Editor’s Note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a CNN contributor and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.” Some of the names of the people interviewed have been changed to protect their identity. The opinions expressed in this commentary belong to the author.
In a bombed-out husk of a building on the outskirts of the Syrian town of Tabqa, I met a family of nearly two dozen trying to wait out the hell of life under ISIS in Raqqa and the war for its liberation.
The smell of flesh leapt at us as we entered the house. But inside, life pushed on – women washing clothes and dishes, men looking to salvage metal from the ruins of what once was an office building so they could sell it.
In the middle of this scene and hard to miss amid the rubble stood Bushra, a mother with wise eyes and a piercing smile. In her arms she held her 9-month-old baby girl. Nearby sat her 2-year-old boy. Neither has enough to eat or access to a doctor, she told me. All have survived the hell of an endless war – so far.
Immediately clear as she talked about her children was this striking reality: Bushra is still a child herself. She is only 16. And already her only focus is on her children’s dreams, not her own. Those are now dead.
“I want my son to be an engineer like my uncle,” she says. “And my daughter to be a teacher.”
Bushra is part of a lost generation of Syrian girls whose dreams have been destroyed by fighting, torn to pieces by the civil war’s depravities and the horror of ISIS. This generation in a country long known for its literacy and girls’ access to education has been left to face violence, trafficking and early marriage. And Bushra is only one of millions whose devastated present deprives the world of their potential in the future.
“I finished my ninth grade, I wanted to carry on my studies, I wanted to be a flight attendant,” she says. But then came the war. The violence. The carnage. The fighting. And her family’s search for safety, which led them to leave her hometown of Aleppo for Raqqa.
And marriage offered her family a shot at safety for her, she says.
“The displaced people did this to protect themselves from kidnapping,” Bushra says, standing near her mother-in-law, who is the matriarch of her extended family. “Our dreams were destroyed, the single girls were forced to get married.” But she makes clear to me she didn’t marry against her will. “It was my destiny to get married.”
She is hardly alone in becoming a bride before she was even 15. Families still living – and fighting to survive – inside Syria are increasingly choosing to marry their girls at a young age. And for those Syrians who fled to neighboring countries, the options are equally grim.
As a report commissioned by the Malala Fund noted, “the rate of early and forced marriage among Syrian refugees girls in Jordan has doubled since the start of the conflict: one-third of registered marriages among Syrian refugees in the first quarter of 2014 involved girls under the age of 18.” According to one study, up to 17% of girls between 12 and 17 dropped out of school and became brides.
At Ain Issa, a camp for Syrians displaced by the fighting in Raqqa and now home to more than 7,000 people, I met Rina, a 13-year-old girl who dreams of going back to school. She has not seen the inside of a classroom for five years. And returning to her studies is all she thinks of.
“I don’t care what subject it is,” she told me. “I just want to be back in school.”
At first when ISIS seized power in Raqqa, her older brother would teach her some of his subjects at home. But as time went on, she began to try and teach herself as her whole family became consumed with the task of survival.
Now, living in a tent with her family, still traumatized by their dangerous escape through ISIS snipers and coalition airstrikes, she cannot answer when I ask her what she might want to be in the future. She simply shrugs her shoulders and marvels at the question.
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It is clear she hasn’t thought about a future outside of war in a long time.
Finally, she answers. “Maybe a teacher,” she says.
For her sake – and for ours – I hope she gets there.
Kamiran Sadoun contributed to this article.
Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.