COLUMN: ‘Refugees are people like you and me’

If a country’s citizens are its lifeblood, Syria has been literally and figuratively bleeding people for more than two years...

If a country’s citizens are its lifeblood, Syria has been literally and figuratively bleeding people for more than two years, creating one of the worst humanitarian crises since the Second World War.

The brutal civil war in Syria is utterly Byzantine in its cast of combatants and political complexity. It has its infancy in the Arab Spring, but with historic sectarianism deep in its genes, and modern Islamic fundamentalism twisting the DNA.

There’s a story in Jordan that the  war started as a child’s game, when a youngster scrawled an anti-government slogan on a wall.

If so, that act launched civil unrest, which opened multiple thick scripts of political and religious agendas – each seeking a slippery stranglehold in a country now awash in violence and misery.

Key combatants include Syria president Bashar Assad’s military, backed in areas by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and opposed by a bewildering host of forces, including the Syrian Free Army (FSA), the al Nusra Front, and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS).

There is a growing presence of al Qaeda-linked militias involving thousands of foreign jihadist fighters, which are opposed by the Western-backed FSA. In the mix are umbrella groups, splinter factions and shifting alliances. Hardliners are pitted against moderates.

Meanwhile, on the sidelines are numerous nations providing financial backing for various factions. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and Russia are all said to be providing money to wage war, jockeying for power and position when, and if, Syria is finally torn asunder.

There is no international military solution. Bringing down Assad opens the door for al Qaeda. Eliminating al Qaeda would require an invasion of Syria, igniting a firestorm involving the entire Middle East.

Power politics may bring an end to this, but at present, making peace is like grasping a wisp of smoke.

It’s all very distant and obscure for Canadians, although our nation is among the leaders in providing humanitarian support.

For most people though, it’s an internal war in a region known for conflict.

However, aside from the appalling refugee situation – now near three million outside of the country, and millions more internally displaced – the international stakes of this war are chilling.

Prof. Rupen Das, director of community development for the Lebanese Society of Education and Development, who taught at Humber College in Ontario, provides this insight from his office in Beirut:

“This is just not another battle out there that doesn’t concern you … as horrific as the Congo was, this is not the Congo. Refugees are flooding Europe.

“Afghanistan was far away, and al Qaeda was contained there, other than occasional stuff. Al Qaeda is real in Syria, and it’s more radicalized than it ever was in Afghanistan. It’s a bigger operation … it is on the borders of sensitive countries like Israel and Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon. It will destabilize the region like Afghanistan never did.

“And if Canada doesn’t care, they’re living in a fool’s paradise – that it really doesn’t concern them.”

If many Canadians can’t grasp the international security consequences of continued war in Syria, then perhaps they can focus on the humanitarian crisis.

Asked why Canadians should care, Anita Delhaas-van Dijk, national director for World Vision in Beirut, offers this observation:

“These refugees are not necessarily poor people. These refugees are people like you and me.

“It can be your case one day, God forbid. Or it can me, who is in their shoes.

“They didn’t have necessarily a poor life in Syria. They had lives like you and me. They had their jobs, their dreams, their future in front of them.

“One refugee is already a lot, and this refugee can be you.”

If we can’t understand this, then we aren’t seeing a child’s writing on the wall.


Andrew Holota was in Jordan and Lebanon last week, travelling at the invitation of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, a key Canadian NGO providing humanitarian aid to refugees in the region.

For more information on the CFGB visit

For more information on World Renew visit

Read the series on the Syrian refugee crisis

Selling a child to feed a family

Life among the stones

‘They shoot them all – in front of their mothers’

Christianity a motivating force behind aid effort

A country overwhelmed


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