It was 4 a.m. in the dusty courtyard of the Raba'a al Sarhan transit center near the border between Jordan and Syria. At the far end of the dark courtyard, I saw a long line of people, refugees who had crossed the border at night, waiting to be registered. They were caked in dirt and eerily quiet – even the babies – seemingly dazed by the terror of their flight across the Jordanian border under cover of darkness. At their feet were tattered, overstuffed suitcases and bags tied with rope.
The civil war in Syria has seethed for two-and-a-half years and sadly the story of these refugees is typical. One-third of Syria’s population has been displaced from their pre-war homes. Children have not been in school. Parents are not working. More than 2 million refugees have crossed into neighboring countries, particularly Jordan and Lebanon. More than 4 million people are displaced inside the country, and little food or medical aid is being distributed with any regularity. With millions of lives at risk, the United Nations has called for greater humanitarian access to all parts of Syria – as well as more aid donations from the global community.
The aid effort has so far received only a fraction of the level of donations given in response to the Haiti earthquake or Indian Ocean tsunami. Millions more civilians are affected by the Syrian crisis than either of these two disasters. As the war grinds on, my fear is that the world community will grow tired of this crisis, that it will turn a blind eye to the Syrian families struggling to survive. The world can’t allow that to happen. The global community must step up and fund the United Nations’ unprecedented $4.4 billion appeal to deal with this crisis, and the world must support Syria’s neighbors, like Jordan, that are coping with an unprecedented surge of millions of new residents. If the world doesn't increase the Syria aid effort, human misery and regional instability will likely extend far into the future.
It is a misery I saw clearly in the eyes of those I met that night at the Jordanian border. Most refugees there had come from Syria's heavily populated Dara'a province, a four-day trek from Jordan’s border crossing. Refugees, on average, pay smugglers $300 per person to smuggle them to the border. Many travel in the back of livestock trucks and sleep in the desert sands.
Manel was one such refugee. She was a lab technician back in Syria. Her husband, Yasser, was a high school teacher. Eighteen months ago they and their two children – 13 and 6 years old – fled their town, Dael, after it was bombed. Since then they had been moving around Syria, first staying with relatives and friends, and then depending on the kindness of strangers. Their children, Tayb and Wesel, have not been in school for two years. And they are not alone in their plight.
Jordan hosts the largest numbers of Syrian refugees, conservatively estimated at 600,000, and at one point saw 3,000 people crossing the border each night. This small country – an island of stability in the Middle East – is now overwhelmed by the sheer number of refugees on its soil. Most refugees have gone to villages and towns in the north of the country, seriously overburdening the economy, social services, and schools there. Jordan has a deep culture of hospitality but is now facing its own economic and social crisis. To illustrate the scale of this challenge, Ibrahim Saif, Jordan’s minister of planning, points out that his country is experiencing the equivalent of the entire population of Canada entering the United States as refugees.
As I spent time talking to Syrians in Zaatari, Jordan’s largest refugee camp, I felt their heavy sense of hopelessness. Refugees are safe and basic needs are being met, due to the quick and efficient response of the government of Jordan and the international aid community, including Mercy Corps, with whom I traveled. Still, it is disheartening to walk through the rows of endless tents and caravans, everything covered in swirling dust and sand, where 120,000 people are left to wait, wondering what their future holds.
In the coming months, their future will look even bleaker as winter sets in. There are seven times as many total Syrian refugees now as there were last winter. Half of them are children, most under the age of 12. Humanitarian agencies will continue to help, but much more is needed. Donations from the public will go a long way toward providing for essentials. But to make a real, lasting difference, nations around the globe must fund the UN appeal and ensure a more hopeful future for Syria and its neighbors.
Linda Mason is honorary chair of the board of directors of Mercy Corps, an international relief and development organization, and chairman and co-founder of Bright Horizons Family Solutions.