Syrian crisis needs longterm strategy, but first immediate humanitarian aid

In his Lenten message, Pope Francis asks us to be merciful, attentive, and generous in a world that too often overlooks the suffering of others. The Pope’s message speaks directly to the growing suffering caused by the Syrian civil war, a conflict that has killed 200,000 and displaced millions from their homes and dispersed them across the region, destroying what was once a cultural center of the Middle East. As Americans, living in one of the wealthiest countries, we must call on Congress to continue the United States’ robust humanitarian aid to the region.

Last Sunday marked the four-year anniversary of the conflict. While many talk of politics and policies, too little attention has been paid to the human toll of the war: young children who are emotionally and psychologically scarred from witnessing the deaths of their parents, siblings, and friends; families that continue to be split apart; and once hardworking people who have lost everything.

As part of our Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Student Ambassador Chapter at Boston College, I recently attended a startling talk by Soha Menassa, a program manager for CRS in Lebanon. Ms. Menassa works with CRS partners in the region to coordinate assistance to the refugees.

It’s estimated that over 12 million refugees are in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria and neighboring countries, like Jordan and Lebanon, which currently hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, according to the UN. The influx of refugees into these countries puts immediate and significant strains on those governments and non-profit groups operating in the region.

Ms. Menassa told stories about the daily struggles and uncertainties faced by these millions. While many images in the American media are of men fighting in the civil war or against the Islamic State, Ms. Menassa’s images were of seas of women and children who’ve fled Syria. They make up 75 percent of the refugee population. So many of these mothers must care for their young children without the support of husbands who stayed behind to fight and now are feared dead or missing.

The violence has taken an especially devastating toll on children as an alarming number show signs of depression and other psychological trauma from witnessing the violence. Nearly 3 million Syrian children are no longer going to school, according to the UN.  

As a college student, I found the stories of the toll taken on the young children to be the most heart-wrenching. As Ms. Menassa detailed in her talk, there is concern among many that Syria will experience a “lost generation”—children who were robbed of the intellectual, psychological, and social development necessary for the country to rebuild. Consider the impact of denying children four years of their education—an entire high school or college career. Even if the war ended today, the long-term effects would be devastating. Groups like CRS are especially focused on providing tens of thousands of children with trauma counseling and education classes to help provide them with a sense of normalcy.

While many organizations in the region like CRS continue to do their part in donating time, money, and goods to ensure the refugees’ basic needs are met, global financial support is weakening even as the number of refugees continues to grow. Programs that provide basic essentials like food, water, healthcare, sanitation, and shelter continue to be underfunded, and are in danger of running out of funding altogether. The U.S. government must continue to lead the international community in supporting the emergency response as well as the countries hosting the refugees and fund it appropriately.

Strengthening funding for humanitarian assistance programs that help the refugees is a necessary immediate step, but our efforts must not stop there. We must implore our elected officials to work with the Obama Administration to carefully consider the consequences of a long-term strategy in the Middle East and identify and to support stable, sustainable, and peaceful solutions to the violence in the region.

When others suffer, regardless of what religion they practice or where they live in the world, we all have a duty to be attentive to those injustices and to extend a helping hand. Write to your representatives and implore them to strengthen funding for humanitarian aid for those affected by the crisis.  

[Nathan McGuire is a student ambassador for Catholic  Relief Service at Boston College. He belongs to the class of 2016.]

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