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BEIRUT— As calls for military intervention in Syria reach a fever pitch, Oxfam America president Raymond C. Offenheiser is visiting with Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon this week. On Sunday at Zaatari refugee camp, the second largest camp in the world and home to thousands of harrowing stories of heartbreak and hope, Offenheiser underscored the responsibility of world leaders, including President Obama, to deliver a just and lasting resolution to the deepening crisis. With uncertain aims and the potential for further harm to innocent civilians, Offenheiser expressed grave concern about calls for U.S. military intervention in Syria.
“The Syrians we meet are crying out for peace,” said Offenheiser. “Ultimately, there must be a political solution to the crisis. Military intervention should be an option of last resort. In such a complex conflict, it carries high risks for civilians, unclear benefits and could further threaten regional stability. Instead, we urge President Obama and President Putin to act now—use the G20 platform this week to intensify peaceful efforts to stop the bloodshed and expand humanitarian aid to those in need.”
The United Nations announced today that 2 million Syrian refugees are registered in neighboring countries, including 1 million children. Both Lebanon and Jordan together are hosting more than 1 million Syrians. Zaatari camp alone is equivalent to Jordan’s fourth largest city. Yet, more than 80% of refugees in neighboring countries live outside of refugee camps, many of them struggling to afford rent and essentials.
A staggering 7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria. More than 100,000 lives have been lost in the conflict—nearly 150 per day. And while U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have made repeated commitments to hold an international peace conference, their commitment has gone unfulfilled.
“While there are no easy answers to ending the complex crisis,” said Offenheiser, “increased high-level diplomacy is crucial. We will not stand by silently and allow innocent civilians to suffer. Prolonged conflict will result in more death, displacement and suffering, and threatens to destabilize the region. The United States, Russia, the United Nations and other powers must set their differences aside and use their political influence to get all parties to the Syria conflict around the table for talks, without delay.”
Shortly after reports of chemical attacks surfaced by credible aid organizations, Oxfam unequivocally condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria, along with the continued indiscriminate killing of civilians.
Concern about arms
The organization is using its decades of humanitarian experience in some of the most difficult environments in the world to carry out emergency response to the crisis in Lebanon, Jordan and inside Syria. Already, Oxfam has reached more than 200,000 people with essential aid and aims to reach as many as 500,000 additional people in the months ahead. But concern is growing about the escalation of the conflict and its consequences on the ability of people to access the aid they need.
“We’re deeply disappointed that the Obama administration has agreed to send weapons to parties to the conflict,” said Offenheiser. “In the absence of political solutions, such support seriously risks further fueling violence and human rights abuses in Syria and sparking an arms race with deadly consequences for people in the region.”
Oxfam’s work in Jordan and Lebanon
In Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, facilities are stretched to the limit. Oxfam has installed toilets, showers and laundry areas to help more than 20,000 people, with plans to expand assistance to other parts of the camp. Oxfam is also coordinating hygiene training to prevent the spread of life-threatening diseases. Outside Zaatari, Oxfam is working with vulnerable refugees living in informal settlements, providing household items they might not otherwise be able to afford.
In Lebanon, Oxfam is assisting refugees with cash for safe housing and basic hygiene goods for their homes. In other parts of Lebanon, Oxfam is improving the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) conditions, including through the improvement of facilities at household level to ensure people, many of whom are living in makeshift settlements, have access to safe water and sanitation facilities.
Oxfam is also raising awareness of specific challenges faced by women caught up in the crisis. A new study published today by Oxfam and the Beirut-based ABAAD-Resource Centre for Gender Equality finds that women are bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis with the majority of the women interviewed saying they had resorted to desperate measures to survive. Many women are regularly going hungry so their children and husbands can eat. Around 90% of women interviewed said they regularly skip meals because there is simply not enough food to go round.
The report, Shifting Sands, studies the different pressures facing men and women refugees from Syria living in Lebanon and finds that the roles of both women and men refugees have changed.
Colette Fearon, Oxfam’s Syria Response Manager, said, “Life has been turned upside down for the men, women and children who have been forced to flee. But many refugee women are showing courage, strength and organizational skills as they struggle against the odds to rebuild life for their families and hold things together.
“The stress of living as refugees is tearing many families apart. Many simply don’t have enough to eat – and husbands and wives who never used to argue now row each day. The pressures are mounting and people are pushed to extremes. War can bring out the worst in people and we heard worrying reports of rising domestic violence from the refugees we spoke to.”