Three years of conflict in Syria

Nigel Timmins reflects on his experience of helping refugees in Asia, Africa and now the Middle East

The story of Sabeen who fled Syria just 24 hours after giving birth to her baby will stay with me forever.

As she sat on the floor of her caravan in Zaatari camp, Jordan, she quietly looked into the distance and told me how, when approaching her due date, she had been forced to leave her home in Syria.  Sabeen’s neighbor’s house had just been razed to the ground by heavy shelling – and she and her husband feared their house might be next.

So, they left suddenly with their children, carrying only a few possessions with them to the next village and asked to stay the night in the village hall.  Whilst there she went into labor and gave birth with only her husband to help her.  As the shelling moved closer, Sabeen and her husband were scared their family might be hit again and so within 24 hours of giving birth Sabeen and her husband were on the move once again.

After weeks of moving from place to place they made the difficult decision to take their newly-born baby from the country of its birth and to leave Syria for the safety of Jordan many miles away. They didn’t know when they would ever return.

I remember how my wife felt just 24 hours after she had given birth to our son, and I wondered how this quiet, strong and dignified woman in front of me had survived such a trip. I think the answer is that she simply had no other choice.

Over the years, my work has largely taken me to Asia and Africa to deal with some of the major emergencies of our time – in countries such as Afghanistan, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I had never worked in Syria before – there had been no real need. It was a middle income country with decent healthcare, education and water and sanitation infrastructure.

But all that has changed and the United Nations has had made its largest appeal for humanitarian funds ever – calling for $6.5 billion. It is an unimaginable amount of money – but it’s a sad comment on the scale of this devastating conflict that it’s not even enough to help the millions of people we know are in desperate need – both inside Syria and in neighboring countries.

I remember seeing the pictures on the TV of crowds demonstrating in town squares, in 2011, during those very early days of the conflict. Many of those who left Syria during that first year or so were relatively well-off and either stayed with family members or had the means to rent accommodation themselves. They certainly didn’t consider themselves to be refugees but planned to return when the situation inside Syria stabilized.

But by the tail-end of 2012 the situation was changing significantly and it became clear that the slow trickle of fairly affluent people who had initially left Syria, was turning into a steady flow of refugees in desperate need.

It was months and months before we could secure the right permissions to start our work inside Syria and that was deeply frustrating. But now we are able to provide clean, fresh water to over half a million people inside Damascus and its suburbs.

We started to help refugees who had fled to Lebanon and Jordan – providing water and sanitation facilities and cash support to help refugees pay rent and buy the basics.

This conflict is relentless – devastating so many lives each day. Over 9 million people are now in need inside Syria and over 2.5 million refugees have been forced to flee. I fear that the outlook is bleak. We need to see a breakthrough, a turning point that will provide a lasting peace which will enable people to start to recover from the trauma of the last few years and rebuild their lives.

Peace talks must urgently resume – people cannot afford to wait much longer. These are people whose lives have been destroyed – I have met a restaurant-owner, a policeman, a postmaster, for example. None of them had ever imagined they would end up as refugees living in a tent. They want an end to this life in limbo.

When the fighting does finally stop, then the work to rebuild the cities that have been destroyed will begin in earnest. With the right commitment, funds, and time it can be done. But rebuilding communities that have been torn apart will take longer – far longer. It will take generations for people to overcome the divisions that have grown up where trust used to be.

I sometimes wonder how I would cope if I was in the same position as the refugees I meet through my work. Say there was a conflict in the UK and my family and I suddenly found ourselves in France as refugees? I like to think that there would be people there who would help me as we – and the generous people of Syria’s neighboring countries – are trying to help others now.

Nigel Timmins is Oxfam’s Deputy Humanitarian Director. Sabeen’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

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