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Syria Turns the School Playgrounds into Vegetable Gardens to Feed Hungry Children

The ongoing crisis in Syria is having a devastating effect on the health and nutrition of an entire generation of children

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A boy sells vegetables and fruits along a street in the Damascus suburb of Qudsaya, Syria
A boy sells vegetables and fruits along a street in the Damascus suburb of Qudsaya, Syria. VOA
  • Young children are often the most vulnerable to malnutrition in a crisis
  • Good nutrition is a child’s first defense against common diseases

School playgrounds across Syria are being transformed into vegetable gardens where children whose diets have been devastated by six years of war can learn to grow and then eat — aubergines, lettuces, peppers, cabbages, and cucumbers.

Traditional Syrian cuisine is typical of the region and rich in vegetables. Its mainstays include hummus, minced lamb cooked with pine nuts and spices, varied salads, stews made with green beans, okra or courgettes and tomatoes, stuffed cabbage leaves and artichoke hearts.

But the six-year war has changed that for much of the population, and many now live mainly on bread or food aid.

According to U.N. figures, unemployment now stands at more than 50 percent, and nearly 70 percent of the population is living in extreme poverty, in what was once a relatively wealthy country.

“The ongoing crisis in Syria is having a devastating effect on the health and nutrition of an entire generation of children,” Adam Yao, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) acting representative in Syria, said on Tuesday, ahead of the start of the school year.FAO is helping some 17 primary schools in both government and opposition-controlled areas to plant up to 500 meter-square fruit and vegetable plots in war-torn areas including Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Idlib and the outskirts of Damascus.

FAO is helping some 17 primary schools in both government and opposition-controlled areas to plant up to 500 meter-square fruit and vegetable plots in war-torn areas including Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Idlib and the outskirts of Damascus.Young children are often the most vulnerable to malnutrition in a crisis, which can have serious and long-lasting effects on their growth and future development.

Young children are often the most vulnerable to malnutrition in a crisis, which can have serious and long-lasting effects on their growth and future development.

“Good nutrition is a child’s first defense against common diseases and important for children to be able to lead an active and healthy life,” Yao added.

The primary schools, which began planting in May, have produced 12 tons of fruit and vegetables. Another 35 schools are expected to start transforming their playgrounds soon in Aleppo and in rural areas around Damascus.

Also Read: Ground Report: How ISIS is ruining lives of people in Syria and Iraq

Rising prices, falling production

The price of food has risen since the start of the war — agriculture production has plummeted, and the country now relies on food imports to make up the shortfall. Transporting food around the country has also become difficult and costly.

About 13.5 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance. Of those, 7 million are unable to meet their basic food needs.

Some 5 million people receive international food aid, but not everyone in need can be reached, and the World Food Program says it has had to cut a number of calories in its family food baskets because of funding shortages.

“The donors are generous, but we don’t know how long they can continue to be generous and rely on taxpayers’ money,” the FAO’s Yao told Reuters.

Vulnerable families are receiving help from FAO to grow food at home, so they can become less reliant on food aid.

“Food aid is very important, but … we should combine both, in a way that people grow their own food and move away from food aid gradually,” he said.

In a country where more than half the population has been forced to flee their homes, many moving several times, investing in agriculture helps people to stay put for as long as it is safe, Yao added.

“Agriculture has become a hope for [many] because they can grow their own food and survive — even in the besieged areas.” (VOA)

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Thousands Displaced as SDF Targeting Civilians Advances on Last IS Territory in Syria

Bali said the second obstacle for the SDF forces is that IS has a number of hostages who had been arrested and detained by the militants.

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A U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter stands atop a hill in the desert outside the village of Baghuz, Syria, Feb. 14, 2019. VOA

Islamic State (IS) fighters are targeting civilians who are trying to flee the last territory held by the terror group in eastern Syria, U.S.-backed forces told VOA on Thursday.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S.-backed Kurdish-led alliance, said that IS militants hit a road used by civilians to escape violence as the battle to free the town of Baghuz in Syria’s Deir el-Zour province enters its sixth day.

“IS has blocked that road to prevent civilians from coming to the SDF,” SDF fighter Ali Ahmed said. “They have targeted civilians there, but we have responded to their attacks against civilians.”

Ahmed said that some families of IS fighters are among the fleeing civilians.

Located near the Iraqi border, Baghuz is the last stronghold held by IS extremists in Syria. With the help of the U.S.-led coalition, SDF fighters have pushed out IS from all territories it once held since 2014.

Fierce fighting between IS militants and the U.S.-backed fighters continues as the latter try to gain ground on Baghuz on several fronts.

“We have two main obstacles as we advance on Baghuz,” Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesperson, told VOA. “The first one is that [IS] terrorists are holding on to a number of civilians to use them as a bargain chip for their exit.”

Bali said the second obstacle for the SDF forces is that IS has a number of hostages who had been arrested and detained by the militants.

IS controls about 5 square kilometers of territory inside the Syrian town, local military officials said.

“It seems that even the Americans are trying to rescue those civilians and hostages from IS,” Hasib said in a phone interview. VOA

Ivan Hasib, a Syrian reporter covering the battle, told VOA that he witnessed an unusual movement by U.S. military vehicles in the area.

“It seems that even the Americans are trying to rescue those civilians and hostages from IS,” Hasib said in a phone interview.

He said the remaining IS fighters in Baghuz are hoping to exchange hostages for a safe exit into the Iraqi desert.

Also Read: Islamic State Using Women, Children as Human Shields to Postpone Defeat

“There must be some sort of negotiations between IS and SDF about the hostages, because even [U.S.-led] coalition airstrikes have stopped since Tuesday night,” Hasib said, adding that SDF fighters were forced to pause their military operations on the northeastern front in Baghuz.

“We can’t start marching toward it from this side because of civilians. Many civilians are using this road to this side. So we’re here to protect them,” Mezlum Kobani, an SDF commander, told VOA.

According to SDF officials, more than 5,000 civilians have been rescued from IS in Baghuz. (VOA)