DAMASCUS — Over the past twenty months, as the Syrian crisis has continued beyond most early predictions, this observer learned something about the Syrian people that I had known for decades about Palestinians. And that is their great concern for their countrymen wherever they are found and whatever their current condition. When I am in Syria I am frequently asked, “How are our people doing in Lebanon as refugees from this crisis?” In Lebanon, I am often asked, “How are our (internal) refugees in Syria and what of our people in Jordan, Iraq or Turkey, how are they being treated and are they getting the basic necessities they need to live?”
And many Syrian refugees there are these bitter days. As of early November 2012, close to 700,000 have fled their country, with the UN now expecting close to one million by early next year if the fighting does not stop. Soon, it is likely that there will be close to 2 million displaced persons inside Syria, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). According to the October 12 UNHCR Syrian Refugee Report , there are currently 205,000 in Jordan, approximately 60,000 in Iraq (the first known refugees who have sought refuge in Iraq during the past quarter century), 110,649 in Turkey, and 110,095 in Lebanon. The true figures are higher by an estimated 13% if one were to include the many Syrian refugees who are unable or do not want to register with local authorities or NGO’s for various reasons.
“Many more Syrians have recently been displaced within our borders and we are bracing for a long conflict.” Dr. Abdul Rahman Attar, Director of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent told this observer during a meeting in his Damascus office. Dr. Attar explained that “internally displaced persons” now exceed 1.5 million and close to 8.5% of the entire population have fled their homes during the last 19 months of conflict. Nearly 400,000 in Damascus alone. Panos Moumtzis, UNHCR’s regional co-coordinator for Syrian refugees, advised that more than 3,000 refugees flee to neighboring countries every day, or approximately 90,000 per month. Both agree that due to the collapse of public services, and given that perhaps 1.2 million people need humanitarian aid inside the country, it brings the total number of Syrians requiring some form of relief to 2.7 million—or roughly 12 per cent of the total population.
Politicizing Humanitarian Aid
Whereas in Syria, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq, official refugee camps are providing shelter at no cost to more than a quarter million Syrian refugees, the government in Lebanon has not yet permitted the construction of similar sites due to confessional fears that perhaps a political or other advantage might somehow accrue to a rival sect-once more exposing how deeply its current anarchist confessionalist arrangement paralyzes Lebanon. Unfortunately, it is the same mentality and prejudices that so far has prevented Palestinian refugees in Lebanon from being granted the same elementary civil rights to work and to own a home that Syria and every other country granted the victims of the Zionist colonial enterprise usurpation of Palestine six decades ago.
The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon who fled the violence in their homeland has increased sectarian tensions, with one result being Syrian workers and refugees being targeted by elements of the Lebanese government. This despite the enormous aid Syria gave Lebanese refugees during the 2006 war, when hundreds of thousands of Lebanese sought safety next door in Syria. Nadim Houry, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa for Human Rights Watch, has documented growing political harassment of Syrian workers in Lebanon. He reports: “We’ve seen the army and the police detaining and roughing up a number of Syrian workers. Most recently, the Lebanese army beat up 72 workers; most of them were Syrian,” Houry reported. “The Lebanese army rounded up the migrant men in the neighborhood and decided to ‘teach them a lesson’ instead of doing police work.”
Against this dismal backdrop, one can find across the border in Syria hope and even inspiration. It is coming from the Syrian people themselves and their mainly Arab friends. Between 10,000 and 11,000 volunteers, including Iraqi and Palestinian refugees, are manning across Syria more than 80 Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society (SARC) aid “sub-stations.” These include more than a dozen mobile clinics and pharmacies as well as 10 “on the spot readiness centers.” Depending on the level of localized conflict on any given day, SARC volunteers operate 24/7 anywhere from 6 and 30 ambulances, as they liaise with the Palestine Red Crescent Society volunteers, among others. Since mid-summer, SARC volunteers have been opening centers for psychological support services for children as well as adults. Recently a phone “hotline” has been set-up to help citizens find emergency help. International volunteers are most welcomed at any of SARC’s centers.
SARC’s volunteers have recently been praised by the UN World Food Program and many others for their work delivering humanitarian aid to internal refugees here in Syria. They distribute necessities of life during the chaos and killing to their fellow countrymen without regard to religion or political views. Foreign donor countries giving the most support currently include Germany, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, Italy and Britain. Others help as well, including money and foodstuffs from Iran and cash from the American Red Cross, the latter channeled through the ICRC so as not to raise Congressional outcries about possible violations of heavy US sanctions being imposed on the Syrian people.
Founded in 1942, as the French colonizers withdrew from this 7,000 year old civilization, which they occupied in 1917 as part of the English-French Sykes-Picot arrangement, the Syria Arab Red Crescent society became linked with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1946. SARC receives no government funding. This observer had the opportunity to meet SARC staff and volunteers of such singular commitment to helping their countrymen that more than a dozen have given their lives while trying to bring assistance to those stranded in Homs, Aleppo, Idlib, Deraa and elsewhere. One SARC team leader to me: “When one of our people is killed we bury the martyr and by the next morning we have 20 or more new volunteers who want to take their place and bring aid to those trapped in the most dangerous areas. I must tell you that this hell we are living through-we are confronting directly—it has made me very proud of my people and to be Syrian. Enshallah, we will overcome this chaos and killing and we will be stronger than before as a people.”
At the United Nations on November 5, a top relief official said the UN aid effort in Syria, which means mainly SARC’s volunteers, “is very dangerous and very difficult.” The official, John Ging, director of operations of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, stated that the aid efforts in Syria (mainly being done by SARC volunteers) was supplying 1.5 million people in with food and that nearly half was being delivered into areas of conflict, but “there are areas beyond our reach, particularly areas under opposition control for quite a long time.”
Despite UNCHR’s role in studying the refugee problem and coordinating yet more studies and some registration of aid applicants during the current crisis, some familiar with its activities in Syria, including a few other NGO’s and some Syrian officials, have been critical of its performance to date. One highly respected governmental official told this observer recently, “I said to UNCHR’s local administration, ‘We have noticed the many fine vehicles that you flew into Syria, and we have met some of the well paid staff that you have brought to help us, but please can you show us that you have to date delivered even one loaf of bread to our desperate people?’”
In fairness to UNCHR, after an admittedly slow start in Syria, it has recently picked up steam and its international staff is learning much from the local Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers.
Nor is SARC is without its critics.
Tawfik Chamaa, spokesman for the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations (UOSSM) speaking from his comfortable Geneva office issued an ad holmium broadside on November 6 against the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society and its nearly 11,000 volunteers. He charged that cash or materials sent to SARC was being “confiscated by the regime. It will not reach the civilians who are bombed every day or besieged.” He told reporters in Geneva, “Ninety, even 95 percent of everything that is sent to Syrian Red Crescent headquarters in Damascus goes to support the Syrian regime, especially the soldiers.”
However, according to AFP, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN World Food Program (WFP), which both work closely with the Syrian Red Crescent Society, strongly denied their aid was being seized by the government or anyone else. This observer, during the late night of November 7 contacted “Wassim”, a friend and a volunteer at the Damascus SARC HQ who last week arranged visits for me of SARC aid distribution centers and Wassim also flatly denied the UOSSM report. Wassim informed this observer on the evening of November 7 that SARC will immediately prepare a response to the USOOM allegations.