Bandow: U.S. must assist refugees

Doug Bandow

Syrians are everywhere, an aid worker in Beruit told me. “Everybody is poor now.” Well over a million Syrians are scattered across Lebanon, many in small “tented settlements.” Almost half live in sub-standard housing; many lack fuel and warm clothes for winter.

Jordan hosts even more Syrians at greater cost. (So does Turkey, though it is larger and wealthier.) Six of every 7 refugees live in poverty.

Almost five years of civil war have killed a quarter of a million Syrians, wrecked the country, created economic catastrophe and displaced millions. As many as five million people have fled to surrounding countries.

Thus, the stampede of Syrian migrants to Europe should not surprise. Americans traditionally have offered sanctuary to those fleeing repression and war. But not now.

Still, Americans can contribute financially. With governments falling short of expectations, private relief groups have greater responsibility. Yet they also have suffered financially as people’s attention has wandered.

Nevertheless, NGOs offer the best means for Americans to help Syrians in need. Earlier this year I traveled with International Orthodox Christian Charities to Lebanon and Jordan to view several aid projects. Since 2012 the charity has helped more than 3.2 million Syrians throughout the Middle East.

Much of IOCC’s work is conducted in Syria. More than half of Syria’s population now is estimated to require outside aid.

Assistance runs the gamut, starting with emergency food, infant care, clothing, and bedding. IOCC repairs sanitation and water systems, helps provide shelter, and supports education.

As the war rages on the destruction mounts. One aid official lamented: “Buildings can be rebuilt. You cannot rebuild human beings.”

IOCC has been active in Lebanon since 2001, when it began aiding Lebanese still recovering from their civil war, which ended only in 1990. One program which I visited focused on mother-child nutrition, from conception up to five years. The “public health system was overwhelmed by refugees,” explained Rana Hage of IOCC.

IOCC also trains Lebanese agencies to educate mothers and provide emergency assistance. Tens of thousands of children have been screened and hundreds have been rescued from malnutrition.

I visited a community kitchen, one of two which helps feed 1,750 people. IOCC underwrote a large, efficient cooking facility and hired local women to cook. Pots of food are distributed to needy families — both refugee and resident.

The agency also establishes water/wash facilities while providing hygiene education to reduce disease. Here as elsewhere IOCC hires staff from areas being served. Unfortunately, the job is never done.

Jordan may be less fragile than Lebanon, but suffers greatly as well. Some 80,000 people are crowded into Jordan’s Zaatari Refugee Camp, well-organized but with very basic conditions, sitting only a few miles from Syria.

With most refugees living outside the camps, IOCC works outside as well, even making home visits for those unable to travel. The group provides everything from school uniforms — required to attend Jordanian schools — to infant supplies and household items. IOCC also provides vocational training and English instruction.

IOCC’s identity is Christian. But it serves the needy without discrimination. In the Middle East the charity mostly aids Muslims. IOCC seeks to moderate the immediate crisis while preparing people for a better future.

Of course, even the best humanitarian efforts can only do so much. One top IOCC official worried: “Funding is going to diminish next year. Donors are not going to be there.”

Unless more Americans and other people of good will around the world step up to address Syria’s humanitarian disaster. Centuries ago Christ called on his listeners to help the “least among us.” We must meet that challenge today.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.