A few months ago, on a hot October day, I sat with four teenage girls on a United Nations base near Juba, in the world's newest country, South Sudan. One of the girls, Elizabeth, 15, shared her daily life and struggles, her dreams for the future, what she believes children need, and her thoughts about the current situation in her country where 1.4 million people remain homeless, nearly a year after a conflict that has left millions in need. She and almost 750,000 other children will be a spending their second Christmas away from home and their communities.
"They keep going back and forth to Addis [Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital] to talk about peace but there is no peace. The whole world is watching and doing nothing and there is still no peace," she tells me and another World Vision colleague. "I want to go to school so that I become a better person and in the future do something good for myself and my parents." She and her classmates attend an outdoor temporary learning center a few hours a day on the outskirts of the base.
Elizabeth lives with her father on a United Nations (UN) base, in what is called a Protection of Civilian site (POC). When conflict erupted in December 2013, women, children, and men fled their homes to UN bases in search of protection. Bases around the country now provide shelter to 100,000 people. Elizabeth and her family fled their home with 20,000 others and found safety on the base in Juba. Since then her mother and brother have left for a refugee camp in Kenya where conditions are perceived to be better. Elizabeth now fulfills many of the roles her mother would have done in the household. She cooks, cleans, and fetches water for her and her father. Her daily routine includes just two hours of school and a mile-long journey to fetch water in a 40lb water jug.
The creation of POCs illustrates the violent, complex nature of this conflict. It's the first time in a humanitarian crisis that the UN has provided refuge on a large-scale to civilians rather than setting up camps outside for families. There are very few safe places for children like Elizabeth. She and others we spoke to said that they live in fear every day, even on a Protection of Civilian site with UN peacekeepers present.
World Vision wanted to hear more from children like Elizabeth who are caught in the midst of this conflict to learn how it's affected their lives. So we spoke with over 150 children who, like Elizabeth, have dreams for the future. They dream of being doctors, teachers, pastors, and pilots. They want to be able to return home to their communities, to go back to school, and for the conflict to end. They live in fear of armed conflict and violence within the UN base. These children are part of the almost 750,000 children displaced by fighting over the last year. The international community and humanitarian organizations, like World Vision, have responded to humanitarian needs through food assistance, nutrition treatments for young children and pregnant mothers, basic supplies like soap, malaria nets, and fishing kits, and providing safe spaces for children to play and learn. However, the humanitarian needs remain immense.
A few weeks after returning home from South Sudan, I shared my personal experiences and Elizabeth's powerful story with middle school students in California, and I didn't quite know how to explain how much the conflict is impacting the lives of children their age. If this were happening in the U.S., roughly 31 million people would be refugees within our own borders. Imagine 10 percent of the U.S. -- roughly the entire population of California -- fleeing from their homes due to armed conflict. Imagine half of those people were children.
Failing to protect children from violence, exploitation and the impacts of chronic stress will have a long-term impact on them, and with 60 percent of South Sudan's population under 18, it could dramatically shape future generations of the world's youngest nation.
For Americans, these statistics can be hard to wrap our heads around, but for Elizabeth they're meaningless, because she just wants her family back together. For children like Elizabeth, this is the second Christmas she will spend in a POC. Shouldn't these children be allowed to celebrate at home with their families in peace?
Jessica Bousquette is a World Vision child protection expert and lead author on their recent South Sudan report.