10/11/2015 09:25 EDT | Updated 10/11/2016 05:12 EDT

What Happens When Girls Flee Conflict Zones

By Patricia Mouamar

Patricia Mouamar is a communications officer with World Vision Lebanon. For International Day of the Girl (Oct. 11), she reflects on the challenges faced by refugee girls who've fled a war zone.


World Vision Photo

Last summer I was sitting at a patio in Ottawa's Byward Market and suddenly, out of nowhere, the sound of Canada's Snowbirds rocketed across the clear, blue sky. My Canadian friend looked up excitedly, and explained they were rehearsing for the annual Canada Day festivities.

But for me, it brought back a chilling childhood memory -- the screech of fighter jets across the skies of Lebanon, and then the deathly sound of bombs dropping on our houses. As a little girl growing up in the 1980s during the final years of Lebanon's 15-year civil war, my family often had to take shelter underground from these attacks. I can remember the sting of my fear, how I could almost smell it in my mother and father and siblings.

Over the past few years working with World Vision in Lebanon, I've met many Syrian refugee children who have been traumatized by the violence of war, and the resulting hardships. There is one thing they all have in common: Their look. But it is not just a look of fear; nor is it a look of need. It is a look of despair, especially in the girls. I talk to these girls and hear their stories of why they were forced to flee the conflict in Syria. None of them can tell me what their future will look like. But for many, I know in my heart that their future is bleak.


Nefratiti, a two-year-old toddler shakes uncontrollably when loud noises wake her family in the middle of the night. Scared of the dark, and the memories of violence and fighting back home, they all start crying. World Vision Photo

Married too soon

I think of my visit with a girl who had been married at 13 years old. She was sitting with her 19-year-old husband, holding their three-day-old baby. Early marriage was not traditional in Syria, she said, but a "very negative coping mechanism." Sadly, her story was typical of too many Syrian girls whose parents feel they have no choice but to marry off their daughter so there will be fewer mouths to feed.

I worry for these teenagers who are having babies too soon, and have so little access to quality healthcare. Often on their own, they could face long, complicated labours and births that might result in long-term disability or incontinence, or even death. And their babies also face health risks -- prematurity and stillbirths are more common in younger mothers.


Too many refugee girls are scared, cold, hungry, and missing home. World Vision Photo

Desperate times, desperate measures

I've also met parents who send their children to work, to help pay for basic needs like food and shelter. I think of their girls who must drop out of school to go work in the fields and forget about their education. Some have no protection from the rains or harsh sun and others must forage alongside cattle for rotten crops in the farmers' fields. No child should ever be forced to work in dirty, dangerous or degrading conditions that jeopardize their mental and physical health, or their education.

What really disturbs me is that when these girls start working and earning money at an early age, it's very difficult to leave that work and go back to school later on. They feel grown up, they are earning their keep...and their education no longer matters. That's why, almost five years into the crisis and with no end to the conflict in sight, education must become a priority. There are currently more Syrian school-aged children in Lebanon than Lebanese, and too many have been out of school for a few years now. What sort of generation is this creating?


Syrian refugee girls participate at a World Vision "Learning Centre" in Jordan. Even if it's not perceived as a life-threatening need for refugees, education is still a right for all girls. World Vision photo

Help creates hope

Thankfully, my work with World Vision allows me to bring some hope to these children and their families. Through food vouchers, access to clean water, psychosocial support and early childhood educational projects; we do our best to help meet their basic needs.

You can help children who are lives are caught up in in turbulent, unpredictable environments through World Vision Canada's Raw Hope initiative. You can also donate to World Vision's Women and Girls in Crisis Fund which provides education, job training, counseling and healthcare for women and girls denied a chance to go to school, abused in the home, and forced into early marriage or sexual exploitation.


Where the children sleep