One million Syrians have now made the journey from their homes to neighboring countries. This mass exodus is accelerating, with international relief organizations struggling to keep up. More importantly, the refugees’ journey has taken a toll on the most vulnerable and is testament to the dismal human rights situation within the Syrian borders. They are escaping massacres and bombing campaigns led by Bashar al-Assad‘s regime, and their only choice is to step into an impending humanitarian catastrophe in crowded refugee camps.
Satellite image of Zaatari Camp (copyright DigitalGlobe)
The Zaatari Refugee Camp in northern Jordan is one such camp. In August of 2012 it was a cluster of 500 neatly arranged tents. Today, it is a refugee metropolis, with 146,000 Syrians in exile. What is even more shocking, is the fact that the Zaatari Camp only has the capacity to support 60,000 people. Faced with harsh weather and public health conditions, many have already died, and the remaining are surviving day-to-day. They are left hoping for the day when they will return to their homes, if their homes are still standing when they return.
In December 2012, I was contacted by my friend Rahaf Baker, who I had met at the Clinton Global Initiative Conference in 2012. She introduced me to Jordan Hattar, a humanitarian journalist, who at that time was reporting from Zaatari. Jordan told me about the grave humanitarian crisis in the camp, and the desperate need for improved housing for the refugees to cope with the harshest winter in Jordan in recorded history. The first thing I did, was to contact Engineers Without Borders, the organization I have been involved with for the past six years. Their response was sincere, simple and not too surprising – a refugee camp setting does not fit within EWB’s community development model.
ShelterBoxes being deployed to Syrian refugees
Following this, I emailed a sleuth of my contacts in the humanitarian aid realm. Rotarian Judy Hutcherson, who I had worked with several years ago on a ICT project in Mexico, replied back. She put me in touch with representatives from ShelterBox, a UK-based organization that delivers the essentials a family needs to survive in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Among other things, ShelterBox provides weatherized tents that can safely house families in harsh conditions, and other basic necessities including cooking supplies and blankets. I sent them a report that Jordan Hattar had written, that documents in detail the suffering of Syrian families at Zaatari. Rahaf, Jordan and I provided them with all the information we had about the current situation in Zaatari and in the next couple of weeks, our request began a slow ascend in the ShelterBox chain-of-command.
Syrian Family with Winterized tent
Finally, over the first week of February 2013, a ShelterBox Response Team visited the Zaatari camp to assess the conditions on the ground. They met with the Jordanian Red Crescent and United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). ShelterBox discovered that the most immediate need was along the Syria-Jordan border where there have been many causalities due to the harrowing cross-country journey amid sniper shootings and exposure to the natural elements. Starting the third week of February, ShelterBox started distributing emergency supplies to Syrian refugees along the Syria-Jordan border. These tents will provide housing for thousands of Syrians who otherwise would be sleeping in the open-air after their horrific crossing. ShelterBox has made a commitment to the Syrian refugees not just in Jordan, but also in neighboring Lebanon and Turkey, to act quickly in meeting their immediate needs and continually seek avenues to ease their suffering.
To bring back a smile on these young faces, each ShelterBox contains a children’s pack with drawing books, crayons and pens.
This might sound like a happy ending, but it is neither happy nor an ending. As thousands of Syrians are forced to leave their homes behind as their only hope of surviving the heinous crimes of Assad, the international community is largely dormant. Their plight is being lost to the UN Security Council’s refusal to intervene and the hesitation of governments around the world to respond. World leaders haven’t made up their minds whether to side with Bashar al-Assad or the Syrian Resistance Movement. They need to realize that they really should be siding with the Syrian people.
I urge you to contact your government in making the right decision, and supporting the Syrian people as they begin their journey to regaining control of their country, and their lives. Support organizations such as ShelterBox, whose work may mean a life-and-death difference in the lives of many refugees.