"Can you imagine being a child in this hell?" — Tom Ashbook, host of WBUR's syndicated radio show "On Point"
Our Regional Director for the Middle East, Nigel Pont, joined today's show to provide an on-the-ground perspective from Beirut and discuss the conditions faced by the youngest Syrian refugees in Lebanon and other neighboring countries.
There are currently 1.2 million children who are refugees from Syria, and of that number an estimated 425,000 are under the age of five. Within Lebanon, which hosts the largest number of refugees, only about 20% of children attend school regularly.
Pont noted that everywhere you look, you can see the daily impact this displacement is having on an entire generation. He shared the story of two young Syrian boys he sees regularly near his flat in Beirut. The two are out every day, offering to shine the shoes of passersby. Struck by how polite and cheerful they try to be, Pont said you can still see the tragedy on their faces.
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While the Lebanese government and humanitarian organizations are doing what they can to mitigate the damage and help kids and their parents get back on their feet, Pont said there's a lot more we can and should do.
When asked why Lebanon has not set up refugee camps for Syrians, Pont noted that first and foremost the Lebanese government has to be commended for keeping their borders open, making it "One of the few safe havens left for Syrians fleeing their country."
While there are specific political and historical reasons why Lebanon has opted not to create refugee camps for Syrians, Pont noted that as in any refugee setting, there are "layers of tragedy," and no solution is perfect . You might mitigate some of the problems by establishing camps, but camps bring other complications, as well.
The important thing, he stressed, is that the country continue to let refugees in, and that the global community and humanitarian organizations like Mercy Corps work with the governments and communities within host countries to ensure that they have enough support structures in place to support and protect the refugees, particularly those who are most vulnerable, including women and children.
How soon Syrian refugees will be able to return to their country is anybody's guess. From Mercy Corps' perspective, a political solution is desperately needed. Pont said that he hopes it will happen soon, but that "We're planning for the long haul." He added, "We imagine a lot of these children will grow up in the refugee setting."
Mercy Corps is currently meeting the needs of two million people affected by the crisis, both inside Syria and in neighboring countries. We're distributing emergency food, improving water and sanitation services, improving shelters and providing safe spaces and programs that address the emotional and educational needs of children.