From Syria’s refugees, a silent plea for peace

Updated

My organization, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has a slogan: “One refugee forced to flee is too many.” In the Syria context, we have to repeat this every 15 seconds. That is the rate that the country is hemorrhaging its people across borders.

In March this year, there were one million Syrian refugees. Last week, just six months later, there are now two million Syrians who are refugees.

By official count, Lebanon has taken in more than 728,000 refugees–or close to 20% of its population. If, proportionally, the U.S. would take in the same percentage, it would be hosting over 50 million refugees.

With five million people also displaced inside the country, we estimate that one third of the Syrian population is on the run –a mass of traumatized people too large for most of us to fathom.

Syria is in the news because of the politics of the crisis and the question of military intervention. But for UNHCR, the focus remains on the human suffering which António Guterres, the High Commissioner for Refugees, is calling “the great tragedy of this century.”

Our staff in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt find refugees on borders, in shacks, in abandoned shops. They give them an identity through registration, and offer them a place in a camp or plastic for a roof, blankets, mattresses, pots and pans, a doctor.

But there is not enough giving for us to help these refugees–victims of a war they neither started nor wanted–as they deserve. And not enough access inside the danger zones of Syria to allow us to come to their aid.

One of the saddest statistics is that more than half of Syria’s displaced are children. That is more than one million kids, three-quarters of them under the age of eleven.

Many students around the world have returned to school by now. Not Syrian kids. UNICEF estimates that two million children in Syria dropped out of school last year. At the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, of the 30,000 children living there, only 12,000 are registered for school.

Most of the children have only distant memories of a classroom. Memories from before the war, when they were safe back home in Homs, in Aleppo, in Hassakeh, when the loudest sound in the air was the call to prayer. When they strolled down quiet streets, played in parks and lived happily in the moment. When all of their family members were alive. When their house smelled of meat and vegetables roasting. When bad dreams were forgotten the moment their eyes opened.

Now, nightmares haunt their sleep and follow them through their waking moments.

There are reports that children inside Syria being deliberately targeted, abused, raped or killed. Many escape with their families to live with relatives, friends, or find shelter in abandoned buildings or makeshift camps until violence finds them again, and they pack up and run once more.

In exile, life for Syrian children is still precarious. Suddenly impoverished, they are exploited for cheap labor. Girls are married off early for a fee to men who divorce them after a few weeks. Families are, for the first time in their lives, unable to support themselves and are entirely dependent on humanitarian assistance from generous host governments, UNHCR and partner organizations.

One little girl we help, Shahad, 4, made it out to Lebanon but her nightmares linger. Her pretty face, lacerated from the rubble she was trapped in when her house was bombed, is now healing.

But she can’t forget her 10-year-old brother, Jasim, and her baby sister, Aya, who were killed in the blast. Their smiling photo portraits hang in colorful frames on the concrete wall in the room they now call home. In a half-constructed building meant to become a university, they live with 650 other refugees from Hama. Plastic sheeting separates them from other families. Her father, once a farmer who raised wheat and barley, told us that before the war he had “the best life.” Now he worries for Shahad and her remaining siblings, “They have seen war. They have seen everything.”

So as the world contemplates its next move on Syria, we are asking people not just to support Syrian refugees. But also to echo their plea for peace.

(To donate to UNHCR, click here.)

From Syria's refugees, a silent plea for peace

Updated