Thursday, May 16, 2013

Another day, another evening event on Syria

If you could consciously invent an humanitarian disaster that would fail to get traction on the imagination of the general public, it would be the tragic events unfolding in Syria and its neighbours.

It is not a sudden onset, natural catastrophe inflicted on people already poor who you can see as wholly blameless: an act of God (though more likely due to tectonic plates or seriously inclement weather).

It is a long drawn out, man made, political crisis with no discernable end. A civil war in which all sides carry the potential for blame: an authoritarian regime meets opposition groups, some of which are steadily being radicalised in an Islamist direction (that makes us, in 'the West', nervous and disconnected).

The people themselves, the innocent, displaced victims of conflict are from a middle income country. They may arrive in Lebanon or Jordan on the verge of destitution and traumatised but they do not look impoverished.

Nor do they come from a part of the world with which many of us have an 'instinctive' connection (and one that has had a more or less relentlessly 'bad' press - a place of trouble and strife).

The simple reality, however, is that millions of people who two years ago were leading normal, recognisable lives of hope, struggle and ordinariness find themselves, bombed, terrorised, driven from their homes, seeking safety, either elsewhere in the country or in their neighbours. One of these, Turkey, can cope. The other three - Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon cannot (however hospitable they have been to date).

Lebanon alone has received (officially) 500,000 people, 1,000,000 (unofficially) that is one quarter of the existing population of the country. Akin to 16,000,000 people turning up in the UK to live!

The gap between the funding need and the resources offered is wide and stark. We (Oxfam) need £30 million to provide 100,000s of people with clean water and sanitation and assistance in buying food and household essentials. We have raised £6 million to date, slowly and painfully, not discounting many people's wonderful generosity.

I spent this evening with a group of donors, actual and potential, listening to one of our workers in the field. At the end, she read a poem, down the telephone line from Beirut, written by a twelve year old girl, a refugee whose school had been bombed. The poem was a paean to her home in Syria written out of the pain of her displacement. It was heart breaking and real. It is one of those moments that make you lament our collective human stupidity and be deeply grateful that this is not the final accounting. We do respond, too slowly, often in too small a measure, but we respond.

Mark, our CEO, told of one family being joined by other of its members in a crowded house in Jordan, waking to find food on their doorstep, left anonymously by a Jordanian neighbour, seeing the new arrivals. That is the spirit of generosity that you hope will be eventually triumphant. May it be joined by many others. 

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