could do nothing by the time she was admitted to the field hospital in rebel-occupied Moadamia, just north of the Syrian capital of Damascus. She died within 24 hours of admittance.

Rana was born, and died, during the civil war that is slowly attacking Syria's children.

The people left in her ghost town of Moadamia are bargaining chips for the rebel Free Syrian Army, which refuses to relinquish control of the area long enough for humanitarian groups to distribute aid. Regime-backed snipers shoot hostages who try to leave. We know of the brief life of Rana from a report in the investigative news site Vice.

For families outside of rebel territory who can evade the scope of a rifle, the only choice is escape from Syria.

What started with a peaceful protest in 2011 has escalated into a full-blown civil war,100,000 casualties, 5.1-million displaced people, and two-million refugees -- including one-million children. An estimated 4,000 Syrians flee daily to neighbouring Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. Meanwhile, rebels and President Bashar al Assad's supporters continue to fight over control of the country.

Even outside of its borders, Syria's war on its youngest citizens wages on. A generation of stateless children have had all manner of hell thrown at them.

Two-million Syrian students have been forced out of school since the last academic year. Schools become shelters, or worse, targets, and then they're destroyed. In Lebanon, where 400,000 school-aged children are stuck, class sizes are doubling, teachers are working a double-shift system, and even class waiting lists are closing. Refugee families decide which of their children should attend class; often the girls are left behind to do chores, watch young siblings, or because a trip to school is deemed too dangerous in a crowded, foreign country.

Parents who can't work legally in their host country send sons and daughters to sell trinkets in the street, or to work in an unregulated industry -- agriculture, construction, hospitality -- where sexual and physical abuse are common. The war is breeding child labourers.

In Jordan, the population of child labourers has "at least doubled" in the last 18 months, to 30,000; faster than non-profits or policy can respond, according to media reports. In Lebanon, where Syrian refugees now make up one quarter of the population, 70,000 refugee children are thought to be working. School, which would offer some respite from chaos, is a false hope for these young workers.

Now, the World Health Organization has confirmed 10 cases of polio in eastern Syria, the first outbreak in 14 years. Syria was the first Arab country to introduce mass immunization, but during wartime an estimated half million children have missed vaccines. The highly communicable disease attacks the nerves to cause paralysis and even death, and it craves a weak host. The United Nations' health agency acted within days to employ an immunization plan in Syria and neighbouring countries, but access to the vaccine remains a problem in rebel strongholds.

For these children of war every aspect of their life has been diminished, or stolen.

One promising hope for Syria is the generosity of its neighbours. Non-profits at camps in host countries deploy aid, water projects and school programs for refugee children. The Lebanese and Jordanian governments welcome Syrian students into their already strained public schools.

Canada, for its part, recently pledged $90 million in relief funds to humanitarian organizations on the ground, making Canada's total commitment to the crisis $203.5 million in development and security assistance. The federal government has also pledged $110 million to Jordan over three years, to alleviate strain on the host country. Canada will also accept 1,300 Syrian refugees by 2014 -- 200 government-assisted and 1,100 private sponsorships -- a sliver of the total refugee population.

International groups, including Amnesty International and UNICEF, have called on Canada and the rest of Syria's more distant neighbours to do more.

For now, it's sometimes the smallest gestures that offer hope amid despair.

A group of Kurdish students recently reached out to their peers at the Arbat refugee camp in northern Iraq.

There, displaced children live in a makeshift slum marked by wooden posts and blue tarp. On the first day of class, Kurdish students from across the Iraqi border arrived with books, backpacks, uniforms and toiletries -- bought with the proceeds of bake sales and community fundraisers -- and distributed them to hopeful-looking Syrian refugees.

"We trust the strength of youth. This is the sign of looking ahead for a bright future in school, becoming good students and good citizens," a UNICEF representative in Iraq has said of the effort.

Children are helping children, even in places where childhood seems a lost cause.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit

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