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.
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