Breaking Down the Numbers of the Syrian Refugee Crisis

A Syrian refugee stands on top of a water tank at Zaatari refugee camp, near the Syrian border in Mafraq, Jordan, January 9, 2013. (AP File Photo)

A Syrian refugee stands on top of a water tank at Zaatari refugee camp, near the Syrian border in Mafraq, Jordan, January 9, 2013. (AP File Photo)

Caroline Raclin is a Special Assistant in the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) at the U.S. Department of State. She traveled with a joint State Department-USAID delegation to Turkey, Jordan, and Kuwait January 22-31, 2013.

It was near midnight. We were driving in the desert with no headlights, and Syria was 20 feet to my left. To the right was a mass of shapes — it took me a minute to realize I was looking at 850 Syrians who had just crossed safely into Jordan. One man was carrying designer luggage normally seen in airplane cabins; one girl had no shoes. I walked amongst these scared, war-numbed people, and it hit me that this was only a tiny portion of those leaving Syria.

Roughly 763,000 people have fled Syria — 240,000 to Jordan — and an estimated 2.5 million are displaced internally. Before that night, those numbers seemed horrific, but had little real meaning to me. They are round statistics, indicators of an escalating war. But after hearing a woman recall her husband’s death and a family describe their village being leveled by barrels of explosives, I better understood the scale and frequency of atrocities.

The next day we visited Za’atri camp, where some refugees I met that night are now living. They had received a sturdy tent, bedding, and food rations. There is an area for children to play, many health clinics, and psychosocial support for survivors of gender-based violence. Though not comparable to their former lives in Syria, Za’atri is a safe place for families to heal. The difference between their situation the previous night in the desert and that morning in Za’atri was astounding.

We also met refugees settled in the town of Mafraq; roughly 70 percent of all refugees in Jordan live in urban areas. One family, headed by an elderly woman and including 13 children, was receiving rental assistance from humanitarian organizations. A man was using food vouchers to shop at the local market. Though the vouchers didn’t cover Nutella, he also bought it as a rare treat for his kids.

So where is this assistance coming from? While the generosity of host communities cannot be overestimated, the majority of assistance has been provided by the international community; and the United States has been both a principal financial supporter and leading humanitarian advocate for the Syrian people. The United States has given $365 million, including $155 million at a recent conference intended to bolster the UN response to Syria. Over 50 countries pledged more than $1.5 billion, and the UN will use this money to help those inside Syria and in neighboring countries.

Once again, the numbers are mindboggling. I can’t imagine what $1.5 billion looks like, so I think about it another way: $3,200 buys one prefabricated trailer for a family of five. $80 provides enough food vouchers to feed two children for a month. $150 buys blankets for 10 young men in the bitter winter.

Sadly, the continuing war will result in thousands more Syrians fleeing their homes. But instead of being cowed by the unfathomable numbers, I will remember the terrified families that night on the Syrian border and know that this is both a mass and an individual crisis.

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