Syria seven years on: Why we must not give up.
By Richard Verber, Head of External Affairs
The carnage in Syria is unimaginably bad. Since 2011, hundreds of thousands of people have died, probably well over half a million. Nobody knows. The UN stopped counting in 2016.
This week marks the seventh depressing anniversary of Syria’s civil war. There is still no end in sight: civilians are killed on a daily basis.
Across the country, 5.6m people are in acute need; more than half are in hard-to-reach locations.
At the end of February, the UN Security Council agreed a 30 day cessation of hostilities in Syria. Russia’s President Putin “ordered” a five-hour “humanitarian pause” to enable aid to be delivered. Within minutes though, observers reported heavy shelling.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitor, estimates that more than 1,000 civilians have been slaughtered in the past few weeks alone. The White Helmets, a rescue group, has reported child casualties from chlorine gas attacks.
Families can’t get out. Aid can’t get in. The international community has failed again.
The world, it seems, has selective outrage. Where are the marches, the protests, the rallies? The streets would be full if Israel was in the news again. Why not with Syria?
We listen to the news, we watch the pictures, we shake our heads and cry out: “Something must be done!” But that’s the extent of our response.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has successfully made us numb to atrocity. Assad may be a butcher in Syria, but in the West he’s an anaesthetist.
We care, of course, but we no longer know how to react. We ran out of words to describe the depths of the depravity a long time to go. Not we’ve run out of emotion too.
Assad and his supporters in Russia and Iran know they can do what they want. We won’t respond. Impotence has infected the West and there is no cure.
As Jews we can’t afford to think like this. We each must find something practical to do. True, we can’t intervene directly in Syria. The war is complex and cannot be easily divided into Hollywood heroes and villains. Only collective pressure from the international community will end the fighting.
But we are not powerless to act. The Jewish response is never inaction. There is much that can be done.
Our community should be proud of its response to the Syrian refugee crisis with more than £1m donated through World Jewish Relief’s Refugee Crisis Appeal. As a result, more than 80,000 refugees have been supported in Turkey and Greece with life-saving food, water and medical care. A women’s shelter in Turkey offers language tuition and provides psychological support. A mobile school in Greece ensures children who have already lost months of education, sometimes years, gain access to basic literacy and numeracy skills.
Closer to home there are a number of ongoing Jewish community initiatives to support refugees and asylum seekers in the UK through synagogue drop-in centres with the newest to begin soon at Hendon United Synagogue.
World Jewish Relief has been working on the Syria crisis since 2013. We don’t want to be talking about it still. The conflict should be over by now. Instead, we’d much rather direct our community’s focus to Eastern Europe where Jews living in poverty need our support this Pesach. Across Ukraine, many vulnerable older Jewish people live with poor eyesight or even blindness. World Jewish Relief’s optical programme is the only chance they have to get their eyes tested, receive glasses or undergo critical surgery.
But we must mark this miserable anniversary by highlighting both causes. Syrian (and other) refugees in the UK need our support too. Many have fled barrel bombs or beheadings.
Our community’s own history means we know only too well what it’s like to flee our homes with just a few possessions and move to a foreign country. World Jewish Relief is helping Syrian refugees brought to the UK by the British government to learn English and find employment. We’re working with employers like Timpson alongside many smaller companies to hire our graduates. We need more businesses to do the same.
Our world is broken and needs urgent fixing. Reading the daily headlines, it’s easy to fall in to despair. Charities fret about ‘compassion fatigue’. We’re almost desensitised to suffering.
But we must all do our bit. As Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers, teaches: it may not be down to us to complete the task but we are not free to stop trying.
If you’d like to support our work, please donate towards our refugee programmes here.
A version of this article has appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.