My Opinion

The children on the ground

I remember my mom crying to the evening news. When I asked her why, she answered “the children.” The screen she was watching told the story of a young child, unaccompanied and unidentified, carrying an even younger sibling across a desert to escape a war. I was a child myself back then, and all I understood was how wrong this was – so wrong it made my mother cry.

Since then I’ve seen the image repeated again and again. The scenery changes, as do the children, but the story remains the same: Across deserts and fields, rivers and oceans, roads and railroad tracks, children walk towards the unknown because anywhere and anything is better than the atrocities they’ve witnessed and the violence their bodies have endured in what was once their home.

I remember terror in the eyes of a Romanian boy when the Norwegian army showed up to drop off sleeping bags for an upcoming island excursion at our summer camp. I think it was 1990. A delegation of four kids from Bucharest had joined 45 other 11-year-olds from around the world for a month of cross-cultural activities in Kristiansand, Norway. As the army truck pulled up, the Romanian kids shrunk into the background. Later I learned they thought they’d be taken away. “Why?” I asked. “Because some of their family members were taken by the military,” a camp leader explained. “And they never came back.”

I remember confusion when Yugoslavian refugee kids started arriving at our school. They came alone or in pairs, at random times, always without assistance. I was in 7th, or maybe 8th grade. They were airlifted from war and ethnic cleansing in their homeland to bucolic lethargy on a peninsula outside the frozen capital of Norway and sent to school knowing nothing of the local language or what had become of their families. The pull-down maps in our classroom were old. They showed a Germany split in two, a Yugoslavia still intact. A teacher told us to welcome our new friends and invite them to play. We tried. We didn’t know how. They lived in an asylum centre. They wore hand-me-down clothes from our own families. They were angry, and confused, and depressed. They were just kids, but they’d already endured events even adults can’t handle. Yet somehow they were expected to adapt: plug in and normalize. Some were there one day and then gone the next – sent off to other asylum centres in the country or, if they were lucky, reunited with their families in a proper new home. Others were sent back to their old homes, and a fate unknown.

I remember friends at university, home from UN peacekeeping missions in Lebanon, Somalia, and the former Yugoslavia, haunted by what they’d seen. All of them talked about the children. “So many of them were born into conflict,” one explained. “Their entire lives lived under the boot of war. They suffered from malnutrition, injuries, and treatable illnesses. They had no access to education or healthcare or even food. They would hang out outside our base looking for handouts. Food, money, toys, whatever we would give them. And then they died, from a stray bullet or a rocket or an infected cut or some easily curable disease. And if they somehow survived, they were picked up by the war machine and turned into weapons.”

I remember a child lying face down in the surf off the coast of Greece. “It’s terrible what is happening over there,” someone said in the mall food court in Vancouver, Canada, and their lunch companion responded “Come on! Nobody forced them! They chose this, and now they are paying for it. You don’t see me on a refugee boat crossing the Mediterranean!” That same week a high school friend texted me from another beach in Greece. She’d gone there on vacation and ended up staying on for weeks helping with the relief effort. “I have to leave,” she said. “I can’t watch another child die.”

Faced with the atrocities of the world our minds bring the curtains down on our empathy.

Not my kin. Not my war. Nothing I can do.

But they are our children; maybe not from flesh and blood or culture and creed or nationality, but from humanity. They did not choose to live through war; they were plunged into it by forces they have no control over and decisions they have no say in.

We owe it to ourselves to pull those curtains back up. There, as the saying goes, but for the grace of luck and good fortune, go we all. 

In my 45 years I have never felt war on my body. That is an extraordinary privilege not afforded to hundreds of millions of people around the world. And while I can’t resolve the conflicts of the world, I can lend a hand to those on the ground who are doing the work of making life livable for the people who have been displaced and turned refugees by conflict and war.

According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), at the end of 2022 there were 108 million people around the world displaced from their homes by conflict, violence or persecution – the highest figure ever recorded. By the end of 2023, that number will be significantly higher.

Today, I see my son’s face in every child fleeing from and victimized by conflict and war. Now, I understand why my mother wept. Every child hurt by conflict is our child hurt by conflict. Every child hurt by conflict is one too many. We can, and we must, do better: for the children, for their families, for ourselves. When a child is forced to flee a conflict, or is harmed or even killed by it, we have failed in our most basic duty as human beings and as a society: To care for those who can’t care for themselves.

To help children displaced by conflict and war, consider supporting one of these international relief organizations or a child-focused relief organization of your choice:

By Morten Rand-Hendriksen

Morten Rand-Hendriksen is a Senior Staff Instructor at LinkedIn Learning (formerly specializing in AI, bleeding edge web technologies, and the intersection between technology and humanity. He also occasionally teaches at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. He is a popular conference and workshop speaker on all things tech ethics, AI, web technologies, and open source.