Syrians at home and abroad try to ease humanitarian crisis


A Syrian woman stands near fire to warm herself at a refugee camp in Azaz, Syria, Monday, Dec. 17, 2012. Thousands of Syrian refugees who fled their homes due to fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and government forces, face cold weather as temperatures dropped to 2 degrees Celsius (36 degrees Fahrenheit) in Azaz. (Manu Brabo/Associated Press)
December 18, 2012

Syrians at home and abroad are pouring millions of dollars and other aid into their country in an effort to ease a growing humanitarian crisis that is straining relief agencies, opposition groups and neighboring states.

Donors ranging from businessmen in Dubai to covert ad hoc aid agencies in besieged Damascus, Syria, are trying to quell the cold, hunger and homelessness facing growing numbers of their compatriots as the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad approaches its third year.

As the slow but sure rebel advance into government territory spreads a war that has claimed more than 40,000 lives, some Syrians say suffering — and the displacement of as many as 2.5 million people — is the price of the hands-off international approach to the conflict.

Gamal, an activist in the opposition-controlled Damascus suburb of Douma, said conditions had grown desperate since distributions of rice and flour from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent stopped two months ago. He, like many of the other Syrians interviewed, declined to give his full name out of concern for his safety.

“The people are burning their furniture for heating, bread lines stretch to tens of meters, we have no electricity,” he said. “The regime is mainly responsible for this dire situation, but the opposition abroad and the international community are as well.”

Valerie Amos, the top U.N. humanitarian official, on Monday urged the Syrian regime to allow fuel and more aid agencies in the country to help deal with the worsening crisis.

Aid agencies and others say hunger is reaching alarming proportions, as the armed rebellion spawned by the 21-month old uprising against the Assad regime presses deeper into government held-areas and the resulting conflict cuts more supply lines. The U.N. World Food Program warned this month that the deteriorating security situation meant aid groups were unable to reach 1 million people at risk of starvation.

The Syrian Business Council for Relief and Development, a Dubai-based group of pro-opposition business people, said it had this week distributed the first batch of a 2,000 ton consignment of wheat sent to northern Syria via the Turkish border at a cost of $1 million. Rahif Hakemi, the group’s chairman, said much of a total of $6 million donated by its members would be spent on relieving acute bread shortages in long-time battle zones, such as Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, where government forces have, according to rights groups, targeted food supplies in opposition-held areas.

“There is going to be starvation in Syria because of the lack of flour,” Hakemi said. “The regime is systematically attacking the bakeries and food stores — it’s part of the punishment.”

Cold also is a deadly threat to many Syrians. The head of the country’s state-owned oil distribution company has said supplies of heating oil are down 40 percent, a shortfall he blamed on sanctions and rebel attacks on pipelines.

Across the border in Jordan, host to some of the almost 500,000 Syrian refugees in neighboring states, a U.N. official said the organization risked not being able to keep arrivals in the Zaatari facility warm because it was short of cash.

“We have to be prepared for 100,000 coming in the not-too-distant future,” said Andrew Harper, Jordan representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. “We don’t have the money to procure the necessary heaters, prefabs and winterized tents.”

In the face of this overwhelming need, some Syrians have given up on international relief efforts, such as the diaspora member who is sending about $550 a month from the United Arab Emirates to help her family in a community near the southern city of Dera’a, where the uprising began.

Another young professional has raised $5,000, mainly through cooking typical Syrian meals for 40 friends and acquaintances in Europe — money she plans to split between nuns organizing relief efforts and six families who have taken refuge in her grandparents’ house.

“At least I will make sure this money will not go to buy arms,” she said. “I know it is a small thing, and Syria needs more of big organizations’ help, but this is what I can do.”

Inside Syria, underground groups have sprung up to give aid separately from official regime-approved efforts, the secrecy a reflection that offering help even to civilians in opposition areas can be viewed by the regime as a political act.

Another young Syrian said a friend of hers from the Damascus suburbs was arrested by the regime three months ago after he delivered food, clothes and medicine — and collected toys for displaced children so that they could celebrate the end of the Muslim Ramadan fast in August “like other kids.”

“There are hundreds of these activists who lie now in Syrian prisons simply because they were caught transferring aid to displaced families,” she said.

— Financial Times

Fielding-Smith in Beirut contributed to this report.

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