Generation Emigration

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens abroad

The road from Cork to Damascus

‘I have been in Syria with Unicef for a year. The impact of the war on children is heartbreaking’

Fri, Nov 8, 2013, 11:39

   

Ettie Higgins

When I was 11 my family moved to Zimbabwe. Although we spent just two years there, the experience had a huge influence on me. A few weeks before my 18th birthday I left home in Cork to study in England. Little did I know I wouldn’t be returning home to live.

In Durham I studied politics and Middle Eastern studies. After graduating I completed my master’s in Thailand, which included field work in the then-East Timor.

The day I arrived was the country’s first parliamentary election, after horrific violence that had followed independence from Indonesia in 1999. The destruction was still very visible; entire neighbourhoods had been burned to ashes by fires so intense they could be seen from space.

I joined the UN’s children’s charity Unicef after graduating and returned to Zimbabwe, where Aids had made orphans of more than a million children. So much had changed since my childhood there. For the next seven years, I worked in north Darfur, northwest Central African Republic, eastern Chad and Somalia.

In August last year, a week after leaving Somalia, I arrived in Syria to take up my new role as Unicef deputy representative. My role has been to ensure our emergency programmes were rapidly scaled up to respond to the growing humanitarian crisis.

The number of children in need has escalated rapidly over the past 14 months, rising from two million to more than seven million in less than a year. Our staff has tripled, and we now have our main office in Damascus and two other field offices.

Recently I met a six-year-old girl in Homs who had lost her home and was living with her family in a school converted to a shelter. The thing she missed most was playing with her friends every day after school. The impact this conflict is having on children is heartbreaking.

Our most immediate challenge is the approaching winter, with forecasts indicating it could be the coldest in 35 years. Children, especially those undernourished, and with compromised immune systems and poor shelter, are particularly at risk of respiratory infections and preventable diseases. We are distributing a million thermal blankets and 100,000 sets of warm winter clothes for children.

This month we are embarking on a campaign to vaccinate more than a million children against preventable diseases.

Many of the children can no longer go to school, so we are providing materials so they can learn at home or in an alternative learning space. It has been a joy to see children return to learning.

I work and live in a safe part of Damascus. My family and friends are used to me being away and are very supportive. But I miss being away from my two small nephews and niece. Hopefully I will get home this Christmas.

For more about Unicef’s work in Syria, or to make a donation, see unicef.ie/syriancrisis

In conversation with Ciara Kenny

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