15 March, 2011. I was in Damascus, Syria, on that day when children were arrested in Daraa for having painted anti-government graffiti on their school’s wall. It was during the so-called Arab Spring. Our preoccupation was focused on other countries in the region. We did not take notice of the Daraa events that many have since presented as the spark that lit the fire of the Syrian conflict.
15 March, 2019. I am now in Canada, a country that has accepted some 60,000 Syrian refugees over the last three years. I met some of them in Lebanon and Jordan where I was posted for seven years. My organisation, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), has been doing its best to assist them and the local communities that host them with commensurable financial support from Canada to the region – more than C$2 billion was committed.
These last eight years have been marred with dreadful images of violence and very few rays of hope. More worryingly is now the fact that we struggle helping Syrians. Our funding appeal for $5.6 billion to help 5.6 million refugees in the region and beyond was only 62 percent funded last year – compared to 73 percent in 2013. Staggering levels of need persist for 11.7 million people throughout Syria, more than half of whom have been displaced several times in search of safety.
These numbers are overwhelming. They cannot convey, in any way, the magnitude of the suffering and deprivation. They may, however, convey that the crisis is far from over.
Life in exile is a daily challenge. But for Syrians still at home, it is even harder. Scores of children, often wearing only plastic slippers that do not protect their feet from the cold, the puddles of water or mud, have not been schooled for years now. Bread and hot tea, if lucky with sugar, make up their daily meal. A blanket becomes a luxury item as they stick together at night on thin mattresses on the floor. Electricity or running water in mud-brick shelters are souvenirs from the past.
It is not the time to abandon Syrians. First, there is an immediate humanitarian imperative: the lowering of aid compared to the needs will mean that lives will be lost. Second, countries that have welcomed refugees deserve our solidarity as they protected, fed or schooled Syrians on behalf of the rest of humanity – and they now more than ever cry for help. Third, access to populations who had been deprived of humanitarian assistance in Syria is slowly expanding.
Canada took a stand four years ago: to be there for Syrians. Communities gathered together to help resettle refugees. Fundraising events were organised to send money to humanitarian partners on the ground. The government committed substantial funding. Media regularly reported about neighborhoods being shelled or civilians being trapped.
But are we now dedicating enough attention, if not resources, to help Syrians?
I am afraid that if we do not recommit our solidarity for Syria today as we mark eight years of conflict, our common achievements – which remain inadequate – will be lost. And I fear for Syrians’ future.
Jean-Nicolas Beuze is the UN Refugee Agency's (UNHCR) representative in Canada.