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Behind the smiles of Syria’s children

13 March 2020, Action for Change

The heavy price of war

The Syrian war started when Mahmoud* was just six months old. This month the conflict enters its tenth year.  

Forced to flee every month to escape airstrikes, setting up camp wherever they could, this war has exacted a heavy price on his family.

I used to run, play football with the kids and walk with them. We used to play together. I miss walking.


Mahmoud lost both his legs when he left the house to get food for his family. Two shells exploded in front of him when he was walking home. Six months later his father died after the hospital he was being treated in for diabetes, was bombed too. 

“We used to be happy. He used to teach me to pray and play. He would ensure I was always on the right path.”

Mahmoud at the camp in Al Hol, Syria. Photo: Save the Children


A father’s gift

The family - Mahmoud, his mother and three siblings - buried Mahmoud’s father and travelled to the Al Hol camp, near the Iraqi border. But the grief didn’t dissipate. 

I’ve never been to school. He used to teach me. He taught us the alphabet, the B, J and H. What shall I tell you, I just miss seeing him. I didn’t see him when he died.”


The family are on the brink of collapse. Mahmoud’s older brother’s mental health has deteriorated over the years, his mum Fayza* tells us. “My eldest son, who is now 20 years old, has a mental disability. It got worse with the war. Before the war, he used to go to school and he was okay. But then the shelling and airstrikes started hitting the airport and we lived nearby.” 

No one has escaped unscathed, not even Fayza. “I am still afraid of planes and always pray for God to protect us whenever I see one. I try to tell my kids that the plane does not hurt. I try to give them some hope. My children are traumatised when they hear that sound, because we’ve struggled a lot. We’ve seen shelling and airstrikes with our own eyes.”

A first chance at school

Mahmoud has never forgotten his father’s love of learning and eventually got his chance to start his schooling. “I heard about Save the Children’s school and told my mother that I wanted to enroll in it, so I did and they put me in a class nearby. I was very happy. I want to get educated and learn the alphabet.” 

Thanks to supporters of the Syrian crisis appeal, he now attends a Temporary Learning Space in the camp, where he can start his education and play with other children. When he joined, a special bathroom and a ramp were built, so he wouldn’t struggle to get around. It’s had a massive impact on his mood, Fayza reports. 

“After I enrolled Mahmoud into school, he changed a bit. Before starting school, he was very depressed and used to cry all the time. But after he started engaging with children at school, he changed and became happy. When he comes back home, he tells me about everything that happened to him at school. Now he is very happy, he laughs, attends school, studies, does his homework, likes his teachers and plays with other children. He loves his peers and teachers and they love him too.”

Mahmoud’s* dream of becoming a doctor starts here

Mahmoud dreams of one day becoming a doctor, to treat injured boys and girls, just like himself. “I’m honestly very happy. This school is the best. I want to become a doctor. I want to work. I want the war to stop.”

Behind his smile

When Amir was eight years old he was injured by a rocket, and lost his left arm. His family struggled to get emergency support for him because there were so few working doctors left in the town. Despite it all, Amir is still a very passionate football player. 

Behind her smile

Zainab was five when her parents were killed. She and her brother Ahmad now live with their aunt. She often looks at photographs of her parents and dreams of what life would be like if they were still alive. 

For children like Mahmoud, Amir and Zainab, this war has stolen their childhood. For nine long years every fibre of their beings has been focused on survival. While the war rages on around them, these children continue to face unimaginable mental and physical trauma.  

*names changed to protect identities

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