Administrator Shah at the Middle East Instititute Conference on Saving Syria’s Civilians


Good afternoon.

Let me begin by saying thank you to everyone who is gathered here today to discuss the urgency of the crisis in Syria and its impact across the region. There is—simply speaking—no more important discussion right now than this.

So thank you for your support and commitment. We need you to keep it up.

I wanted to use the opportunity this afternoon to share with you an update on the humanitarian situation and describe how new insights in development over the past decade are helping us shape a better, stronger response.

I was in Lebanon and Jordan just a few weeks ago, where the sheer scale of the crisis is demanding unprecedented creativity and flexibility as we work to relieve a historic burden on the region.

In Amman, I met a Syrian mother who has five young children and had lost touch with her husband nearly six months ago after he returned to Syria to check on their businesses. She is able to care for her children in a poor quarter of Amman thanks to food vouchers she uses at local stores.

I only met one mother that day.

But there are more than 11 million like her inside Syria and across the region—who have fled their homes or been cut off from their livelihoods.

And I only met a couple of children that day in Amman.

But of those 11 million, more than 5 million are children who have been affected by the crisis—lives that will never be the same.

Think about that.

It is as if every student in the 25 largest U.S. school districts—including New York, LA, Chicago, and Miami—had been affected by violence, hunger, disease, or malnutrition.

Since this time just last year, there are more than 4 times as many internally displaced people and 4 times as many refugees.

Over 40 percent of Syria’s population is now in need of humanitarian assistance.

The scale of this crisis is simply unprecedented.

In three years, we have seen a brutal civil war consume a country of engineers and artists; entrepreneurs and doctors; teachers and scientists.

A report issued by the United Nations last summer found that Syria has lost 35 years of development in just two years of conflict.

But even as we struggle to grasp the real meaning of these numbers, we cannot lose sight—as Secretary Kerry would say—of how this revolution began. Not with Scud missiles, barrel bombs, and systematic torture. But with graffiti cans and the peaceful protests of citizens calling for change.

The United States will continue to stand with the Syrian people against the brutality of Assad’s regime, but so long as the violence and bloodshed continues, no amount of humanitarian aid will stop the suffering.

There must be a political solution to this crisis.

A negotiated political transition—as outlined in the Geneva communiqué—represents the best opportunity to achieve this.

And as Secretary Kerry has said, Bashar Assad cannot be a part of a transitional government.

A man who holds his own country hostage; a man who retaliates against hospitals and doctors; a man who uses starvation as a weapon of war cannot possibly have any place in a peaceful Syria.

Our goal remains the same: a democratic, independent, inclusive, stable, and peaceful Syria.

And although, ultimately, Syrians themselves must chart their own path forward, Secretary Kerry and the U.S. government are working relentlessly toward a political solution that ends the violence and makes real the hopes of millions who want to come home.

But civilians cannot be allowed to serve as chess pieces in this process.

In Homs, people have been cut off from life-saving aid for months. In the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, 160,000 citizens are still waiting for clean water and other life-saving supplies that cannot get past the regime’s blockades.

Roads are closed to fighting and hundreds of checkpoints make aid delivery across conflict lines dangerous, complicated, and unreliable.

This is unacceptable. Lives are at stake.

As Secretary Kerry has said, “If the regime can allow access to United Nations and international weapons inspectors, surely it can do the same for neutral, international humanitarian assistance.”

The Syrian regime has the power to open these areas for life-saving aid tomorrow, and we must continue to keep the eyes of the entire world trained on them until they do.

Despite the challenges, there are aid workers, doctors, and nurses who risk their lives every day to bring medicines, perform surgeries, and deliver food in regions torn apart by violence. Since the crisis began, more than a hundred NGO workers have been killed, tortured, or abducted.

Not all of them have been caught in the crossfire. Many have been directly targeted for their life-saving work.

They are the true humanitarian heroes.

And thanks to their sacrifices and the efforts of thousands of their colleagues, we are saving lives every day.

We’re providing food, clean water, shelter, medical care and relief supplies to help 1.4 million refugees and 4.2 million people in Syria, including in the most ravaged areas like Dar’a and Aleppo.

Majd and his family were among them when intense fighting forced them to flee Homs. When his family arrived in Tartous, they had nothing but each other and the clothing on their backs.

They managed to find shelter in a small room in a shared apartment with other displaced Syrian, but this new “home” was in no condition to protect them.

They were sleeping on cold, hard floors, until our partners provided them with mattresses, extra thermal blankets, and winter clothing to help keep the family warm.

It may not sound like much—but it will keep them safe and sound through the winter.

At the same time, nearly one million patients have been treated at the 260 field hospitals and clinics we help support. Last spring, with the onset of warmer weather, we worked with our partners to establish an early warning system for communicable diseases.

Earlier this month, in Kuwait, Secretary John Kerry announced an additional $380 million in humanitarian assistance—bringing our total contribution to more than $1.7 billion.

Among many other things, this new funding is helping ensure that vaccination campaigns continue for millions of children.

We remain deeply concerned by Syria’s 23 confirmed cases of polio and the spread of other infectious diseases. The mere fact that polio has resurfaced in Syria—a disease that was eradicated more than a decade ago in the country—is a grave indicator of the dangers Syria’s children face and the consequences of the deteriorating crisis.

Today, the UN is leading the largest-ever polio vaccination campaign in the region, aimed at immunizing approximately 20 million children across the Middle East, including 2.2 million kids in Syria.

In March, we will mark the third anniversary of this crisis.

And although I know it seems like there’s no end in sight, we cannot forget the progress we have made.

As a result of key insights that we’ve learned over the past decade in doing this work, we have been able to shape the most robust and largest humanitarian response effort in history.

And although it is not a solution, it has meant—far too often—the difference between life and death.

In our Agency alone, for instance, the Syrian crisis draws on the staff and expertise from three different bureaus, four country desks, and half-a-dozen different offices.

It can be tempting—in this system—to bury ourselves, put up barriers, and protect our turf. We’re doing just the opposite.

Instead of organizing our response country-by-country, we are adopting an integrated approach to address the impact of the crisis on the entire Middle East.

And we’re bridging our humanitarian and development efforts with an overarching focus on resilience that supports country-led plans.

Today, the first time ever, both Jordan and Lebanon have resilience plans in place to help their countries withstand the impact of the crisis and keep their borders open to Syrians in need.

Today, almost 2.5 million Syrian refugees now live in neighboring countries, threatening the development of an already fragile region.

In Lebanon, 1 out of every 5 people is from Syria. In some cases, Syrian refugees now outnumber local populations.

In Jordan, the influx has been so significant it’s as if the entire population of Canada moved to the United States over the course of about 18 months.

In both countries, the greatest concentration of refugees overlaps with the poorest communities—putting pressure in precisely the settings least able to handle their needs.

As a result, many of our development portfolios in neighboring Lebanon and Jordan are being adapted or added to in some way to address this emergency.

In Jordan, one of the driest countries in the world, we are providing $20 million through our Complex Crises Fund to help communities manage their precious water resources.

We’ve set up a revolving credit fund so families have loans to install cisterns for harvesting rainwater. Half of all borrowers are women, repayment rates are very high—and most importantly—this effort has helped nearly 38,000 people secure access to water.

We have also worked with local school systems to accommodate Syrian children, especially since more than half of all refugees in Jordan and Lebanon are estimated to be of school-age.

In Lebanon, we’ve helped rehabilitate over 180 public schools and get science lab equipment to more than 230 secondary schools. In some areas, we have helped schools adjust their schedules so that Jordanian children can learn in the morning and Syrian kids in the afternoon.

We want to be sure that this devastating crisis that has robbed them of their homes—and in some cases their families—doesn’t also rob them of their future.

That is why we have joined the “No Lost Generation” initiative, which brings together an international coalition committed to raising awareness about their plight, protecting them from violence, and getting them back into schools.

Many have been out of school for over two years, and nearly 4,000 of their schools in Syria are sheltering displaced families or have been damaged or destroyed.

And yet, the future of a democratic, stable Syria depends on these young people. We can ill afford to lose their entire generation to hopelessness and despair.

We encourage you to get involved in “No Lost Generation.” Make it big—and don’t stop telling the stories of Syrian youth. They’re counting on you.

Finally, even as we focus on meeting the urgency of every single day, we have to ensure that the needs and rights of women are addressed and elevated throughout our work.

Today, Syrian women sit on both regime and opposition negotiating delegations. And they represent civil society organizations in front of negotiators and the UN Security Council.

As we speak, Syrian women across the region and inside of Syria are taking on non-traditional roles because men aren’t there.

They are negotiating ceasefires; rescuing child soldiers; assisting detainees; and serving as witnesses to ever-changing reality on the ground.

Without their voices, there can be no lasting peace. It’s that simple.

This crisis is far from over.

Humanitarian assistance is not the solution, but it is saving countless lives and protecting the most vulnerable. We will continue to do more, but we can’t do it alone.

We need new donors to step forward and contribute through UN appeals. And we need each of you to raise awareness in your own communities. Keep the pressure on and the commitment strong.

Over the last few months, we have seen a number of non-traditional partners come forward—and that’s great. But we need everyone to step up not only today. Not only tomorrow. But every day into the foreseeable future.

As we do, the promise of a peaceful and democratic Syria will grow stronger, and the day will grow nearer when the efforts of thousands of humanitarians from around the world will thankfully no longer be needed.

Thank you.

- Cross posted from USAID.gov

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