Put yourself in their shoes: we’re not so different to those uprooted by Syrian crisis

Campaigns and Advocacy, Emergencies, Humanitarian Advocacy, Media Releases, News, Opinion article written on the 08 Oct 2013

If you’ve ever lived away from home, you’ve probably experienced those pangs of homesickness that can spring from nowhere. One minute, you’re going about your business and the next, something small will spark a memory of home, family or friends.

Imagine then, you are in the middle of a dusty desert. Home is just 30 kilometres away but there is a border crossing in the way. There’s also the question of your own and your family’s safety. Fighting and bombing has destroyed much of your community, there’s simply no way to get back – yet the memories of home remain strong.

This is the reality for more than 120,000 Syrian refugees living in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, which I recently visited. Forced to flee their homes due to war, they are living in demountables and tents on a four kilometre square patch of sand. This camp is so close to Syria that when a bomb goes off, you feel the ground shake.

At Za’atari camp, I heard refugees use mobile phones to stay in touch with loved ones. They shared stories, images and even video with family and friends still in war-torn Syria. In the capital Amman, I met a woman whose eldest son should be in year 9, but has had to quit school to work illegally on a construction site to help pay the bills. A father of five – including a one-year-old with serious heart problems – described his family’s living conditions surrounded by temporary latrines, rubbish and rubble as like a disease.

What struck me most was how similar these refugees were to us in Australia. Before the war, Syria was a middle-income country, with a bustling, cosmopolitan capital in Damascus.

All the refugees spoke warmly with me about their lives in Syria, the standard of the water, the quality of their food and the life in their communities. In Jordan, they feel like outsiders; their children are not able to go to school, it is difficult to access healthcare, and they are not able to work legally. They cannot wait until it is safe to return home.

Last week, we heard Australia is one of 17 developed countries that has offered to receive a combined total of 10,000 Syrian refugees. For this group of highly vulnerable people, the news could not come soon enough. But let’s keep it in perspective. This represents just a fraction – less than half a per cent – of the 2.1 million refugees who have been forced to flee the conflict in Syria.

For me, the experience brought home how critical it is for the international community to be shifting our focus from meeting immediate humanitarian needs, to a strategy that can meet the longer term needs of ordinary Syrians.

A long-term approach is critical for the Australian government too. Providing resettlement places to refugees is an important part of such a strategy but, alone, it is not the solution.

Achieving a peaceful political solution to the crisis must be the first priority, and Australia must pursue all channels of diplomacy, including its seat on the UN Security Council, to urge the US and Russia to ensure peace talks slated for mid November go ahead.

It will take years for Syria and its people to recover. Donor countries need to commit long-term relief and recovery funding that will help the people of Syria until they can return home and start rebuilding their lives – whenever that might be.

By Dr Helen Szoke, Chief Executive, Oxfam Australia.

This opinion piece was first published by the Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday 8 October 2013.