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Syria's children are in danger of becoming a lost generation

The brutal civil war that has embroiled Syria entered its fifth year last week. Once a vibrant hub of Middle Eastern culture and history and one of the most stable countries in the region, it is now instead a scene of death and destruction. With a shattered economy, Syria now mainly produces refugees.

It was not that long ago that Syria was taking in refugees fleeing violence — Iraqis, Palestinians. Now it is Syrians who flee in numbers that keep growing as there seems to be no end in sight to the conflict.

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More than 10 million people have been displaced by the violence, with nearly half of them escaping to neighboring countries. In Lebanon, one of every three persons is a Syrian refugee. The influx of people has brought that country to its breaking point, forcing it to close its borders.

Countless families continue to make the painstaking decision to leave their homes to avoid certain death as their neighborhoods are shelled and their homes reduced to rubble, leaving the future of their families and their country in doubt.

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Those of us in better circumstances must help these innocent people caught up in a war they didn't create, giving them the most basic assistance to survive: food, a roof over their heads, a safe place to sleep and medical care. But we cannot stop there. With no end to the war in sight, they also need a long-term plan. With little else to do but try to survive — no jobs, no schooling — many Syrians, both inside and outside of that country, spend every minute of every day worrying about their future.

And that means worrying about their children. They are the future of this country and this region, and they are paying the heaviest price in this war. Many have witnessed unimaginable violence, seen loved ones killed, homes destroyed. The vast majority of them have been out of school for more than three years. Many are showing severe signs of trauma and depression. As this crisis continues to get worse, concerns are growing that Syria will experience a "lost generation" — children who are not only scarred by war but also deprived of the academic, emotional and social benefits of education, which are necessary to one day re-build war-torn Syria.

Catholic Relief Services staff in the region hear a common refrain: More than they want a roof over their heads, Syrian parents want their children to return to school. "The most painful thing is that my children can't go to school right now," a mother living in a small village near the Syrian border recently said. Another said, "The lack of education opportunities for our children is the worst." Over and over, parents say they chose to leave Syria for their children, to protect them from the violence. But now, without employment, without the satisfaction that comes from being a productive member of society, parents fear for their children and wonder about their fate.

The continuing debate in the United States over a long-term strategy — military and diplomatic — for Syria and Iraq, must carefully consider the humanitarian implications of any actions. Of course as the wealthiest nation on earth, we must continue to lead the international community in caring for Syrian refugees. Part of that is supporting countries in the region who are hosting the refugees in maintaining the infrastructure, social systems and economy for their own people.

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A crucial part is education, which plays a vital role in providing children with structure and a sense of normalcy to get them through these traumatic times. Education is the only way to secure a future for Syria beyond the war.

When peace and stability return to Syria, which they will one day, the country can only rebuild and prosper once again if it has a generation of healthy, educated and committed citizens. On this somber anniversary, let us not forget the children of Syria; let us instead pledge them our support.

Bill O'Keefe is vice president for government relations and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services. His email is bill.okeefe@crs.org.

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