OTTAWA – Almost every day for the last two months, the lanky, wide-eyed Syrian boy asks his teacher when his parents will come to join him in northern Lebanon.
The boy fled Syria’s civil war — now in its 22nd month — with his aunt. What he doesn’t know is that his parents are among the estimated 60,000 people that the United Nations estimates have been killed in the war.
“Nobody knows when the aunt will tell him,” recalled a weary Patricia Erb, over the telephone late Wednesday night from Beirut.
Erb, the president of Save the Children Canada, visited the boy and his class of Syrian refugees the previous day, where she sat and listened to “all these individual, tragic stories.”
Canada announced Wednesday that it is contributing an additional $25 million to help people displaced by the Syrian crisis, bringing the country’s total contribution to $48 million to date.
But with no end in sight to the Syrian bloodshed, Erb and many others like her say much more will be needed.
Canada’s latest contribution will help provide food, water, shelter, medical care and safety for some of the estimated 700,000 refugees who have fled Syria into neighbouring countries, such as Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.
International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino announced the new Canadian funds Wednesday at an international donors’ conference in Kuwait. The UN exceeded the $1.5 billion goal it set for the Kuwait meeting.
But with record numbers of people fleeing Syria, the UN is predicting the regional refugee toll could reach the one million milestone.
Jordan, where about half the influx has arrived, has now reached its breaking point. The country has spent more than $830 million — or three per cent of its GDP — in financing the crisis.
“We have reached the end of the line,” King Abdullah II said Wednesday in Kuwait. “We have exhausted our resources.”
Toronto-based aid worker Melanie Sharpe, a UNICEF Canada spokeswoman, got a first-hand look at the pace of the escalating humanitarian crisis while spending three months last year working in Jordan’s largest refugee camp.
Sharpe first laid eyes on northern Jordan’s dusty, windblown Za’atari camp in July when it had about 2,000 occupants. When she departed in early November, the refugee population stood at 35,000.
This month, the camp has received its single largest influx of refugees with 40,000 new arrivals, 24,000 of them children. That’s a massive increase from the 16,000 people that crossed over from Syria in all of December.
Right now, children account for 58 per cent of Za’atari’s swelled population, Sharpe said Wednesday.
“I don’t like to think an entire generation of children is completely ruined,” she said. “But it’s undeniable this conflict is having a massive impact on especially children.”
As she watched the numbers swell, Sharpe also saw good things, such as the creation of a school, playgrounds and better infrastructure, including more toilets and showers.
Some of that helped ease the suffering of those who have been displaced from what in many cases were middle-class lives lived in houses with multiple bedrooms, backyards and running water.
But it wasn’t enough.
“I don’t think you can imagine the emotional distress children are living with after seeing relatives killed. I met children who spent months having their towns and villages bombed every night,” Sharpe recalled.
“I remember seeing children as young as two and three and four years old start screaming at the top of their lungs when planes would fly over the camp.”
Now, Za’atari’s population is swelling at the same time as a record cold spell hits that part of desert. The swirling wind storms that coated everyone in dust in the 40-degree July heat were replaced this month by driving rains that flooded great swaths of the newly constructed desert community.
Sharpe wonders about one particular family that she got to know early on during her time there last year: four children, with their bus driver father and their very pregnant mother.
The family’s fifth child has since been born in Za’atari.
Sharpe said she knows the family is still there because she gets updates from colleagues still working at the camp.
“I imagine, in this winter, it hasn’t been easy, especially when you’re a mother with five children, and one of them is an infant,” she said.
“This is very much a children’s emergency.”
Wednesday, January 30, 2013