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Hidden lives and the struggle to survive.

Dr Julia Newton-Howes

By Dr Julia Newton-Howes

Imagine your husband is sick. He has cancer, but you have no money to pay for treatment. Your children cannot go to school. They have to work because your husband is injured and unable to earn an income. You are living in a tiny, damp room with mould on the wall and with nothing but an old mattress to sleep on. You might have to move out soon because you already owe the landlord two months’ rent.

This is the reality for many of the 2.7 million refugees who have fled the war in Syria for neighbouring countries.

It is now more than three years since the beginning of the crisis and Syrian refugees have fallen deeper and deeper into poverty. Having fled their homes months, or even years ago, they have run out of savings. A new report launched by CARE this week reveals that the 500,000 Syrian refugees living in Jordan’s towns and cities are struggling to cope with poor housing, high debts, rising costs of living and lack of education for their children. Nine out of 10 refugees owe hundreds of dollars to relatives, landlords, shopkeepers or neighbours.

Imagine the gruelling choices faced by the refugees: Do we send our children to school or encourage them to work to help us pay the rent? Of the few mementos we have carried from our homeland, and the simple furnishings given to us by aid agencies, what do we sell to meet this month’s food bill? Is it the heater or the wedding ring? These are real decisions that refugees have to make every day. In many cases, young sons become the family’s breadwinner to make ends meet. CARE’s study shows that only half of Syrian refugee boys are currently attending school, compared with 62 per cent of girls. We are losing an entire generation of children – the most critical investment for Syria’s future.

While the world’s attention has focused on the enormous refugee camp at Zaatari, more than 80 per cent of Syria’s refugees are living in cities, towns and villages. Unable to work legally in the countries where they have sought asylum, they live off their savings and gifts from family or neighbours. They live in overcrowded, run-down apartments with extended family members or even strangers; they squat in abandoned buildings or construct makeshift shelters.

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Of those who have registered with CARE, 36 per cent of families are headed by women. They have fled without their husbands, who either remain in Syria, are injured or have been killed. They have to take care of their young children and older relatives, but have difficulty earning money. They worry about how they can cover their monthly expenses and deal with medical emergencies. The memories of war and the loss of family members have left deep scars. Many of the families CARE has interviewed say they need support to cope with the experience of conflict, fleeing and living as outsiders in a foreign country.

Since the crisis began, CARE has provided nearly 300,000 Syrians and poor communities in Jordan and Lebanon with humanitarian assistance. Our primary work is providing cash to the poorest: it is one of the simplest and most efficient ways to help refugees living outside of the camps meet their urgent needs, and it supports both the displaced and the economies of the communities that have taken them in. And yet organisations providing support for Syrian refugees find themselves drastically underfunded.

The international humanitarian community has estimated it will need $4.5 billion to provide for refugees’ most basic needs in 2014. Less than 15 per cent of that figure has been raised globally. CARE has secured less than 25 per cent of the $212 million that we anticipate we will need to continue our humanitarian work in the region this year.

How can we watch the children of Syria become a lost generation, raised in destitution and without opportunities? How can we watch as chronic diseases and severe medical conditions become acute medical emergencies? How can we watch as parents are forced to send their boys out to work instead of to school? We cannot look away any longer. We can and we must do more to help.

Dr Julia Newton-Howes AM is CEO of CARE Australia.

For more information or to support CARE’s Syria Emergency Appeal, see www.care.org.au 

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