In early 2014, during peace talks facilitated by the United Nations and the Arab League, the Syrian government and opposition groups reached an agreement to allow some civilians to evacuate the city of Homs after being trapped for more than a year and a half. They also agreed to the delivery of desperately-needed aid. Food supplies had drastically depleted inside the city in the previous months, and families had resorted to eating wild plants and small amounts of insect-infested grains.
In the center of Erbil, northern Iraq, just next to a highway overpass, we met Yezin and his family – refugees from the fighting in neighboring Syria. Nasser himself didn’t get up to greet us. He had been wounded in a mortar attack on his Syrian hometown of Aleppo. The field surgery he had received left a metal plate in his leg that doesn’t allow him to stand or walk on his own any longer. He and his family of seventeen are now living in an abandoned construction lot in Erbil, where it has been hard for humanitarian agencies to find and help them.
When Faud al-Shiekh Sanaa, a gaunt master teacher from Aleppo, made his way to Turkey with throngs of other refugees from Syria in July 2012, he immediately set about registering children for school. Classes back home would have started in September, and there was little time to waste.
By November, with backing from international and Turkish charities, the governor of Kilis Province had presided over the opening of the “Culture Center for Syrians.”
The humanitarian situation in Iraq is once again deteriorating. The siege of Amirli, the humanitarian airdrops to Sinjar – with people so desperate to get out that they fled into Syria – and now Western and Arab airstrikes, have kept all eyes on this tumultuous part of the Middle East.
“This policy calls for UNHCR to pursue alternatives to camps whenever possible. Compliance with this policy is mandatory.” Those words are taken from a policy statement prepared by UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. Approved by High Commissioner António Guterres on July 22, 2014, the document has curiously not been placed in the public domain, nor have UNHCR’s key partners – donor states, other UN agencies, and NGOs – been informed of its existence. But Refugees International has gained access to a leaked copy.
“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” In just 15 words, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights makes it very clear that people whose life and liberty are at risk in their homeland should be able to leave it and find safe refuge in another state.
But as with many other rights that are spelled out in the Universal Declaration, the right to seek asylum is routinely denied to many people who should be able to benefit from it.
During RI's recent visit to Lebanon, the conflict in Syria leaked over in one of the most dangerous ways yet: militants out of Syria clashed with Lebanese military forces in the border town of Arsal. The humanitarian community in Lebanon frantically tried to think of every possible way to get aid to those trapped there.
During the past two weeks on Mt. Sinjar, we have seen both the worst and the best of what humanity can do.
As we moved through the women’s community center near Beirut, we noticed a woman in her late forties, a Syrian refugee, in the workshop area. The walls were surrounded by ongoing and completed jewelry and craft projects, which the community center helps to sell to benefit the women who create them.
It’s Sunday morning in Beirut, and it’s quiet except for the bells of the church down the street. This is normally a bustling, noisy neighborhood, and it’s a nice change to be sitting here in a café when the day has not yet begun in earnest.