Imagine being uprooted, under fire, on the run for more than nine years. You and your family becoming dreadfully accustomed to the earsplitting whine of incoming airstrikes. Being all too used to grabbing only what you can carry and fleeing for your life. Becoming a grim expert on catching a few hours of sleep in a makeshift tent or outside.
That’s exactly what life has been like for innocent families in Syria since March 2011. What’s unimaginable is that it could get any worse. But it has.
My heart has been breaking over the humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib, northwest Syria. In the past two months, nearly 1 million people — the population of San Jose, California — have been uprooted by rapidly escalating conflict and bombardment. For many families, it’s the third or fourth time they’ve been displaced. This conflict is literally pursuing them. And now they have nowhere else to go.
They’re squeezed between a closed Turkish border to the north and the military advancement to the south. They’ve been targeted in the indiscriminate bombing of health centers, schools, homes and markets. These are truly horrific scenes.
It could get worse. With families unable to maintain anything close to good hygiene, disease such as the coronavirus could be devastating.
But for now, winter is the greater threat. Freezing conditions and lack of shelter have led to children dying of exposure in open fields. Parents have risked everything to get their children to safety, only to see them die in their arms. Can you imagine?
It has never been more critical to respond. And we are: World Vision, as one of USAID’s largest partners in northwest Syria, is working around the clock with Syrian partners to serve the most vulnerable. Our team reached more than 600,000 beneficiaries in 2019. But families continue to sleep in cars and caves, at the mercy of the elements. They can’t afford heaters or fuel and resort to burning tires, cardboard, or anything else they can get their hands on to stay warm in the winter.
One of our staff in Idlib reports, “There are 20 children living in a basement warehouse with no windows or ventilation. They have been displaced for three days, and they are sick, with no blankets or mattresses to sleep on.”
World Vision and our partners are racing against time and harsh conditions to respond, distributing winterization kits to nearly 8,000 households across 35 internally displaced person camps. But caring for the flood of displaced people — including 100,000 in the span of one week in February — is an overwhelming challenge.
And with disastrous timing, the precious lifeline of U.S. foreign aid is at risk. The recent release of the administration’s budget amounts to nearly a $1.8 billion net loss to funding for humanitarian emergencies like Syria.
Foreign aid is a tiny percentage of the U.S. federal budget, but it makes a life-or-death difference in places such as Syria. It means a roof over a displaced family’s heads, a decent meal. The most basic hope for a better tomorrow.
The crisis in Syria is impacting an entire generation of children who face trauma, little to no education, vulnerability to disease, and negative family coping mechanisms, like early child marriage. Any reduction in funding to respond to the conflict or to improve the resilience of communities after war is shortsighted. What we do — or don’t do — today has serious and far-reaching impact on the future of these children, who know little else than war.
World Vision’s goal, motivated by our faith, is fullness of life for all children. But for the kids in northwest Syria, we are just praying that they live through the night. We plead for all parties to maintain the cease fire, protect the lives of children and uphold international humanitarian law.