Beyond the loss of a loved one, there may be nothing more tragic than the loss of a family home. Never before, have I read so many news headlines about people losing their homes to war and violence. In many parts of the world, children are growing up in massive refugee camps, where host countries don’t exactly make them feel welcome. According to The New York Times Magazine, 11/8/15, there are approximately 30 million children who have been displaced by war—“longing for home, or too terrified to think of home, or trying to forget home and settle somewhere new.”
More of these children are fleeing Syria than any other country, comprising at least half of the 4,000,000 Syrians who have emigrated since the war began in 2011. There are also plenty of displaced families from the Ukraine, Africa and other nations. To make matters worse, countries like Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan have tightened their borders. Hungary even built a wall with barbed wire. The result? More and more Syrians are falling prey to human traffickers, or fleeing overseas in rickety boats and scrambling over land on long, exhausting treks, desperately attempting the treacherous trip to Western Europe. Drowning babies washing ashore off the island of Lesbos are no longer front page news. However overwhelming the horror of these deaths and displacements, the blood curdling reports eventually become mind-numbing, repetitious even—until you read about the plight of individual children.
I applaud the New York Times for featuring the stories of three displaced children in “a multimedia journey in text, photographs and a virtual-reality film,” in their Sunday magazine. First, we meet Hana, age 12, a Syrian refugee who has “lived one quarter of her life in a debilitating state of suspension in Lebanon” in a tent. She spends her days—which begin at 4:45 am—picking almonds, plums, and cucumbers (depending on the season) in blistering heat to help support her family. As much as Hana and her cousin long to go home to Syria, they no longer ask why that’s not possible. Better to be yelled at and cursed by farm supervisors than to have their heads cut off.
Next we meet Oleg, 11, living in the wreckage of his home in Nikishino, in the separatist area of Eastern Ukraine. He and his family fled during the fighting in 2014 and returned after a cease-fire to find their village destroyed and his school reduced to rubble. Sadder still was the discovery of Oleg’s grandfather, dead and frozen in his own backyard, probably lying there undiscovered for months. “Before the war, I visited him every day,” Oleg said. “Now I visit his grave.” Yet Oleg is—absurdly—“luckier” than many other members of displaced families. He lives with his parents in the portion of his home where the walls still stand, and he attends school in a neighboring village. His father was able to go back to work as a coal miner and slowly earn money toward rebuilding their home. According to the Times, about 3.2 million people (including Oleg and his family) now live amid shattered glass, crumbled concrete, and burnt wood, in desperate need of humanitarian relief.
Last and perhaps most heart-rending of all the Times’ stories is the portrait of Chuol, now 9, from South Sudan. Two years ago, civil war reached Chuol’s village, bringing unimaginable atrocities. Chuol remembers all the horrifying details of men being murdered and women being raped. His father and grandfather were herded into a small hut and burned alive. Chuol’s grandmother described to the Times reporter how a group of fighters argued about who would rape a 12-year-old girl. Unable to agree, they shot her dead.
I hope the amazing strength and resilience of these three displaced children—and the millions of others whose stories remain untold—enable their dreams to survive along with their bodies. At the very least, these children and their families all deserve what many Americans take for granted: home sweet home in a country where they feel safe. Despite the wonderful photos, well-written text and cardboard contraptions delivered by The New York Times for the purpose of gaining a deeper understanding of this global disaster, newspaper profiles will not bring a halt to the violence or help these kids and their families find homes, rebuild their identities and create new and better memories. (Assembling the cardboard contraption in pursuit of “a virtual reality film” was beyond my expertise and patience on a Sunday while drinking my morning coffee, and I suspect other Times readers felt the same).