The recent visits of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and actress/director and Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Angelina Jolie to the Za’atri camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan drew attention to the plight of the refugees, and will hopefully increase support by individual and government donors to aid programs. But focusing on refugee camps shows only one aspect of life in exile. Of the half million Syrian refugees, some two-thirds live in cities and villages and not in refugee camps.
I traveled in late November to Jordan and Lebanon and met five families who had fled the violence in Syria and were trying to survive as refugees outside of camps.
In Amman, we were welcomed by two Syrian brothers who had married two sisters. One couple had five children. The other couple was expecting their first child. I asked how they were paying the rent while unemployed, and learned their landlady had allowed them to stay for several months on credit, while they searched for jobs. Vouchers provided by the international non-profit CARE, an implementing partner of UNHCR, helped cover medical care for the expectant mother.
In Beirut, we met a family with six children — five born in Syria and the baby, born since coming to Lebanon. All eight had come that day to be registered at the UNHCR offices, where the line of refugees stretched down the street. I asked the mother how the family was coping, and she shared how difficult it is to feed and care for her family and the challenges of French-language education system for her Arabic-speaking children.
Finally, we spoke with two Palestinian refugee couples. One had been living in Yarmouk, a Palestinian district in Damascus, and the other in Saida in Rif Damascus, the area outside of and surrounding the capital city. Both had found housing in Shatila, a crowded neighborhood of 8,500 Palestinians registered with UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for providing services like schooling and healthcare to Palestinians. Both men were unemployed. Local authorities had refused to help the families and instead directed them to UNRWA because they are Palestinian.
The strains of the refugee life could be detected as the voice of one of the women began to break whenever she mentioned the home they had left behind. She was pregnant and clearly distressed at having to start over in such reduced circumstances; her husband noted that they were living with three other families in a one-room shelter.
The problems confronted by these families illustrate the challenges of life as urban refugees. Certainly living in neighborhoods and villages gives them a better chance at pursuing a normal life. Thanks to the generosity of host governments, their children can attend school, adults can seek jobs on the local economy, families have freedom of movement and can shop — benefiting local shopkeepers — and prepare their own meals. But to survive, they need help with visas, residency and work permits and sufficient cash to pay rent, buy food and pay for school supplies and medical services.
The burden of already hosting Palestinian and Iraqi refugees makes it harder for Jordan and Lebanon to welcome this new influx of refugees. Schools are being run in double shifts to accommodate more children. Most troubling to me were reports from aid agencies that the welcome initially extended to the refugees was evaporating as refugees competed against local people for jobs and services.
We thanked government officials in both Jordan and Lebanon for keeping their borders open, and asked them to treat all refugees from Syria equitably and not discriminate against Palestinians.
My main message to the government officials, aid workers, and refugees with whom we met was: You are not alone. The U.S. government leads in providing humanitarian aid to help cope with the crisis and has provided over $210 million in humanitarian aid to the region. A portion of this helps renovate shelters, assist with rent payments and provide food vouchers for refugees living in host communities. American generosity alone, however, is not sufficient to respond to every problem confronted by the refugees and the host countries cannot manage it all, either. A strong international response is needed and is a goal of American diplomacy. We need to continue to find ways to reach this invisible population of refugees and assist the stretched host communities sheltering them.
Cross posted from DipNote, the official blog of the U.S. Department of State