As winter sets in, concern grows for the people of Syria and those who’ve fled to neighbouring countries.
Tearfund is working with these refugees and we plan to continue and expand our work.
Our News Editor, Andrew Horton, spoke to Kieren Barnes, Middle East Response Director, to find out how we’ve got here, what’s happening and what we can do:
What’s it like to be a Syrian living in Syria today?
For many Syrians today things are getting worse. War continues and the shelling in cities and towns has not stopped – in some places it has intensified.
We recently heard from people living in Aleppo that the economic situation is deteriorating even more, which is hard to imagine. Food and basic needs continue to be a daily struggle and after six years of war this is taking its toll, both physically and mentally.
How has Tearfund been responding to the crisis?
Our main focus has been on the large number of refugees who‘ve fled the conflict. For five years now we’ve been providing food and basic needs to desperate people who have left almost everything behind. In the cold winter months we have provided blankets and kits to help the families cope with the cold, as they live in tarpaulin shelters.
Our partners have helped provide trauma care for women as they discuss in groups what they have experienced, helping them process and move forward. We have also been pioneering men’s groups where training and fitness is mixed in with discussion and trauma care. The men come from different religions and backgrounds, but they open up and share their experiences – being in a mixed group can really help with the healing process.
Where have the Syrian people fled to, and how have those countries coped?
Lebanon and Jordan have both taken in huge numbers of refugees from Syria. They have opened their doors and been willing to carry this burden. Tearfund has been standing with them to help them cope with the influx over the last few years. We continue to work with partners on the ground, providing the basic needs as well as the trauma care support I previously mentioned.
Some of the bigger challenges have been centred around education. In Lebanon there are over half a million refugee children. The pressures on the school system are immense and unfortunately many children will go without formal education for a number of years. In recent years Tearfund has been working on some protection projects in the schools to support children who have experienced trauma or who might still be at risk in vulnerable homes.
We are also working with a peacebuilding partner that focuses on school children, particularly teenagers. When you have a large number of refugees and limited resources tensions can rise. We are working with teenagers to build peace for the next generation, helping them cope with frustrations, hatred and anger. We are working with them, helping them to appreciate their differences and appreciate one another.
We know it will take a while for the situation in Syria to resolve so we continue to provide for the basic emergency needs, as well as offer trauma care and protection projects. We look to the future and the future generations to build peace in communities.
When we see stories and images from Syria on the news it’s often heartbreaking and seems a hopeless situation. Is this the reality?
Unfortunately Syria continues to experience a brutal conflict which is causing huge devastation to communities, both in people's lives but also to the infrastructure.
We know that the destruction of property has been overwhelming in cities like Homs and Aleppo and other parts of Syria. It will take years to rebuild and restore the nation.
Throughout my time working in the Middle East I have found that virtually everyone wants to stay in their home, their family and community. They only leave because they are desperate and are doing so to save their lives.
I have also heard time and time again the desperation of refugees to return home, to go back to living in peace and stability.
For me this shows the picture of what the situation is really like, families don’t leave home without a good reason and the volume of refugees paints the picture of the scale of the tragedy.
We need to be there to help people as they cope living as refugees. We also need to be there as they return, to help them rebuild their lives, and help bring peace to the region.
Why has the Syria crisis captured public attention so much?
Syria was a strong, developed country prior to the current crisis and unfortunately it descended into a difficult state so rapidly and to some extent unexpectedly.
It has been a global crisis not only involving local politics but also international politics.
The pressure to respond has not only fallen within the country itself but those around and wider still to all the corners of the globe as desperate people just trying to survive are looking for hope and somewhere to stay while the conflict is ongoing.
The scale of the crisis in Syria has at times been at record levels with unprecedented numbers which we just haven’t seen before. For people in the UK this crisis has come to the cities, towns and villages and in many ways we have all been affected by it.
I think more than anything the impact this crisis has had on children has really affected us, whether it is children trying to cross the mediterranean sea, escape the shelling in the cities or survive in tents in foreign lands with nowhere to go.
We are in real danger of having a generation of Syrian children growing up with limited or no education. They have only ever known conflict.
How important is it to keep this public attention on Syria and its people?
Having the public aware of what’s happening in Syria and the other crises in the Middle East is vital. The more we share and the more we understand the better we can speak out to those in power who can have a positive impact on the ground.
I would encourage Tearfund supporters to spend more time learning and understanding what is happening across the Middle East, so they can direct their support in the most effective way.
When I meet refugees they are often desperate to tell their story, of their experiences at home, the journey they have made and the new life they find themselves in.
Often it does not feel like you are doing much when you are sitting drinking tea with someone who is telling their story. However, when I leave I feel envisioned and commissioned to tell that story to others.
When sitting with that person I commit to them that I will tell this to others and I have seen the encouragement that brings to people. It may not seem much to us but I know it brings hope. The principle that others want to know these stories, that other people care about what is happening to them is very powerful.
What are the main needs for Syria and its people today?
The emergency needs continue in Syria and the surrounding countries.
The challenge of providing for so many who are displaced within the country and in the region is still overwhelming and as the crisis continues over such a long period, fatigue often sets in over funding and support. Despite this, the needs continue and are often increasing.
People continue to need support with shelter, healthcare, surviving the cold winter months and receiving support for the trauma they have experienced.
It is not a message people want to hear, but it’s the truth and we cannot hide from that.
Does Tearfund have plans to expand its work with Syrian refugees?
Our team in the Middle East is transitioning in the year ahead, looking to expand our work in protection needs and particularly to focus on trauma care and prevention of sexual and gender-based violence.
We will continue to provide for emergency basic needs but we now also want to look more deeply into some of the long-term solutions and prevention of future problems.
This prevention will come through the protection work we do with men and women and also with children. We will be increasing our peacebuilding work as we support communities to live with the situation they find themselves in.
The coming year will be a key time for us as we expand in these areas and engage more with partners on the ground in the Middle East – partners who are from these communities and who are passionate to work with the most vulnerable and those suffering, no matter their race, nationality, faith background.
What’s your key message to Tearfund supporters today?
I think the key message is don’t give up on Syria and the Middle East.
It is when a crisis drags on that we need to be the most steely and determined to bring hope to the hopeless, to bring life and healing to those who are still so desperate.
The stories will keep coming from this region, stories of struggles and challenges, stories that will break your heart, but we cannot give up, we must be determined to keep going and walking with these men, women and children who are in such need. This is the time when it counts more than ever.
Please keep Syria and the Middle East in your thoughts, please keep reading up and learning more about the context and do find ways to speak up on behalf of those whose voices are struggling to be heard.