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By Rashini Suriyaarachchi
23 March 2017

Here in Australia, your life changes when you turn twelve.

You leave primary school behind. You look at children younger than you and feel a little more grown up. You pack your bag for high school, nervous and hopeful for what the year will bring.

Mohammad’s life changed when he was twelve as well. In the city of Aleppo, Syria, just one day can start a lifetime of chaos. “My father was killed during the fighting and our mother was detained when she went out to buy some food,” he says.

Mohammad had nowhere to go and no one to turn to. The twelve-year-old looked at his little brothers and sisters - Hanadi, Ibrahim, Doha, Zakariya and baby Yamen - and felt a lot more grown up. He decided it was up to him to care for his family.

Mohammad has seen things no child should but UNICEF is helping him recover.
Mohammad has seen things no child should but UNICEF is helping him recover.
© UNICEF/UN056230/Al-Issa

For two months, the six children lived alone. They spent their days rummaging through the rubble of their city for scrap metal to sell. The little money they made went towards small amounts of food and water. They burned wood to stay warm and all crowded into one room to sleep.

UNICEF was searching eastern Aleppo for children separated from their families in the chaos of war. One day, we found Mohammad and his siblings in a partially-destroyed building.

“They were in the worst conditions imaginable,” says a UNICEF worker. “They were shocked, they hadn’t showered in so long. They were covered in ashes because of the wood they were burning to warm up. Their hair was full of lice and the little baby was crying uncontrollably,” he adds. Just nine months-old, baby Yamen was found wrapped in a soiled blanket.

UNICEF found 300 children like Mohammad and his siblings in Aleppo at the end of 2016 - children who’d been separated from their families or orphaned by the violence. Each of these children urgently needed a safe place to stay. More than anything, they needed to be at home with their family.

We believe that no orphanage or institution is a better home for a child than a loving home with their family. All around the world, we do everything we can to keep children out of orphanages and living in their communities. In the Syrian crisis - the largest humanitarian crisis of our time -  UNICEF helps run temporary shelters to keep children safe while we trace and reunite them with family.

The house with the green door

The shelter in Aleppo seems plucked out of a fairytale. Mohammad and his siblings stepped through the welcoming green door and walked into a safe place for the first time in months. They were surrounded by a tiny garden filled with jasmine flowers and olive trees and a big house filled with children laughing and playing.

The home could be from a fairytale but every child inside has a horror story.

One girl was just two years old when she was rescued from rubble by a family fleeing eastern Aleppo in 2016. Terrified, injured and confused, the toddler was taken with the family to an emergency shelter on the outskirts of the city. That’s when UNICEF found her and brought her to the temporary children’s home while our staff searched for her family. So far, we haven’t been able to find them.

The staff at the shelter have named her Nour. It means light in Arabic.

Meet the children

These children have been uprooted from everything they know: their friends, their toys, their school and their family. Nothing can erase that loss but here, behind the green door, are the little things every child deserves.

A warm shower. A hot meal. Clean clothes. Somewhere to play.  Someone who cares.

After two hellish months, Mohammad and his siblings had one request: not to be separated from each other. They were determined to survive, to get through this crisis as a family and to live with dignity. It’s what UNICEF wants most for children like them: to stay together, safe and to be reunited with their family and community.

The life they deserve

While UNICEF and our partners work on finding the parents and family members of children in the shelter, our specialist staff make sure they can start to recover from the profound stress of war. In the strangest of places, we help them feel a little normal again.

“We try to make their life as comfortable as possible,” says a staff member at the orphanage. “On weekends, we all go out to parks to play and have fun like one big family!”

During the week, the children get a chance to go back to school and start shaping their futures. It was the first time Ibrahim and Doha, Mohammad’s younger siblings, had been inside a classroom in their lives. After school, the shelter hosts extra classes to help the children catch up on lost time.

For children in the shelter, it’s a return to the stability and warmth of a classroom. A place to express themselves with the pencils, books and learning supplies they’ve lost. A chance to be supported by trained teachers who believe in them so they can develop their talents and look forward with confidence.

UNICEF doesn’t run orphanages - we do everything we can to keep children safe in their communities. Every day, while the children learn, play and recover at school, our staff are urgently searching for their parents and extended family.

Thankfully, the tireless work of UNICEF staff pays off.

After four months of searching, there was great news for Mohammad and his siblings: UNICEF found their uncle. It’s no small feat to trace someone in the middle of biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II, but it’s worth it: the children are reunited with their family.

The house with the green door gave the six children safety and hope; now, at home with their family, they can finally rebuild.

Stand by children like Mohammad

We hear about children like Mohammad on the news every night. Children who’ve lost their parents, friends and homes to war and disaster. Children who are running out of ways to deal with poverty and disadvantage. These children deserve our shock and our grief but more than anything, they deserve our help.

A group of caring people in Australia called UNICEF Global Parents help us reach children like Mohammad everyday. UNICEF is entirely funded by voluntary donations, so we rely on monthly contributions from people like you. In 2015, 77 cents from every dollar went straight to our work for children in danger.

Each new Global Parent helps us go further, faster and reach more children in danger. Please join today and deliver the little, powerful things that save lives and shape futures: clean water, vaccinations and school bags.