Published On: Tue, Apr 15th, 2014

After a career in aid work my heart breaks for Syria

As an aid worker, I have spent more than a decade responding to emergencies all over the world. I was deployed to Iraq in 2003, I responded to the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004, and in 2006, I was in the Lebanese capital Beirut when the city was being bombed and people were fleeing their homes. To get there, I drove through a safe and beautiful Syria – home to a people who were kind and generous.

Having spent much time in the Middle East over the years, my heart breaks to watch what is currently unfolding in Syria. Since March 2011, the country has experienced scenes of extreme and fatal violence. More than 100,000 people have died, including 10,000 children. Some 9.3 million people inside Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance and a further 2.5 million people have fled to neighbouring countries including Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and Iraq.

In the next week, the one millionth refugee – perhaps a woman travelling alone with children, a little girl, or an old man who has tried to withstand the conflict for the past three years – will cross the border from Syria into Lebanon. This foreign land already has a population of 4.4 million people, roughly the same as Sydney. But with Lebanon operating an open-border policy for the most part, it’s akin to one million New Zealanders crossing the Tasman Sea and flooding across the Harbour Bridge into the city in just three years. Imagine the strain on health services, schools, electricity and water supplies and the implications on rental costs.

When refugees cross into Lebanon, there are no formal refugee camps to welcome them. Instead, they must find their own accommodation – if they’re lucky an apartment, an empty garage or shed that they can rent and seek shelter in. Or, as is the case for many refugees, they find themselves living under sheets of plastic and corrugated iron in informal camps with no running water on the outskirts of towns and cities. Three years into the conflict and the humanitarian situation in Lebanon remains precarious. While official figures from UNHCR this week put the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon at one million, Lebanese government authorities estimate that the reality is much higher.

From a microeconomic point of view, there are many different realities, which mean that the crisis has impacted communities in various ways. Many Syrian workers, who used to work in Lebanon before the conflict, have now been joined by their families and are spending their small income in Lebanon instead of sending it back to Syria as they once did. Others work once or twice a week, or for five to ten days, but are unable to find long-term work due to the seasonal nature of the construction and agriculture sectors.

Then there are the women and children who’ve been forced to flee Syria without their husbands and fathers. They account for more than three quarters of the refugees fleeing the country. They struggle to find landlords who will rent to single women, they are often isolated as cultural and safety concerns restrict them moving freely in their host communities, and they fall deeper and deeper into poverty as their resources are depleted and they are unable to find work because they need to care for their children.

Despite the violence, many refugees return to Syria to check on their homes or when they think it is safe to make the journey home. It is not uncommon to hear refugees saying they would rather return home than stay in Lebanon, in spite of the risks they may face.

As a humanitarian aid agency, CARE Australia’s role in Lebanon is to support the most vulnerable refugee groups: Syrians who fled the conflict without any possessions and have limited or no income, single mothers and their children and the elderly. CARE also works with poor host communities who suffer as a result of both the crisis and their own limited resources to ensure good community relations between Syrian and Lebanese communities.

We are working to provide refugees with clean water and toilets and are distributing hygiene and baby kits. And as Lebanon battled another cold and snowy winter, we provided families with blankets and fuel to help them cope. We also provide refugees with emergency cash to buy heaters and food supplies, and with vital information on how they can access further health, legal and social support.

The massive influx of one million refugees in Lebanon deeply impacts the economic, social and political fabric of Lebanese life, and the Lebanese government must be commended for its decision to keep the borders open and for facilitating the work of organisations like CARE Australia. But this situation cannot persist. CARE has secured less than 25 per cent of the anticipated $200 million funding that we minimally need for our response to this crisis and we are not alone.

More than 2.5 million refugees and 9.3 million people inside Syria are in need of assistance and that for me says that is well past time for people here in Australia and around the world to share the burden with the people of Lebanon and other host countries.

For more information or to support CARE’s Syria Emergency Appeal, see www.care.org.au.

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