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Humanitarian Aid Isn't A Long-Term Solution For Syria

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Home is a tent divided in two for Um Yasmine and her five children. The Syrian widow fled to a dusty field in Lebanon three years ago, as war piled up bodies around her beloved city of Homs.

Now, a bedsheet hangs down the middle of her crowded tent shared with another refugee family. Um Yasmine is so tired of this makeshift life. She just wants to go home.

I met Um Yasmine recently, along with dozens of other Syrian refugees, as I travel through the region's conflict zones and neighbouring countries. The stories people tell here are of terrible loss: Children dying of treatable disease, husbands caught in the crossfire, elderly parents who could not leave their homeland. Heartbreak and longing is everywhere.

Also evident in these places is another terrible fact to be faced: While humanitarian aid can help some people survive the Syrian conflict, it isn't a long-term solution. The root of the problem still lies in Syria, where war continues to cause a terrible chain reaction of suffering for millions of people.

Of course, humanitarian groups, governments and citizens can help as millions of people still try to survive in Syria's besieged neighbourhoods.

Humanitarian aid can also help Syrian refugees forced to run to overflowing cities and camps in the region. Still others are helped along treacherous journeys across turbulent waters and crowded routes through Europe. Finally, some are assisted as they resettle in countries like Canada.

This is the cascading effect of war. But humanitarian aid is not the only action needed. People want peace in Syria. This fact is clear. And I heard it mentioned, time and again, as I visited Lebanon, one of many places struggling mightily to host an influx of desperate families like Um Yasmine's.

To date, more than one-million refugees have arrived in Lebanon. It is important to recognize this country's total population is just four million. Resources here are seriously strained.

Aid agencies are doing their best to help, but humanitarian funding simply cannot keep up with demand. In Lebanon, food parcels of rice, sugar and oil have to be rationed. Some families, like Um Yasmine's, must pay rent to erect tents cobbled together with tarps, concrete blocks and old plastic signs on private land.

Families can get some cash assistance from aid groups and occasionally find agricultural work in the area. Meanwhile, children in these makeshift places wander with bare feet stuffed in dusty rubber sandals, among chicken and goats scrounging for food. There is no school where Um Yasmine lives. Equally worrisome is the fact that many refugees don't have money for medical care.

Although the situation in Lebanon is bleak, there are glimmers of hope. I saw, for example, a school for about 400 Syrian children, aged six to 16, where students are taught by other refugees like Sahar, a former banker from Homs.

Many students are orphans. Crammed on benches in a bright classroom, the children were learning this month's school principle, "to love each other." Last month's principle was "giving." Here, I saw help that was providing hope. But teachers still talked with me about the children's need for more emotional support.

In Lebanon, I visited doctors from a Red Cross mobile medical clinic that travels around Tripoli and Akkar, offering treatment to refugee families, and a large hospital where people get low-cost care supported by humanitarian aid. I saw a community centre filled with women learning about breast cancer, and an impressive emergency medical and ambulance service that swings into action during disasters.

There is humanitarian work that deserves great praise in Lebanon. But under grey skies punctuated by mountains still covered in snow, Um Yasmine said she never imagined spending three years in this place.

She misses her life in Homs. Her city was once a prosperous centre of industry and agriculture, of universities, highly rated restaurants, museums and soccer stars. Now, it's largely flattened. Thousands have died there. The city she knew is gone. Still, she wants to go home.

But the fact remains that humanitarian aid cannot address the source of all this suffering. It can only offer temporary assistance to millions of people like Um Yasmine and her family until the world decides enough is enough, and a political solution is found for the Syrian conflict. In the meantime, people must continue to offer help that, for now, provides hope.

This blog is part two in a series of four posts as Conrad Sauvé visits Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. The first post can be found here.

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