March 15th 2017 marks yet another milestone in the bloody Syrian war, a war which has resulted in the deaths of thousands and caused the largest displacement in human history. After six years of experiencing widespread destruction and insecurity, there is a certain desperation and a sense of fatigue, which has set in. The general feeling is that most Syrians are ready to clutch at any straw, to fan any glimmer of hope. They yearn for peace and stability; they want their Syria of the past to be restored to them. They want the bombarding and the air strikes (which take place in some areas even today) to stop now. Syria today is certainly at crossroads; these crossroads however are very difficult ones.
In a statement issued as war enters the 7th year, the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) says, “ While there are some hopes for peace, the needs and suffering of millions of Syrians continue unabated.” Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says, “Syria is at a crossroads. Unless drastic measures are taken to shore up peace and security for Syria, the situation will worsen. Families have been torn apart, innocent civilians killed, houses destroyed, businesses and livelihoods shattered. It is a collective failure. Ultimately, Syria’s conflict isn’t about numbers – it’s about people”
Conservative statistics of the conflict speak for themselves. An estimated 13.5 million Syrians need humanitarian assistance, and children make up half of that number. Nearly 3 million Syrian children under five have grown up knowing nothing but conflict. For them, it is a lost childhood. More than 6.3 million people are internally displaced within Syria. About 4.9 million others (the majority women and children) have fled to neighbouring countries in the Middle East, including Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq. These have put the host communities under huge strain as they shoulder the social, economic and political fallout. Hundreds of thousands have made perilous sea voyages seeking sanctuary; no one is sure how many may have died at sea. While many have sought refuge in Europe, Canada and the United States, only a small percentage have actually been welcomed.
The plain truth is that the sufferings of the Syrian people, who are refugees and internally displaced, continue with no end in sight. Harsh weather conditions and limited access to basic resources gravely affect displaced families and individuals. Making ends meet is a daily struggle for both the displaced within Syria and those who have fled the country and sought refuge elsewhere. Sizeable sections of them are living in extreme poverty, unable to secure food, water, or medical provisions. Key cities like Aleppo today have no water, electricity and gas- or very little access to these essential commodities.
Delivering humanitarian aid to war-affected populations within Syria is still an urgent issue. There is also the ongoing concern that some neighbouring countries are unable to provide adequate assistance to meet the basic needs of refugees. This lack of assistance threatens the safety of vulnerable people and the stability and security of the region.
Nevertheless, there is hope! There are innumerable stories of resilience in war-torn Syria among the forcibly displaced and from among the Syrians who have sought refuge in other countries. Majeda, a woman from Damascus who fled with her family in search of safety, still holds onto her dream of becoming a lawyer. Kassem is a young man who, in spite of losing a leg in a bomb blast in Syria, is studying in a school in Lebanon and one day wants to become an art teacher. There is Randa who has escaped the horrors of war but is now writing a book for little children telling them why war is all wrong. There is Mohamed Qasim, who now lives in Jordan. He suffers from cancer, but with a ‘never-say-die’ spirit is determined to give his little children a better future.
Majeda, Kassem, Randa and Mohamed are simple, ordinary people. Each one of them has experienced the horrors of war in profoundly traumatic ways. They represent today, the spectrum of innumerable Syrians who have suffered immensely, but look towards a better future for themselves and for their children. The ‘big powers’ and the wide range of vested interests particularly the military-industrial complex; continue to play havoc with their lives and destinies. But these are some of the many, brave individuals who with their indomitable spirit, want to cross the treacherous roads towards a more meaningful tomorrow.
The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) of the MENA Region has been working in the midst of the Syrians who are displaced. Despite the challenges, JRS has stayed the course in Syria during the six years of conflict, addressing and serving those in urgent need while advocating for and with Syrians, for life with dignity.
In Damascus and Homs, JRS operates education centres in parallel with child protection programs and psychosocial care for children and adults. In Aleppo, JRS teams provide those most vulnerable with emergency humanitarian assistance of food baskets and non-food items. When medical facilities in Aleppo came under ferocious bombardments, JRS continued to provide health services. In Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, JRS works with hundreds of Syrian refugees, providing them with emergency assistance as well as ongoing educational and psychosocial support.
In spite of the darkness that this conflict casts over all Syrians, JRS staff and volunteers have also experienced many moments of hope. On March 15th, this year JRS will launch a campaign, through the International and Regional Offices, to highlight the stories of Syrians living both inside and outside of the country. The Campaign will focus on light overcoming darkness, their testimonies of resilience leading to hope. Lola Moussa , who originally hails from the countryside near the city of Homs in Syria, sums up the difficulties and the hope at the crossroads meaningfully, when she says, “ there is still suffering and much pain - but what keeps us going on is our courage to hope and our continued resilience.”
(Fr Cedric Prakash sj is a human rights activist. He is currently based in Lebanon, engaged with the Jesuit Refugee Service in the Middle East on advocacy and communications. Contact:firstname.lastname@example.org ).
#(Published on 13th March 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 11)