Missile strikes or no missile strikes, Syrians are desperate

Jordan, Syria

September 4, 2013

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  • At a Mercy Corps playground in Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp, these Syrian girls were eager to show what they want most. Photo: Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps

[Originally posted on The Huffington Post, September 4, 2013.]

There are lots of complicated, open questions about Syria this week. Is there evidence the regime is responsible for the chemical weapons attack? Will there be a Western-led missile strike in response? What would such a strike lead to?

Regardless of the answers to these questions, one fact is crystal clear: Syrians are going to continue suffering massively, at least in the near-term, and the world is failing to meet their needs.

So far, more than 100,000 Syrians have died in this conflict. About two million Syrians have fled their country, mostly to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. An estimated 6.8 million people are in desperate need inside Syria.

Having spent the week visiting Syrian refugees here in Jordan, it is clear that we need to step up our efforts considerably. Water is scarce throughout the region, especially for refugees. Temporary shelters will need to be improved and winterized in the coming months. Refugee children need easier access to schools and school supplies, both for their near-term emotional health and to keep their longer-term education on track. Tensions are rising between refugees and the communities that are hosting them, and we have to make an investment in keeping the peace there.

This isn't for a lack of effort on the ground. Jordanians have opened their borders and their communities to more than 500,000 Syrian refugees despite their own economic and natural resource constraints. My colleagues at Mercy Corps, other NGOs, and the UN agencies are doing what they can with the resources they have.

The refugee camp at Zataari is home to as many as 140,000 people and is bursting at the seams, the second largest refugee camp in the world. Right now, aid groups are working around the clock to build a brand new refugee camp at Azraq — with the capacity to host another 130,000 people — in order to accommodate the increasing flow of refugees out of Syria.

But of the $4.4 billion the UN has requested to meet the humanitarian needs of Syrians inside and outside the country, well under half has been pledged. Private giving to the humanitarian response has been extremely limited compared to natural disasters like the Haiti earthquake or other major conflicts like Darfur. We at Mercy Corps are starting to see charitable giving for Syrian refugees pick up, but the needs we see on the ground still far outstrip the money we have to address them.

"At home, we had a house, property, friends, family. Here we have nothing," a refugee named Amna told me in the border town of Hartha, with the sound of mortar fire thundering on the other side of the river, in Syria. In her family's case, an investment of about $1,500 from Mercy Corps will make their cinder block shack more habitable, adding an indoor bathroom, a kitchen area, insulation and proper wiring.

There are thousands of families like Amna's crossing the border with nothing, and we need to come together to give them the basics.

It is also critical that neighboring countries continue to accept Syrians who feel the need to flee their own borders, despite the challenges that these large, mobile populations can bring with them. I heard from refugees and people in host communities that things are getting increasingly tense between the two populations.

"At the beginning, people were 100 percent supportive of helping the refugees," a community leader told me in a Jordanian border town. "Now, it's probably 50 percent. If it goes on too long, that's going to drop more and more."

A refugee named Mohammed told me his young daughter had been harassed by some neighbors — they told her she should "show more appreciation," he said — as she walked to school. Now he keeps her home.

Governments and aid groups need to keep investing in direct assistance to refugees, while also supporting the communities that are hosting them, so that the potentially destabilizing effect of their presence is minimized.

Missile strikes or no missile strikes, Syrians are desperate, and their challenges will almost certainly get worse before they get better.

Chemical weapons and talk of a retaliatory strike have focused the world's attention on Syria.

Now, regardless of what happens on the military front, we all need to step up and make sure we do a better job of meeting Syrians' growing humanitarian needs.

How you can help

As the conflict intensifies in Syria, more families are fleeing to neighboring countries seeking safety. Your support is more crucial than ever to ensure refugees have the help they need to put their lives back together.

  • Follow the latest updates on Mercy Corps' response to the Syrian refugee crisis and share stories to raise awareness and support.

  • Donate today. You'll help us deliver clean water, distribute desperately-needed supplies and help children heal from the trauma of this crisis.