Zahia, Sarah and Hanadi fled the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus. They now live in the Beddawi refugee camp in Tripoli. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam
Written by Melanie Gallant, Oxfam Canada Media Officer
At this time last year I was visiting informal Syrian refugee settlements in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Now, as I begin watching beautiful fall colours appear on Ottawa trees, I am reminded that refugees in those settlements will begin worrying about surviving yet another winter in cold makeshift tents.
Although I missed being with my own family for Thanksgiving, I will forever be thankful for the many moments when women who had lost everything shared what little they had with me. Little cups of sugary coffee in hand, we sat in circles on tarp floors and they opened up their lives and hearts to me, sharing painful, yet hopeful stories about life as a refugee.
I am proud to see Canada's leadership in welcoming tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and hope that we inspire other rich nations to open their doors.
A whole year has passed since then, and with the failure of yet another ceasefire in Syria, I know that life for these women will not be getting any easier.
The UN and Obama summits on refugees and migration that took place earlier this week in New York could not have come at a more crucial time. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has reported that 65 million people have fled their homes because of conflict, persecution and violence; the highest level since records began.
I am proud to see Canada's leadership in welcoming tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and hope that we inspire other rich nations to open their doors. I also welcome the increase in humanitarian aid announced by Prime Minister Trudeau this week.
But resettlement and money alone will not resolve this crisis.
Women and girls fleeing conflict, crisis and natural disasters face specific threats -- including human trafficking, exploitation and sexual violence. These risks are often made even worse by others factors like age, race or disabilities.
The global refugee crisis, which has so many negative impacts on the rights of women and girls, needs a feminist solution.
Unfortunately, recent studies have shown that refugee programs in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Greece and the Balkans are failing to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls, and that access to sexual and reproductive health services for displaced women are below minimum standards or in many cases, non-existent.
Despite these challenges, displaced women are forming organizations that work tirelessly to support aid delivery and protection efforts, such as establishing safe spaces for women and children.
Last week I met Muzna Dureid, a Syrian human rights activist who is in Ottawa as part of The Nobel Women's Initiative sister-to-sister mentorship program.
She works as a Project Coordinator for the Badael Foundation, an organization committed to the development and strengthening of civil society groups in Syria. Muzna, who fled her home just south of Damascus after several members of her family disappeared, is channeling all her energies into ending child marriages and ensuring that perpetrators of violence against women and girl refugees are held to account.
I asked her what she thought about the summits.
"I hope that world leaders will think of the challenges faced by women and girl refugees at their meetings in New York City," she said. "All refugees have a difficult life, but for women it is even harder. Many girls are forced to get married when they are very young, and there are a lot of problems with violence and people taking advantage of women when they are in bad situations."
Oxfam has witnessed and supported the resourcefulness, resilience and courage of women like Muzna who work on the frontlines of humanitarian responses. They are a key part of the solutions to a growing global displacement crisis. Yet in many ways they remain voiceless, marginalized and their efforts often receive little support or recognition from donors and policymakers.
We are still waiting to see what Canada's commitment to putting women's rights at the heart of our international assistance will deliver.
"I am happy that people are talking about the problems of refugees, and what I would say to leaders is: You need to support us, because we are the ones who know the situation and can work with those who need the most support, like women and girls," said Muzna.
She added, "I want to believe that this will happen, but I worry that once again it is just words and women and local organizations will not really get more support."
I told Muzna that progress is being made. Canada for example, has pledged to take a feminist approach to international assistance and humanitarian responses. This would mean more support for local organizations like hers, and a higher percentage of aid dollars going specifically to programs that address the needs of women and girls.
There are many crises in the world forcing people to flee their homes. In South Sudanese refugee camps, women are at high risk of sexual violence when they leave in search of wood to make fires to feed their families. Photo: Kieran Doherty/Oxfam
We are still waiting to see what Canada's commitment to putting women's rights at the heart of our international assistance will deliver. But I am hopeful for Muzna, for the many courageous women I met last year in Lebanon, and for all other women and girls forcibly displaced from their homes that Prime Minister Trudeau will seize future opportunities to move from words to concrete actions.
An important first step would be to ensure the meaningful participation of women in the negotiations for the Global Compacts. If women and girl's needs, challenges, insights and skills continue to be ignored, any attempts to solve the global refugee crisis are bound to fail. And we so urgently need them to succeed.
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The plight of Syrians besieged in the town of Madaya prompted an international humanitarian response (AP Photo) Hunger, starvation, and extreme malnourishment present existential threats to millions of Syria's most vulnerable people. The young, the elderly, and the infirm are all particularly susceptible to the effects of malnutrition, which can stunt the growth of children, and exacerbate chronic medical conditions. Unicef deputy director Lily Caprani told HuffPost UK about the effects long-term malnourishment are having as the Syrian conflict enters its fifth year. She said: "There’s hunger in the short term, and then malnutrition over the longer term severely and in some cases irreversibly damages children’s development, so a child who at the age of two or three is undernourished can physical stop growing. “Unfortunately there are some cases where that cannot be undone. We’re trying to stop getting it to that stage." Unicef continues to work in Syria, and it estimates it has helped the majority of those who need help in accessible areas. That still leaves as many as two million out of reach of aid, however. Towns which are besieged by fighting are particularly difficult to access. In one example, the situation in the Syrian town of Madaya, north west of Damascus, had become so dire that the UN estimated 400 residents needed to be immediately evacuated to receive life-saving treatment. Their conditions related to extreme malnourishment and starvation, as well as medical conditions.
Syrian boys play with snow following a storm in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on January 5 Exposure to the elements is become a concern for aid agencies operating in and around Syria. Harsh winters bring snow, ice, and chilling winds - making for harrowing conditions in houses lacking electricity and the refugee camps bordering on vast, desolate landscapes. "One of the key things we worry about every year in that on top of everything else, we now have extreme cold," Lily Caprani of Unicef UK says, "Although we're doing everything we can to them, they're living in tents, in containers." The organisation is leading a campaign to keep children warm this winter with hats, gloves and scalfs. "Many of the refugees in... countries such as Jordan and Lebanon live in terrible conditions and are struggling to find warmth as temperatures fall," Robert Mardini, director for the Near and Middle East with the International Committee of the Red Cross, told Al Jazeera. "They live with the uncertainty of not knowing what tomorrow will bring, or even if they will ever make it back home one day."
Syrians searching for survivors in the rubble of destroyed buildings following the barrel bomb-attacks of Syrian air forces on February 2, 2014, in Aleppo, Syria. Barrel bombs continue to plague Syrian cities. The improvised devices are thrown from transport helicopters, without the ability to hit specific targets. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the number of civilains killed by Syrian regime barrel bombs outnumbers those slain by the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Jeremy Binnie, Middle East editor for IHS Jane's Defence Weekly, told HuffPost UK that the bombs were developed due to either a lack of weaponry or aircraft around a year or so into the current conflict. He said: “While early ones appeared to be similar in size to oil barrels, the ones that have been seen generally have a smaller diameter. “They were first seen in the summer of 2012. “They are a way of turning the Syrian air force’s Mi-8/17 helicopters into attack aircraft as the improvised bombs can be rolled out the rear cargo doors.” “The bombs are capable of destroying buildings and killing people, but almost certainly have less explosive power than mass-produced aircraft bombs of similar size."
A Russian bomber drops bombs on a target. Russia has unleashed another barrage of airstrikes against targets in Syria Airstrikes from foreign forces continue to pose a threat to civilian life - however unintended this may be. In December, at least 26 people were believed to have been killed following US-led airstrikes attacking suspected Isis positions. The Guardian reported Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as saying Isis is in control of Al-Khan but is only on its outskirts, “which is why all of the deaths were civilians”. The US military command said it was investigating the claims. Britain's Royal Air Force, which received Parliamentary authority to commence airstrikes last year, says it is able to say no civilians have died as a result of its recent airstrikes in Syria which are planned meticulously to prevent collateral damage.
A health worker marks the thumb of a Syrian child after giving him polio vaccine (File Photo) Dirty water and the resulting disease pose a continued threat to Syrians living in increasingly unsanitary conditions. Unicef is one of a number of aid agencies working to mitigate the risks, but even it admits that millions of Syrian children and adults who continue to be at risk in areas that cannot be easily reached. While the threat continues to be high - disease is one of the areas of success for agencies trying hard to prevent a public health disaster dovetailing with the fierce conflict. Lily Caprani of Unicef told HuffPost UK: "We’re making sure children and the vulnerable are immunized against waterborne disease, because we know they are going to be exposed to disease so we make sure they’re going to be protected. “This can help prevent a public health disaster. One of the very few pieces of good news is that you would expect the resurgence of disease and infections we would normally not see. “But because we’ve managed to immunize we’ve prevented this. There have been no new cases of polio since January 2014 and that’s short of a miracle. "It’s relatively cheap to do - it doesn’t cost a lot of money and it prevents the snowball effect of a public health emergency." Nonetheless, the shocking state of health uncovered at the besieged town of Madaya in January points towards localised medical emergencies being commonplace in some areas in the country.
A visitor looks at photographs in the 'Caesar's Photos: Inside Syria's Secret Prisons', a collection of photographs smuggled out of Syria last year Torture and execution remain a threat to civilian life throughout Syria, with hundreds allegedly killed at the hands of President Assad's regime alone. Syria has systematically tortured and executed 11,000 of its citizens in the three-year war, according to a report by former war crimes prosecutors, who compared the bodies they saw to images of Nazi death camp victims. Meanwhile the so-called Islamic State has been adept at publicising its regime's torture and execution, even publishing reports in its own magazine, with countless Syrians and scores of foreigners killed in the now signature orange jumpsuits. In January, the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights reported that an Islamic State militant executed his own mother, after she encouraged him to leave the terror group.
Violence and exploitation resulting from the break down of Syrian society present a real threat to the lives of adults and children alike, whilst kidnapping remains a tactic of fear used by militants. There are countless examples of violence between warring factions spilling over into civilian communities, wounding and killing innocent people. Unicef's experience of conflict emergencies across the world has led it to the conclusion that education can protect children from violence and exploitation. Lily Caprani, UK deputy director, told HuffPost UK: "If children are in education, they’re in a safe space. If children are in a safe environment with safe people, the risks of violence and exploitation are lower. "This protects children from adults who might not have their best interests at heart." Kidnapping by Islamic State militants continues to present a real threat to civilian life. Last year, hundreds of innocent people were taken by the group amid mounting international calls for the release of those abducted.
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