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Mandatory Credit: Photo by Kit Oates/REX/Shutterstock (5621249n)
Two Syrian children play in a plastic box outside their tent in Idomeni, they have been waiting to cros the border for a month, but are being sent back to Turkey by the EU
Migrant crisis at Idomeni refugee camp, Greece - 24 Mar 2016

How to Help in Syria

As the Syrian civil war stretches into its fifth year, the status of Syrian refugees is as sobering as ever. Worldwide, there are more people displaced from their homes than ever before: 65.3 million, or 1 in every 113 people. And most of the world’s refugees come from Syria: 4.9 million, with an additional 6.6 million people displaced within the country. For those who have managed to survive—the UN special envoy for Syria estimates that 400,000 people have died in the conflict—either by fleeing their homes in Syria or finding a rare, relatively safe space within the country, life is often barely recognizable. For one, the war has given rise to a crippling education crisis, and millions of children have no school to attend.

To find out what we can do about it, we caught up with Gayle Tzemach Lemmonauthor of Ashley’s War and The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations—who has spent time with refugees in the region reporting on the crisis. Below, Lemmon makes the convincing case that there are absolutely ways that each of us can make a difference for the very real people who are behind the numbers, news stories, and political debates. And we have to do something. As Lemmon explains, “For some reason, we have lost what empathy we had. And it’s really important that we don’t let that set in. Because these people are not ‘other.’ They are us. These are people who previously sent their kids to school. People who have dreams about the future. Kids who want to be in a classroom. It could be any of us.”

A Q&A with Gayle Tzemach Lemmon


How many people have been displaced from Syria, and where are they now?


More than 4 million people have been displaced outside of Syria. The latest total refugee number from the UN is 4.9 million. More than 2 million of these are children. But I would add that there are said to be a number of people who have not registered as refugees in neighboring countries. (To name a few reasons why: It takes a long time, lines are long, not everyone wants to be registered.) If you include both outside and inside of Syria, it’s closer to 11 million people who have been displaced. And inside Syria, many people have moved around multiple times. So, for example, your home gets overrun by rebel forces or the place you’re staying is barrel bombed by the government—then you have to go seek shelter somewhere else, often looking for safety and houses over and over again.

Most of the refugees have been displaced to neighboring countries: Turkey (2.7 million registered; many people think the number is much higher), Lebanon (1 million), Jordan (655,000), and Iraq (239,000). To put some of these numbers further into context: In Lebanon, a small country, about 1 in 4 persons is a Syrian refugee. I visited Kilis, Turkey, which is just over the Syrian border, and practically 1 out of every 2 persons was a refugee. The population has doubled.


What were the living conditions like for the refugees you saw and met in Turkey?


In Turkey, many of the refugees aren’t living in camps along the border but in cities within Turkey. A lot of people would rather live in a city than a refugee camp. Also, Turkey is a much bigger country geographically than the other countries bordering Syria, so, relatively speaking, there is more space for refugees outside of just camps along the border. There are refugees living outside of camps in the other neighboring countries, but practically speaking, countries like Lebanon and Jordan keep warning that they are running out of ability to absorb refugees. And the refugee camps that exist were never intended to become as big as they have. I read the other day that the average length of stay of a refugee is 17 years, which is an astonishing number. It means we have entire generations growing up as refugees.

What I saw in Turkey were some people who were rebuilding their lives and many others living in barely inhabitable homes. One building I saw had no cement floors, no running water, no heat, a barely working refrigerator and people were paying hundreds of lire a month to stay there with their little ones. One house I went to had three rooms, and eleven people living there. And they were actually lucky because the house was pretty clean, although really cold. Rents are very high—especially considering what people can afford. It’s incredibly expensive to be a refugee—people have lost everything and they are barely eking out a living.

“I met mothers struggling to feed undernourished babies. Stretching mealtimes so that they could give their little ones whatever food they have.”

I met mothers struggling to feed undernourished babies. Stretching mealtimes so that they could give their little ones whatever food they have. Trying to get kids into school with very little success.

This is where the issue of education really comes into play, because so many kids, even if they could go to school, cannot because they need to work to help their families. And a huge concern you hear a lot of women talking about is girls being married off—girls who would’ve otherwise been in school if they were inside Syria—because their families can’t afford to support them, and they’re worried about the girls’ security. Of course it is unlikely that early marriage will lead to better security for the girls, but families feel they have run out of options.


How are critical resources—like water and food—distributed in the camps?


There are actually stores—the camps run almost like cities. But the challenge is always resources. And the biggest challenge is water scarcity, which is also a major source of tension between local populations and refugees. (Mercy Corps, a humanitarian organization that I’m on the board of, wrote a report about water scarcity in Jordan.) Water is expensive, and there is the sense that refugees are stepping on an already scarce resource. A town like Kilis, Turkey, on the border of Syria, is a classic example. Before the Syrian war, there may have been 125,000 people with limited water and space and food resources. And then the war happens—and it doubles the number of people in Kilis who are trying to draw from its resources. How are you going to pay for that? Where do you get more water?

“The international community, the world, has really wanted to look away from this. It has become the greatest refugee crisis since WWII, yet in the U.S., we are debating taking in just 10,000 refugees.”

Kilis has been generous overall and has absorbed the new arrivals. Many other places, including the United States, have been far less welcoming. Meanwhile, the international community, the world, has really wanted to look away from this. It has become the greatest refugee crisis since WWII, yet in the U.S., we are debating taking in just 10,000 refugees. And we haven’t even done that.


Where does financial support for refugee resources come from?


It’s a combination of the UN system and donor governments, and then there are some private donations. The U.S. is the biggest donor of humanitarian aid. Lebanon and Jordan are receiving money because it costs them so much to host so many refugees. Turkey has made a deal with the European Union about taking back those who make it to European shores. But the UN appeals for Syrian refugees have gone at least 50 percent underfunded, again and again. Nobody is ponying up enough to even come close to covering the costs. The other issue is that the crisis just keeps growing at a pace that no one can keep up with. The greater the refugee crisis, the more money it has cost, and the less willing donor countries have been to foot the whole bill. The U.S. has been urging people to open their wallets even more. Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon have been saying over and over: We can’t do this forever. At a certain point, we cannot absorb all of these people on our doorstep. But it really hasn’t been until the European Union felt the crisis in a very personal way that we’ve seen more urgency on this.


Is it possible to provide any kind of educational support for children who are stuck in refugee camps or displaced beyond them? Or is resettling refugee children the only realistic solution to the education crisis?


There are some refugee children in school now. In Turkey, about a third of refugee children are in schools. But the majority of refugee children, overall, are out of school. This is a devastating number. And as former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown noted in the Guardian in January, “as more and more girls and boys arrive from Syria on the streets of Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, disturbing new statistics show rates of child marriage among refugee girls have doubled from 12 percent to 26 percent.”

One mother I interviewed—I will never forget this—said her son cries every single day when she tells him he has to go work instead of school. I asked her what she did. She said: “What do you think I do? I cry with him. Having an illiterate or uneducated child, in 2016, just makes no sense. It’s unbelievable to me that I would have an uneducated son.”

“If there is a lost generation of children who have never sat in a classroom—that is a devastation for which every one of us will pay.”

One family I visited with had six kids. The local school only had a single spot open for one child. (There is only so much space in the local schools for more children, though legally refugee children do have a right to be in schools.) The only other school that was an option for this family was far away, and they didn’t have the money to pay for the transit. Nor would they have felt comfortable sending their children there, not knowing how safe the journey to this far-away school would be for their kids.

In terms of solutions for refugee children: In Lebanon, an organization called A World at School (led by Gordon Brown) is working hard to create educational opportunities for refugee children to study with Syrian teachers. Their idea is great: When schools aren’t being used, facilities are opened so that Syrian teachers can go in and teach Syrian kids. These “double-shift schools” can educate local children in the morning and refugee children in the afternoon and early evenings.

And NGOs are also running schools. Many other organizations, local and international, are offering classes for refugees, even if it is not a formal or all-day school.

These are as good a solution as any at the time being. Anything that gets kids in schools is a step in the right direction and something we should all be supporting. If there is a lost generation of children who has never sat in a classroom—that is a devastation for which every one of us will pay. And when you see these kids—there is so much potential. I’ve seen a lot of heartbreaking things, but I can’t get used to seeing young, bright kids who are desperate to be in a classroom being denied that opportunity. Suffocated potential is a terrible thing to become accustomed to.


Is there a model for refugee crises that have been handled in a more effective way?


The short answer is not really. The big issue here is the numbers. There are so many people. We’re talking about a population greater than Los Angeles, or more less the entire greater New York City area, that has become refugees and internally displaced. It’s a huge number and growing every day. And the infrastructure that was set up after WWII to make the world a better place doesn’t match the needs of today. Our infrastructure is outdated for facing the international challenges we have today—the scope and the scale and the sheer volume are daunting.


For Syrians who have not fled the country but are displaced from their homes within it, what is life like? And do they stay in Syria by choice?


For most people, life inside Syria is not safe or comfortable, but you do talk to people living in different pockets that haven’t been hit. And their lives are totally different than people who live in areas that have been bombarded.

People stay in Syria because of choice and means. Not everyone has the money to leave. And people don’t want to become refugees: I’m not leaving my country, my language, my food. This can’t last forever. I’ve interviewed a lot of young people who have left Syria but whose parents are still inside—and their parents say: Where are we going to go? Why are we going to go be refugees somewhere? Die here or die there, that is the choice.

“And for some reason, we have lost what empathy we had. And it’s really important that we don’t let that set in. Because these people are not ‘other.’ They are us. These are people who previously sent their kids to school. People who have dreams about the future. Kids who want to be in a classroom. It could be any of us.”

Also, now there’s almost no place to go, no place willing to take Syrians. The borders are largely closed—so where would you go, and how would you leave? You’d have to use smugglers.

After one round of Russia bombing Aleppo, there were between 30,000 and 40,000 people who came to the Syrian/Turkish border and were sleeping in tents that sprung up essentially overnight.

Imagine if you were told you had to put everything you owned into one bag and leave your home tonight. Flee for a life you can’t imagine in a place you have never been in a country that doesn’t want you or your children. It’s so very hard. And for some reason, we have lost what empathy we had. And it’s really important that we don’t let that set in. Because these people are not ‘other.’ They are us. These are people who previously sent their kids to school. People who have dreams about the future. Kids who want to be in a classroom. It could be any of us.


Any specific memories that have stuck with you from your time spent with refugees?


I met a young woman who lived under ISIS in Syria, and is now working as a translator in Turkey. She said: “You know, we know what those guys are. Syrians are not ISIS. And we are not terrorists.” Another aid worker, also a young Syrian woman, who’d had to make the difficult decision to leave her family in Syria, told me the same thing: “We are not terrorists. We are people who have no other option but to flee. Everybody is just looking to survive. They’re not trying to live a fancy life. They’re just trying to survive.”

One mother I met was burning her children’s clothes at night to get heat.

Also in Turkey, I was in another room with 3 moms, and honestly, fundamentally undernourished babies—and the moms were trying to make their food stretch to 2 meals a day. All of these little ones with stunted growth. And you think: This is the world we live in. It’s crazy. We were literally around the corner from a place where baby cribs are sold for $800. And these babies didn’t have the proper nutrition to grow.

It’s on all of us to pay attention and to care, and not to say we can’t do anything. Because we can. It might be small. Help doesn’t have to be big or cost a million dollars but we can do something. Watching these moms try to survive with almost nothing will break your heart.

How You Can Help

“Each one of us can make a difference,” Lemmon says. “Whatever that difference is.” Below, some of Lemmon’s recommendations for groups that need (and deserve) our monetary and non-monetary support (plus a goop recommendation: ShelterBox).

  • Mercy Corps

    Mercy Corps

    Lemmon is on the board of this global humanitarian aid organization, which is supporting some of the most urgent needs of some 4 million people in Syria and neighboring countries, from distributing food to improving access to safe water, sanitation, and shelter. In addition to making a one-time donation, you can set up a fundraiser through Mercy Corps.

  • Doctors Without Borders

    Doctors Without Borders

    Despite significant barriers and very real dangers, this highly reputable organization operates medical facilities inside of Syria, as well as supports 150-plus others throughout the country. They also have a presence in the surrounding countries, offering emergency, surgical, maternity, mental health care, and much more.

  • International Rescue Committee

    International Rescue Committee

    This is another group that is doing important work in Syria—and Stateside, they have nearly 30 locations where you can volunteer. Lemmon encourages us all to search for refugee resettlements in our cities and states, and you can start by contacting a local office of the International Rescue Committee. Here’s what Lemmon says: “The needs are different in every place, but the refugees might need furniture, they might need pots and pans… Imagine being dropped into the middle of Phoenix from across the globe—you don’t know the bus system, the language, how to get to the grocery store. The (few) people who manage to make it here to the States could use a helping hand.”

  • A World at School

    A World at School

    The mission here is to provide all children the very basic right to go to school. (Globally, there are more than 120 million children who do not go to school.) Ways to help: Spread the word about their campaigns in Syria (and elsewhere), contribute financially to their causes, and for teens and the under-thirty crowd, there’s a Global Youth Ambassadors program.

  • Syrian American Medical Society

    Syrian American Medical Society

    SAMS provides medical relief to Syrians in need, both within the country (they have more than one hundred facilities in Syria), as well as refugees in the surrounding region. Last year, they reported treating 2.6 million Syrians. SAMS also offers medical training and healthcare development to Syrian medical personnel. They are currently accepting applications for their 2017 missions.

  • ShelterBox


    The concept behind ShelterBox is to provide people who have lost everything in a disaster with the essential basics they need right away. Their packages are situation-tailored but generally include a tent, blankets, water storage and purification equipment, tool and cooking utensil kit, kid’s activity pack, etc. They’ve been providing supplies to Syrian refugees since 2012; and have sent nearly $5 million in aid and directly supported 8,400 families. Needless to say, donations make their work possible.

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