Elizabeth Ferris, a UCC members and fellow at the Brookings Institute, speaks with Syrian refugee families at a camp in Jordan. Photo from Brookings.edu
Elizabeth Ferris, a United Church of Christ member in Maryland, believes as horrible as the crisis is in Syria because of the ongoing civil war, many people familiar with the struggle in the region believe worse days lie ahead. UCC Wider Church Ministries is working to raise $100,000 in aid for civilians caught in the middle of the conflict as they flee toward places like Lebanon and Jordan, and Ferris is committed to telling their stories.
Ferris visited Lebanon and Jordan, the two nations which border Syria, for 10 days in June. She witnessed firsthand what was taking place at the Za’atri refugee camp in Jordan, the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, and along the Lebanese-Syrian and Jordanian-Syrian borders. A member of Westmoreland United Church of Christ in Bethesda, Md., Ferris is a senior fellow in foreign policy and co-director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement in Washington, D.C.
"Every single person we talked with — whether it’s government, [non-government organizations], or churches — thinks it’s going to be a lot worse," Ferris said. "People are very worried about the scenario. They think the best thing is to hold the status quo as it is – which is pretty awful."
The status quo has resulted in 80,000 deaths because of the Syrian Civil War, with 4.25 million people internally displaced in the country, and another 1.6 million refugees displaced outside the country – a majority of whom are women and children. Fighting in the Middle East country started as a rebellion against Prime Minister Bashar al-Assad's government in March 2011.
The UCC has been supporting partners in the region which provide food supplies, shelter and clothing for displaced Syrians in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Armenia. Lebanon and Jordan are "overwhelmed by the number and speed of the arrivals," Ferris said. "In Lebanon they’re living everywhere — in vacant lots and streets buildings. How will these countries respond at all if the numbers continue to climb?"
"It’s a sad situation than more people know about. Eighty percent of refugees are living wherever they can, and local people have offered what shelter they can," Ferris said. That can complicate relief efforts in providing food, shelter, clothing and supplies if refugees are difficult to locate outside of established camps.
Some 75,000 have left refugee camps because they feel uncomfortable with the living situation, Ferris said, so the population fluctuates as people enter the camps with others leaving, willing to risk their lives by returning to Syria. "Some are going back to fight in the war, so it’s a continual movement with a border that’s unsecure," Ferris said.
On top of that, there’s the growing concern of funding the relief efforts. The United Nations asked for $5 billion in aid on June 7 for the remainder of the year, but the organization has already had to cut back on offering healthcare relief, and it may not be able to maintain that level.
"If they raise that money, can that be sustained, and given the escalation [in fighting], can the international community keep up?" Ferris said. "They’re maintaining the bare minimum of assistance."
During Ferris’ briefing of U.S. House and Senate committees on the Syrian crisis, Ferris said representatives and senators were interested in knowing what was happening and what the government should do to respond.
"The main questions were about U.S. intervention, and they were concerned with refugees caught the in military struggle," Ferris said.
Recently, U.S. officials announced that they believe the Syrian government used chemical weapons on its people, and many American government leaders said that Syria "crossed a red line" with those actions, but no specific response has taken place yet from the international community.
"We asked about [chemical weapons], but the people [in the camps] didn’t know about it. We saw some pretty horrific injuries, but nothing specific that we witnessed with chemical weapons," Ferris said.
Ferris said she plans to return to the Middle East in the fall to see how the situation develops, and how best to help. Hopefully by then, Syria will have found a path toward peace.