UN Makes Plea for Suffering Syrians

High Commissioner for Refugees calls it 'the most dangerous crisis for global peace and security since World War II'

Radwan and his family could never have imagined this.

Prior to 2012 they were, like most Syrians, living in what they thought was relative stability and comfort in their homeland. Of course there were problems — an oppressive government and the rumblings of the “Arab Spring” in particular — but as they watched Iraq crumble to the east and Lebanon’s government dissolve to the west, Syria seemed like a safe haven.

Then civil war broke out. They stayed in their hometown of Aleppo as long as possible, but soon they were surrounded by some of the most intense and prolonged fighting of the conflict, including regular government air raids. Radwan still seems in shock as he describes the situation to us through a social worker acting as interpreter.

“We used to walk over the dead bodies,” he says, now partially deaf from regular exposure to explosions.

Eight months ago he and his family fled their home in Aleppo and travelled west to Beirut.

Now they live with two other families — 15 people in total — in two tiny rat-infested rooms, barely the size of two North American bedrooms. One of the rooms is dank and windowless, with a bed and suitcases taking up most of the space. Two ropes hang from the cracked ceiling, a ragged, dirty sheet tied like a hammock between them — a baby’s bed, Radwan explains. Between the rooms is a tiny bathroom and kitchen. The families hang most of their food, out of the rats’ reach; water from the taps is straight from the sea and undrinkable. The snow that hit Beirut in mid-December will have only made things worse, seeping through holes in the roof and increasing the permanent dampness and chill.

Here in this shantytown, one of the toughest neighbourhoods in Beirut, Radwan and his family join thousands of other Syrians whose numbers increase daily. And they are only a few of the victims of what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has called “the most dangerous crisis for global peace and security since World War II.” In late December, the UNHCR made a record $6.5 billion USD appeal for aid, noting that by 2014 almost three quarters of Syria’s population will need humanitarian assistance.

“This Could be You”

When asked why Canadians should pay attention to such a distant and complex situation, Patricia Mouamar, Communications Manager with World Vision in Lebanon, is adamant:

“It's easy. Refugees are people like you and me. It can be your case one day, God forbid, or it can be me who are in their shoes . . . All of a sudden they found themselves without anything, living in a tent, or a garage, or in unfinished construction or with other families . . . [These people] had lives like you and me, they had their jobs, they had their dreams, they had their future in front of them. If I'll tell [Canadians] anything I'll tell them that one refugee is already a lot, and this refugee could be you.”

World Vision National Director Anita Delhaas-van Dijk, sitting across the table from Patricia, adds that aiding Syrians today means taking a larger view, and looking towards a comprehensive picture that involves both humanitarian aid and development.

“The more we invest in Syrian refugees here, the more we can invest in the rebuilding of Syria,” she says. “If you invest in these refugees here now in Lebanon [and Jordan], you are indirectly investing in a new Syria, because these people will eventually go back. And the more we can give them here, [the more] they will be the key building blocks to build [Syria] back together.”

A Traumatized Generation

Yet for many refugees, rebuilding seems an impossible dream. For Abdul Latif Anaoun, sitting in a parents’ circle in an informal kindergarten in Beirut, the only thing on his mind is his son Leith, 6. Anaoun’s wife died of a treatable illness several months ago while pregnant with their second child. Unable to afford medical care in Lebanon, she had returned to Syria in desperate hope of cheaper care, but the delay in treatment meant doctors could not save her. While Anaoun is grateful for the food vouchers and aid he receives from partners of CFGB member the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), he sees no light ahead for Leith in Lebanon or Syria. With his son playing on his lap, Anaoun is resolute: “What’s the future of my child?” he asks rhetorically, as other parents in the circle nod in despondent agreement.

Concern is growing for the children of this conflict, many of whom have seen incredible violence, including family members killed in front of them. Aid workers report symptoms of psychological trauma including bed wetting and a propensity towards aggressive behaviour. In Jordan, Ruba Abbassi, who works for a World Renew partner, explains that dealing with this kind of trauma is a steep learning curve for aid workers. “[We] grew up in experience in this year,” she explains, particularly in assisting refugees with emotional needs. With few Syrian children able to attend school because of school fees and lack of classroom space, they often spend most of their time watching the war on television or listening to the adults around them discuss it. Abbassi says that Syrian mothers in particular are bearing a heavy burden:

“Many [of the women] are widows or their husbands are lost or injured or fighting so the woman has double responsibility — she is mother and father at the same time.”

Churches Play a Key Role

Trying to lift some of these burdens are the churches in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. While in all three countries Christians make up a minority of the population (39 percent in Lebanon, 16 percent in Syria, and 6 percent in Jordan), local Arab churches are playing a key role in aid.

Rupen Das, a Canadian and the Management Adviser and Director of Community Development  for World Renew partner the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (LSESD), says that LSESD — a Lebanese Baptist organization — was one of the first to respond to the crisis two years ago within Syria. Then, as today, only registered NGOs were allowed into the country, and it was difficult to get permission. But as Das explains, local Syrian churches — as “neutral spaces” — need not be registered to provide aid and so LSESD went through them.

While many Westerners are wary to mix aid and religion — especially in a conflict that seems to have religion embedded in its foundations — Das explains that churches and mosques are a natural place of aid in this part of the world. As known entities and institutions in their communities, there is less suspicion of any “foreign agenda.” But Das is clear that though the churches are always open as churches, they serve anyone, regardless of religious or ethnic affiliation: “I do not compromise on religious manipulation in conflict areas,” he says, and explains that LSESD, like World Renew, abides by Red Cross humanitarian principles. “We’re absolutely adamant: there is no conditionality [for aid].”

But as a minority, the churches are stretched.

 “The church partners that we're working with through the Canadian Foodgrains Bank have become overwhelmed by the needs that they face,” says Wayne de Jong, Director of Disaster Response and Rehabilitation for World Renew, “so we're very thankful that we have an opportunity . . . to come alongside our Christian partner organisations in Jordan [and Lebanon] to help them meet the needs of the refugees who continue to arrive here every day.”

An Uncertain Future

Yet even with aid, back in the Beirut shantytown Radwan seems confused by the question when we ask what’s ahead. He won't give his last name, and requests that we not take his picture for fear of reprisal for family members back in Syria, a common concern among many adults we meet.

His eyes turn to some of the children of the three families, six of whom have gathered on a bed, flocking to the one room with small cracks of light coming from the ceiling. “All I can think about is the kids, and how we will live,” he says, as they smile for a photo seeming — at least for the moment — unaware of how much their lives hang in uncertainty.

At the end of November, Dena Nicolai spent a week in Jordan and Lebanon representing Christian Courier on a media tour sponsored by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) and World Renew in an effort to raise awareness of the situation of Syrian refugees in both of those countries. Nicolai is completing her M.A. in Theological Studies at Regent College in Vancouver. This is part two of a three-part series; you can read part one at www.christiancourier.ca.

To learn more or to support the work of World Renew in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, visit www.worldrenew.net/syria. To learn more about the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, visit www.foodgrainsbank.ca.


  • Dena Nicolai

    Dena Nicolai is a student in the Master of Christian Studies Program at Regent College in Vancouver. She lived and worked in Egypt for four years between 2006 and 2011.

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