Syria, The Middle East, and Fragile States by Steve Haas

Q: This past March marked the fifth year of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria. Can you give us an overview of the situation at this time?

S: As the years drag on, much of the world appears to have diverted their attention from the white hot crisis that is Syria. More than 150,000 people have been killed, including well over 10,000 children. I was completely unprepared by the numbers of those presently displaced. More than 3.9 million people have fled the country since conflict began, while over 6 million are internally displaced. Those who have made it out of the country have placed an enormous burden on nearby countries, primarily Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Within Syria, 12.2 million people need emergency aid.

Many in our relief space are calling this a “children’s crisis” as more than half of those affected are under 18. Children have been devastated by the conflict; they’ve lost homes, friends, family members and witnessed or experienced violence. 6.6 million children are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Humanitarian needs are growing but the knowledge of the crisis and level of funding is steadily decreasing. According to one recent report, in 2013, 71% of the funds needed to support civilians inside Syria and refugees in neighboring countries were provided. In 2014, this had declined to 57%. Per WV’s recent Harris Poll, when provided a list of choices, only 17% correctly identified this crisis as the active disaster that is currently affecting the most people.

Q: You have visited the region and have experienced first-hand the trauma and suffering that continues to occur. Can you tell us a story from the field that can give us a more personal understanding of what is happening?

S: In Lebanon, to be a relatively peaceful nation of roughly 4.4 million persons and suddenly become host to over 1.1 million traumatized and displaced Syrians is a stunning achievement. Those of us who call the “States” home had a collective scare last year when less than a thousand young people slipped across our southern border needing services. It is hard to contemplate the reaction if 80 million persons stepped across that same border in less than 5 years demanding asylum (rough equivalent).

I was deeply moved by one highly educated Muslim widow’s account of fleeing her Syrian neighborhood in the midst of a negotiated lull in the fighting. Sensing it was now or never, following days of constant bombardment from the various warring factions, she and her husband grabbed their two children, a few valuables and took to the street in hopes of safely reaching the Syrian border. Unfortunately, rules on truce aren’t uniformly followed and her husband was gunned down by a sniper in full view of the family. She described a harrowing journey through multiple impromptu checkpoints, gradually giving away anything of value in order to secure safe passage for her family of three.

I asked her if her children were the 4 and 3 year old boys, clutching one another in a corner of the crowded room. She stated no, but that in her traumatic flight to Lebanon, she had found these two wondering aimlessly in roughly the same direction as their parents were also killed in the conflict. Knowing of her destitution as a refugee, she was asked what she would do with the orphaned boys. “They’re my boys now, I will be their mother.”

With a historic crisis of over 9 million internally and externally displaced people, these stories of overwhelming tragedy and inspiring hope are commonplace.

Q: We have heard you talk about how World Vision and many who work in international development are increasingly focusing on the problem of fragile states. Why is this? How does this relate to the crisis in the Middle East?

S: While all of us can celebrate the tremendous gains the world has made in greatly reducing the numbers of those described as “abjectly poor” (living on less than $1.25/day), every poverty indices indicates that extreme poverty is concentrating in approximately 50 countries. These vulnerable populations suffer from poor to non-existent governance, corruption, lack of development, religious or tribal friction, violence, injustice or inhospitable geography. It’s for that reason that we refer to these nations as “Fragile States.”

Fragile States, places like Yemen, South Sudan, Syria, Haiti, Iraq hold 70% of the world’s infant deaths, 60% of the highest malnutrition rates and half of the most egregious human rights violations and violence. In these developmental contexts, an organization like ours often doesn’t have the convenience of governing bodies that shares or respect our faith, non-violent communities or educated and motivated local actors seeking empowerment. Staff like ours must show an ability to shape solutions to a more fluid environment, as conditions can change quickly.

In terms of the Middle East, the Arab Spring’s promise of freedom for all and a new age of peace in the region has all to quickly devolved into a violent struggle of tribes, political factions and fundamentalist faiths. As in the past, intense conflict is often fueled by larger international players with religious or economic interests; Iran and Saudi Arabia perhaps being the most prominent. Regardless, innocent children and their families bear the brunt of this chaos and a disproportional level of the suffering as a result. With Jesus as our guide, World Vision ministers to vulnerable people regardless of their faith or how they became that way.

Q: What cautions would you give to those who see what is happening in the Middle East and want to help?

S: First, we all need to understand that engagement by aid organizations will have a long-term view. This crisis will not end soon, even if all fighting between warring factions ceased immediately. We will be talking about the humanitarian situation for the next 10-15 years, according to our National Director in Lebanon. The people impacted by the crisis need a long term commitment to rebuild trust and community, therefore, we are looking for longer-term partners, people and groups willing to understand the complexity of the situation and help in ways that promote healing.

The people and communities impacted by the current events need trained care-givers familiar with acute psycho/social trauma or those keenly familiar with the divergence of cultures this crisis represents. It is for this reason, resourcing and praying for engaged indigenous churches, faith institutions or organizations like World Vision, embedded currently in the region is often the best first step.

Given the massive influx of refugee populations into fragile and often insecure host countries and the overwhelming burdens already shouldered by local groups engaged in assistance, personal margins are paper thin. Large groups of those seeking to provide aid, even with the best of intentions are typically not easily absorbed. Local leaders, who have the best awareness of the needs of the area need to be listened to and obeyed.

Q: Tell us a bit about how you’ve seen some of the religious dynamics play out in the region in the midst of this conflict.

S: Obviously, there are a host of media channels that have reported on all the religious groups engaged in the various Middle East hot spots. Unfortunately, the stories are typically about actions which betray the very faith tenants some of those same groups represent. As an organization that serves all who are in need, we’re given an opportunity to daily witness both the despair and hope that results from these human decisions.

In ministry to thousands of Muslim and Christian refugees, World Vision would be sorely limited if not for Islamic leaders who share our desire to care for “the least of these.” They are respectful of our Christian mandate and have given us significant access to the homeless populations we are all attempting to attend to.

On the flip side, I met one local Lebanese pastor whose congregation sits some 30 minutes from a significant Islamic State (ISIS) military position. For him, the influx of impoverished Syrian refugees into his largely middle class neighborhood was a direct response from God to the intercessions he and his congregation had prayed. He shared, “we asked the Lord to allow us to love the Syrians the way He loves us. We Prayed, and now we are drowning in Syrians (he held up his hand to his nose to represent the height of the imaginary waterline). At some point, this conflict will end and what these people take as they return to their country, will be what we give them.”

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Photo Credit: Jon Warren for World Vision