A desperate Syrian mother in a refugee camp tried to give me her sick little girl on my last visit to the region's conflict zones and neighbouring countries filled with fleeing people. She wanted me to take her child back to Canada for medical care.
That day, I saw misery and despair that no one should bear. All I could do was help others find assistance for the little girl. But I suspect that mother's tragic plea might not be the worst that I witness on my upcoming trip to the region.
That's because two years have passed since that encounter and not much has changed for the better. It's true that some Syrians, including 25,000 welcomed recently by Canadians, have managed to find some peace, but the sad truth is that millions more are still suffering, starving and dying. Imagine, if you can, one third of Canada's population in urgent need of help. The facts are too terribly clear.
It has been five long years since war first ripped Syria apart and flung thousands of families across foreign lands, and there is still no salvation in sight for most people. March 15, 2016 is an anniversary that no one will celebrate.
Today, a country famous for its ancient kingdoms and empires is on its knees. Its people are on the run or dying on lonely beaches, in makeshift homes without adequate medical care or on long treks through harsh, unpredictable places. Humanitarian groups and governments are trying hard to help but the number of refugees still grows.
I want to keep raising awareness and perhaps prick a few consciences, too. Because I have to believe that each of us, in our way, can do something to help stop this madness.
Resources are simply insufficient to respond to an emergency of this scale. And we cannot forget the majority of people who need help are still struggling to survive in war-torn Syria.
Sometimes, statistics can de-humanize and mask hard facts. When we hear, for example, more than 250,000 people have been killed and one million wounded since the conflict started, we might not want to recognize these numbers as mothers, children, grandparents and young people filled with potential. It's human to avoid such a painful reality.
But frankly, we risk too much if we don't face the truth in these numbers. Thirteen million people, including five million children, still urgently need our help in Syria today. In some places now, families are trying to survive in basements surrounded by the rubble of flattened neighbourhoods, besieged by opposing groups in the conflict.
There is no electricity, safe water, little food, fuel or basic health care. Treatable illnesses and injuries lead to agonizing deaths. Certainly, recent scenes of starvation in places like Madaya are beyond our imagination.
Yet, the conflict is getting worse. And as fighting intensifies, it is absolutely unacceptable that access to humanitarian aid is not guaranteed for people still living in Syria. Health personnel who volunteer to treat the sick and wounded, and aid workers who deliver food, water and other desperately needed items are not always allowed to help.
Medical facilities are being bombed and destroyed. More than 60 Red Cross staff and volunteers have been killed. These cruel practices must stop. Humanitarian aid should not be a bargaining chip in political negotiations. Fast, safe, unconditional access to suffering people should be assured.
Quite simply the dire situation in Syria must end. Enough is enough. We must put the needs of suffering people first, so answers can follow. Hopefully, each one of us can find a way to press for a solution to this conflict.
Of course, you might wonder how one person can make a difference in such overwhelming circumstances. Many Canadians are already working hard, perhaps helping newly arrived refugees as the government fulfills its plan to welcome 25,000 by the end of February, and wraps up its program to match donations for related humanitarian campaigns.
Others are exerting political pressure, in letters, emails, at rallies and through quiet conversations that encourage a diplomatic solution to the crisis. I know many people are already taking positive steps in the right direction. But the question remains: What else can we do about this suffering? This is something each of us must decide.
For my part, I plan to use my upcoming Canadian Red Cross trip to the troubled region to help shed more light on the crisis and increase our assistance. I hope to share my thoughts and observations with anyone willing to listen. I want to keep raising awareness and perhaps prick a few consciences, too. Because I have to believe that each of us, in our way, can do something to help stop this madness.
This is our humanitarian imperative, as we say in my profession. But what this really means is: We must believe in people's compassion, and keep trying to help save lives, even when the challenge seems overwhelming.
Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook
MORE ON HUFFPOST:
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.
Follow Conrad Sauvé on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ConradSauve