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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
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  • 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.

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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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Civilians Who Fled Afrin Suffer from Dire Humanitarian Conditions

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People sit in a truck with their belongings in the north east of Afrin, Syria, March 15, 2018. VOA

Thousands of civilians who fled the city of Afrin are enduring dire conditions after they reached Syrian-controlled areas south of the Afrin district.

“More than 2,000 people reached the towns of Nubl and Zahraa from Afrin in the past 24 hours, raising the number of total civilians in the two towns to 16,000. Many are suffering from tragic conditions,” according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights website.

Turkish media announced the control of Afrin on Sunday, after the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) withdrew from the city and thousands of civilians were evacuated — 59 days after the launch of Operation Olive Branch, the Turkish military operation in Afrin.

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The Observatory said Nubl and Zahraa were struggling to provide shelter and food for the large numbers of displaced people pouring into the towns.

Sumama Al-Ashkar, a journalist in Nubl and Zahraa, told VOA that people were residing in houses, mosques, schools, public halls and warehouses.

“The civilians in Nubl and Zahraa are able to get some aid and services, but those who went to Tal Rifat in northern Aleppo are struggling to survive,” he said.

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The U.S. State Department issued a statement on Monday expressing deep concern about reports coming from the predominantly Kurdish city in the past 48 hours.

“It appears the majority of the population of the city … evacuated under threat of attack from Turkish military forces and Turkish-backed opposition forces. This adds to the already concerning humanitarian situation in the area, with United Nations agencies reporting a displaced population in or from Afrin district in the hundreds of thousands, who now require immediate shelter and other assistance to meet basic needs,” the statement said.

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Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army soldiers walk in city center of Afrin, northwestern Syria, March 18, 2018. VOA

Destruction and looting

A number of reports circulated in the media said Turkish-backed forces were destroying and looting public and private properties after they entered the city.

The Afrin media center said once the Turkish-backed fighters reached the town center, they destroyed a statue placed in the center of the city that represents Kurdish cultural figure Kawa the Ironsmith.

“Kawa the Ironsmith is a major historical symbol for the Kurdish people, as it is linked to the most important Middle Eastern holiday, the Nawruz,” Afrin Media Center said.

Footage coming from Afrin also showed Turkish-backed fighters pillaging homes, shops and military sites amidst chaos. They were seen carrying food, electronic devices, civilian cars, farmers’ tractors and livestock.

Members of the Syrian opposition condemned the looting and destruction of the city and called for holding the looters responsible for their acts.

The General Military Staff of the Syrian Interim Government, an alternative government of the Syrian opposition, issued a statement Monday calling for the Turkey-backed Syrian rebels to protect civilians and their properties, and to respect religious and ethnic installations in Afrin.

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Turkish soldiers, positioned in the city center of Afrin, northwestern Syria, March 19, 2018, a day after they took the control of the area. VOA

In a comment to CNN, Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for Erdogan, did not deny the reports of looting but said the actions were committed by some groups who disobeyed their commanders. He said reports were being investigated.

Guerilla war

On Sunday, Kurdish leader Saleh Muslim told ANF, the Kurdish News Agency, that the fight in Afrin entered a new phase, where the YPG and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) will continue to resist in the district.

Muslim added that the civilians had to leave the city for their own protection and vowed to step up the fight.

“The existence of civilians in the city will impose a challenge for our fighters. Our enemy kills civilians and strikes hospitals, and since the Turkish offensive started, civilians were targeted. Now, the war will continue in a different way after civilians left the city,” Muslim said.

A number of humanitarian organizations and civil society groups working north and east of Syria, including the Kurdish Red Crescent, issued a joint statement calling on the international community to act.

“We plea to the international community to intervene immediately to stop these attacks and let the refugees return to their homes, protect their possessions and civil rights, and deliver aid to thousands of people [who] fled this war,” the statement said Monday. VOA