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Canadian official for U.N. watched Syrian refugee crisis 'slow burn' in Lebanon

VANCOUVER — When the daily queue of weary Syrians outside the United Nations refugee agency in Lebanon swelled to the thousands, Canadian Ninette Kelley realized the crisis could stretch endlessly.

The official from Toronto began her post as representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in May 2010, catering to 10,000 Iraqis. By the time her mission concluded last June, she was the overseer of the largest such UN operation in the world with an intake of 1.2 million Syrians.

Lebanon, which is smaller than Vancouver Island, had a population of about four million people before the civil war next door displaced millions of Syrians.

Kelley compared Lebanon's acceptance of enormous waves of people with Canada absorbing nine million refugees.

"We were registering, in Lebanon over a two year period, more refugees every single week than Canada receives in a year," she said, tallying about 10,000 new arrivals weekly.

"I would describe it as a very slow and steady burn."

The expat had been working to mitigate the crisis since April 2011, years before a drowned Syrian toddler washed ashore a Turkish beach. The photograph of little Alan Kurdi, whose family had aspired to come to British Columbia, ignited global empathy for the suffering masses.

Migrant relief has been announced by some countries, like Canada and the U.S., but some European countries have instead closed their borders.

Kelley was on the ground before the civil war began, unexpectedly gaining responsibility for international assistance to a country that has become "completely overwhelmed."

The global public's sense of urgency feels greater now than ever, Kelley said, but she emphasized the brutal conflict is already in its fourth year.

"The fact that it may not have hit the television sets in Canada does not mean there was not great need and great destitution prior to this time," she said from New York, where she now directs the UNHCR Liaison Office.

Her comments come just days after the federal government announced it is speeding up processing of Syrian refugees on home soil. Resettlement of 10,000 people is slated to occur in a tightened time frame, fast-tracked about 15 months from three years.

"The news on Canada is definitely very, very good news," Kelley said. "But it's part of a broader package of measures that UNHCR is advocating for in the developed world."

The agency is urging all national governments to share the burden that's been mainly covered by countries with far fewer resources, she said. That includes exerting more political pressure on the regime, pledging more humanitarian funding and easing refugee entry procedures.

Kelley heard many stories from refugees waiting in the lineups, but she was particularly struck by the despair of a mother of seven children. The woman's family had been prosperous selling fruits and vegetables until they were driven from their home in Damascus.

"I asked her how she continued," Kelley said. "She quoted me an Arabic expression, the meaning of which is, 'We live for lack of death.' I shall never forget that."

Though she's not following Canada's federal election campaign, Kelley said voter opinion matters at the ballot box.

"It was precisely the public that spurred on greater engagement by the country into resettling, (tens of thousands of) Vietnamese 'Boat People' to Canada," she said.

She addressed criticism that accelerating entry for asylum-seekers could hurt national security by pointing out that 80 per cent of the Syrian refugees are women and children.

Proper screening is legitimate, she said, but added, "I believe that can be done in an effective manner that does not put countries at risk."

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Tamsyn Burgmann, The Canadian Press

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