Abbotsford News editor Andrew Holota is reporting on the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan and Lebanon this week, with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB), one of the nation’s largest non-governmental aid organizations. It has been funding refugee relief in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria since the summer. CFGB is a partnership of 15 churches and church agencies, partnering with a number of NGOs in Jordan and Lebanon, assisting them with funding to deliver aid.
Abbotsford is an important donor community for CFGB, which receives 4-1 Canadian government matching funds and partners with other NGOs such as World Renew in Canada and around the world to deliver food aid.
Religion is deeply embedded in the foundations of the violent Syrian civil war, and ironically, it is religion that is also coming to the rescue.
Deeper than the spreading revolution of the recent Arab Spring in the Middle East is historic friction between Sunni and Shia Muslims, with minority Christians often caught in the middle.
More than two years of bloody, grinding conflict in Syria has created a miserable wave of humanity flowing into neighbouring countries including Jordan and Lebanon – more than three million, and counting.
The immense humanitarian need is seeing huge efforts from international aid organizations such as the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), however, the sheer magnitude of response creates corresponding cracks though which refugees fall.
One family living in UN-provided tents on the outskirts of the city of Irbid, Jordan, say they applied to the UNHCR for aid a year ago, after initially living in a camp in Jataari. They’ve received nothing further, they maintain.
Pouring help into those gaps are organizations that are minuscule by comparison – local Arab Christian churches.
Faith-based agencies such as the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, and one of its members, World Renew, seek out such partners on the ground to deliver aid, while mosques undertake similar efforts, although they primarily assist only Muslims.
Churches are an effective and efficient means through which to distribute food and non-food assistance. They are established institutions in the towns and cities receiving the huge influx of refugees, with local knowledge and networks that can quickly identify families in need.
Due to the work of congregation volunteers, and a high degree of accountability, churches also represent a low-cost means of delivering aid.
Fear and distrust looms large in this humanitarian crisis. Even if they don’t take political sides, fleeing Syrians are coming from either government or opposition-held areas. Hoping to return one day, they have no idea who will be in control, and many are afraid they’ll be persecuted, or worse, upon their return.
For that reason, many refugees refuse to have their photo taken, even by foreign journalists.
The level of trust in accepting aid from a church or mosque is often higher than that which people are willing to place in a vast foreign agency.
Similarly, the Syrian government and the opposition forces it is fighting are generally far more accepting of aid delivery from local churches than foreign agencies.
Rupen Das, director of community development for the Lebanese Society of Education and Social Development – an important NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) based in Beirut – says of its aid efforts in Syria, “The only space we could get in without being aligned with the opposition or the regime, was actually through the local churches.
They occupy “a neutral space … with no conditionality…”
World Renew, which along with its own funds, draws financial support from Canadian Foodgrains Bank and flows it to partners such as LSESD, commonly delivers aid through a wide variety of Christian churches. There is no distinction made among the beneficiaries in terms of religion, ethnicity or political affiliation.
There is only need.
Refugees fleeing Syria have numerous serious challenges – primary among them, of course, is food and basic survival items such as shelter and clothing.
Money is also critical, and occasionally, one-time distributions of cash to pay rent are approved.
In Irbid, Jordan, a handful of Arab churches including Baptist, Nazarene, Assemblies of God and others, provide a conduit to refugees not yet receiving UNHCR assistance, or those who are too afraid to register for it.
Similar work is being done by Christian organizations in Lebanon, such as the Mennonite Central Committee, which has offices in Abbotsford.
Providing refugees with food not only addresses hunger, but equally importantly, it frees up whatever precious cash they may have to pay rent and buy other supplies.
Rental rates in towns and cities near the Syrian border are soaring, often doubling or more to typically $100 to $350 CAN for a one to two-room apartment, sometimes more. For people with no money and little or no work, those are crippling sums.
Consequently, it’s not uncommon for two or three families to cram into a tiny apartment, with all the tension and discomfort that creates.
In Jordan, refugees may not legally work. They do anyway, but typically for far less than Jordanians. Not surprisingly, that creates distinct tension among local populations, as business owners and farmers take advantage of cheap labour.
In Jordan, an unskilled labourer will earn $300 to $350 Jordanian dinar (JD) per month (approx. $400-$415 CAN) with double that for someone in a skilled position.
Refugees will commonly work for half that, often less – with no benefits.
They also find other ways to generate cash.
One of those is very familiar to North Americans – collecting cans for recycling. Another is less recognized – gathering old bread from garbage cans or generous donors, and drying it to be made into chicken feed, which is purchased by farmers from outlying areas.
A bag of a few kilograms of crumbs will fetch one JD or a little more – less than a Canadian toonie.
World Renew officials have also seen food and/or food vouchers being sold by refugees in order to pay rent.
It’s not only an unhealthy trade, it’s costly, since a $100 food voucher will sell for perhaps $60 or less. Nevertheless, it’s often a choice between that or living on the street or in a tent.
Aside from food, the next rapidly looming challenge for refugees is the winter. While the season in that part of the Middle East may seem relatively mild to Canadians, temperatures dipping below 10 degrees represent distinct survival issues for refugees, particularly those living in tents, poorly insulated apartments, or in the case of thousands in Beirut shanty-towns, accommodation that consists of leaky concrete cubicles.
Heaters, mattresses and blankets are critical items currently being distributed by UNHCR and myriad other aid agencies, along with hygiene kits.
Basic food box
For a family of six people for one month
10 kg rice
Two 1.8-litre bottles of cooking oil
2 kg tea
4 packages of pasta, short
4 pks of pasta, long
3 pks of beans, 3 kg each
4 pks lentils, 1 kg each
3 pks chick peas, 3 kg each
3 kgs bulgur
8 pks of tomato paste
2 cans sardines
2 cans tuna
4 cans cooked cheese
The Syrian situation
• Conflict now over two years old; number of dead estimated at 100,000. Many of the dead are civilians.
• 6.5 million people displaced, with 4.2 million internally displaced in Syria and 2.8 million refugees (over 1 million children) in nearby countries, as of Oct. 2013.
• By year-end, the UNHCR estimates that half the population of Syria will be in need of humanitarian assistance.
• In June the UN appealed for $4.4 billion for 2013, its largest appeal ever.
(Stats from The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Syria Needs Analysis Project (SNAP))
For more information on the CFGB visit www.foodgrainsbank.ca
For more information on World Renew visit www.worldrenew.net
More in the series on the Syrian refugee crisis