More than 200,000 Syrians have lost their lives in four and half years of full-scale civil war. Twelve million people inside Syria have fled the violence, leaving homes and livelihoods behind. And four million more have sought refuge in neighbouring countries and beyond, making this, in total, the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.
“We’re just living on the edge of life,” says Mariam Akash, a newly-widowed Syrian mother of nine.
Life on the road or in refugee camps narrows dramatically. Long-term goals of security and economic opportunity are still there, but as conditions worsen those goals become increasingly fragile, threatened by the weight of more immediate needs.
“It’s enough that people are suffering from the fighting and from the war,” Rev. Dr. Riad Jarjour, president of the Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD) in Damascus, says. “People are having trauma problems or can’t find medicine, but not to find food? Then life is not worth it anymore.”
The line between surviving and giving up is thin. And aid organizations know that a handful of resources can rescue desperate people standing on its bony edge.
The crisis is widespread and complex, and will likely only worsen as winter approaches. Long-term solutions have to focus on stopping the violence in Syria. While the flow of refugees continues, however, humanitarian aid from the international community is crucial.
When the federal government announced September 12 that its Syria Emergency Relief Fund would match every eligible dollar donated to charities, Canadians responded generously – and immediately. World Renew, the relief and development arm of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, has received over $70,000 at the time of writing. Two hundred thousand has come in through Samaritan’s Purse. In the first week, World Vision Canada received $700,000 – a heartening response overall.
These dollars allow Christian organizations to “bear witness,” as Ida Kaastra Mutoigo, Canadian Director of World Renew describes, “to the love of Christ in the middle of this crisis by providing food, blankets, shelter and other essential assistance when and where it is most needed.” Aid organizations, many of whom have been on the ground in these war-torn countries for years, are well-situated to help those of us at a distance understand what type of aid is needed and why.
Michael Messenger, president of World Vision Canada, visited Azraq refugee camp in Jordan in late September. He shared some stories with Christian Courier by phone from the city of Belgrade in Serbia, where World Vision was distributing food.
“Today I met just briefly this man. He was carrying two bundles and I wondered what was in them. Quickly, as he came by, I asked him. Turns out that in each of his arms – these were little bassinets – he was carrying his two-month-old twins across this cornfield, toward the Croatian border.
“I didn’t get this man’s name. He actually spoke a language that none of our translators could communicate with. But just seeing him walk across the cornfield with these two little babies broke my heart.”
Such harrowing stories are plentiful. In order to help most effectively, charities tend to focus on the needs in a particular geographic area. And not all refugees are identical, of course; distinct problems belong to distinct groups.
“There are really three groups we can talk about,” Messenger explains. “Technically speaking, Internally Displaced People (IDPs) have fled their homes. In Syria, they are fleeing from violence and destruction or military action – run away but not left the country. They officially become a refugee when they actually cross a border. Refugees are generally people who can’t return home, for fear of their life.
“People who are migrants are just people on the road travelling. Many of the migrants are in fact refugees from places that are war-torn, but personally I distinguish migrants from refugees because refugees can also be staying put. You can be a refugee from Syria in Jordan, and you’ve already been there five years. You’re not moving; you’re still a refugee. Migrants are people on the move.”
Lately, migrants – those walking across Europe or crowded into boats – have been getting the most press coverage. Rev. Canon Andrew White, known as the “Vicar of Baghdad,” recently criticized European governments for focusing too much on migrants rather than on helping poor Iraqi and Syrian refugees in the Middle East, the Christian Post reports.
“Europe needs to distinguish [between] those who are looking for a better life and those who are running for their lives, otherwise we risk failing those who need our help the most,” White says.
That might be a problem particular to governments; aid agencies seem more nimble in addressing distinctive needs.
Within Syria, the Mennonite Central Committee and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank are working closely with the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches and the FDCD to share humanitarian supplies, support educational initiatives and provide trauma healing.
World Renew has focused its response in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, providing food assistance, rent and fuel subsidies and much more through local organizations and existing church partners. With the help of the Kurdish regional government, Samaritan’s Purse has reached out to the Yazidi people, providing emergency supplies, heaters and shelters.
In refugee camps, collaboration with the United Nations can also make aid efforts more effective. Under the leadership of the UNHCR, aid agencies work in sectors such as protection, food security, education and shelter. In Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp, for example, home to 12,000 people, each aid agency has a task: Oxfam takes care of nutrition, and World Vision is responsible for the water and sanitation system.
Not every situation is that structured. At the Serbia-Croatian border the day that I spoke with Messenger, relief was less coordinated. “At any minute, nobody really knows when the refugees will arrive, how they’ll get there – there are a number of crossing points – so when we saw that people were arriving, we called other agencies.
“Particularly with the refugees who are going further abroad, the situation is fluid; it’s changing all the time. They know that they’re reaching for a dream of security somewhere, but for many of them it’s so elusive, they don’t know what’s next. They arrive at a border, they can’t tell if it’s open or closed; they just want to do all that they can to get there.
“One man in a Belgrade park said to me yesterday, ‘I haven’t done anything; I’m just trying to bring my kids to safety. Why is it so difficult?’
“We need to do all that we can to get resources to these families so they can get back on their feet in a place that is safe and secure.”
The Canadian government’s emergency relief fund will match donated dollars until December 31st. Rebuilding their lives, however, whether in a new country or back home, will take Syrians much longer.
When I ask Michael Messenger what has moved him most as he’s been on the road, he says, “I’m struck by the fact that Jesus was a refugee. He and his family fled the wrath of Herod; they would have met the definition of the word refugee; they crossed the border. They probably just had a handful of things.
“My heart breaks when I see [these refugee camps], and I think God’s heart also breaks because Jesus experienced this life. When I think about what it means to love our God and love neighbours – these neighbours are in particular distress and these are the ones I think we as Christians can identify with and are called to serve.”