5 years of conflict, 5 statistics and 5 stories

The conflict in Syria has grown into the most complex humanitarian emergency of our time

The Syrian conflict is the largest and most complex humanitarian emergency of our time, with 13.5 million people needing humanitarian aid inside the country. The United States has provided as much funding for emergency food assistance for Syrians as all other international donors combined, and our assistance helps feed more than 5 million Syrians inside Syria and in neighboring countries. / Delil Souleiman, AFP

The statistics are staggering.

In five years, the conflict in Syria has grown into the most complex humanitarian emergency of our time. The number of people in need of aid is equivalent to the entire population of the Los Angeles metro area.

By one estimate, half of all Syrians are in psychological distress — not surprising when one considers the parade of horrors they face: barrel bombs that kill indiscriminately, constantly shifting frontlines of conflict, besiegement, starvation as a battleground strategy and more.

Behind each of these statistics are real people. They are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. As the leader of USAID’s Syria Disaster Assistance Response Team, I have seen the toll the conflict has taken on individual lives. It can be heartbreaking — but also a reminder that we have a commitment to help people during their most pressing time of need.

Almost 30 heads of state and hundreds of world leaders gathering in London this week for the fourth Syria Donors Conference will affirm their commitment to provide humanitarian assistance and economic development for Syria and its neighboring countries, efforts that are critical to ensure a new generation in the Middle East has prospects for a more peaceful and prosperous future.

As the world’s focus turns to Syria again this week, I want to ensure that the individual stories of people suffering do not get lost behind the statistics. Here are five statistics, and the stories of five families behind those numbers.

13.5 million — Number of Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance

Akram and his family were at the dinner table when their house exploded.

“We were having dinner when a mortar hit our house and killed my mother and injured both my brother and my father,” said the 14-year-old.

The house, where the family ran a small grocery shop, was ruined. The remaining seven members of the family fled. In addition to the new surroundings and loss of their main income source, the looming winter brought a new set of challenges.

Akram — pictured during happier days — lost his mother and fled from his family amid the violence in Syria. A USAID partner provided winter clothes, blankets and a hygiene kit to the family.

They found refuge in a town 25 miles away that experiences some of the coldest weather in the country, with temperatures routinely dipping below freezing.

A USAID partner provided winter clothes, blankets and a hygiene kit to the family. The family remains displaced and their way of life is shattered, but at least now they can survive the frigid months.

Stories like Akram’s are sadly too common. More than two-thirds of Syria’s pre-war population — 17 million people — needs humanitarian assistance. Inside Syria alone, there are 13.5 million people needing humanitarian aid. The United States is the single-largest donor of humanitarian aid, providing more than $4.5 billion to date, in addition to development funding for Syria’s neighbors.

12 million — Syrians without regular access to clean drinking water

The ongoing conflict has destroyed infrastructure, cutting off a supply of fresh water for much of the Syrian people. Many families now rely on water tankers or local wells — and the damages to water and hygiene facilities mean cholera and other waterborne diseases are beginning to spread.

Providing access to clean water and sanitation is an integral part of our approach to helping people in need inside Syria. To date, we have repaired water and sanitation facilities for 1.3 million people across the country.

USAID has helped repair water and sanitation facilities for 1.3 million people across Syria since the conflict began.

One family in Rif Damascus relied on merchants selling water off the backs of trucks — and for a high markup — a common way for many displaced families to access clean water.

Soheir, her husband and their four children were driven from their home and now share one room. They previously had nowhere to store clean water, but we helped provide a large water tank.

“We had a water tank, but it was old and full of insects and worms, but we had to manage with what we had,” said Soheir, 40. “The new tank that I received today will secure clean water for my children, and that is all what I wish for.”

8.7 million — Syrians who are food insecure

Mohammed, his wife and their daughter have fled the fighting twice in recent years: First, they fled their home in Northern Syria to another village because of ongoing fighting and shelling. ISIL invaded eight months later, and the family fled to a camp for displaced people, where the three share a small tent.

The conditions are dire: The tent is falling apart, the family is malnourished and Mohammed has lost his sight, so he can’t provide for his family. His wife found a job as a laborer on a farm, earning about $3 a day — not enough to cover the family’s needs.

Beneficiaries picking up their monthly food parcels in Northern Syria.

The family relies on food assistance to survive, which allows Mohammed’s wife to spend the income she earns on household purchases.

The United States has provided as much funding for emergency food assistance for Syrians — $1.55 billion — as all other international donors combined. Our assistance helps feed more than 5 million Syrians inside Syria and in neighboring countries.

Life is tough for Mohammed and his family, but they are surviving. “I really thank all those who contributed to deliver us aid,” he said.

11.5 million — Syrians in need of health care

Fighters took over Sally and Ahmad’s hometown three years ago. Sally, then 18, witnessed the fighters kill their neighbors for refusing to help them; the couple fled in the middle of the night.

The couple found refuge in a rundown apartment that they can’t afford — Ahmad has sporadic work, and they make ends meet by borrowing from relatives — and Sally became pregnant.

The couple was concerned because they couldn’t afford prenatal care or a hospital birth, but as Sally’s due date approached, a friend told her about a USAID partner that helps expectant mothers.

About 6 million people have received treatment at 140 medical facilities across Syria that receive support from the American people.

The timing was fortuitous: On the same day that Sally met with one of the partner’s caseworkers, she was admitted to the hospital and gave birth to a healthy baby. The partner also arranged for follow-up appointments.

“The hospital was near and clean,” she said. “The staff treated me in a nice and professional way. I felt safe and had [my baby] with peace of mind.”

Sally is one of about 6 million people treated at one of 140 medical facilities across Syria that receive support from the American people. The new parents hope to eventually return to their old lives and raise their child in their hometown — but until that day, they say they are grateful for the assistance they received.

Up to 50 percent — Syrians who suffer from psychological distress

In 2014, Hend received news no parent wants to hear: There was an explosion at a nearby school, and her daughter was among 50 people who were killed.

“I used to be a mother of four children,” she said. “But now they are three.”

Her life, already not an easy one amid the ongoing crisis, became more than she could bear. She spent her days crying and eventually had a nervous breakdown. Her children lived in a constant state of sadness and grief.

Help came in the form of psychosocial counseling by one of our partners. Hend and a neighbor who also lost a child in the bombing — which also injured 170 people, mostly children — each enrolled in sessions that helped their families learn how to better cope with their losses and move forward.

Progress came slowly for Hend and her children, but she said the treatment has helped. She learned how to control her temper and how to speak with her husband and children when she’s sad.

“During the program, I got to know specialists who helped me regain my composure,” Hend said. “They were friendly with the sad participants, and we started to feel that we have known them for a long time.”

Hend said the support has helped her family — but hers is one of millions affected by the conflict.

Without a political solution there will be no end in sight to the largest humanitarian emergency of our generation.

Learn more about USAID’s response to the Syrian crisis.

About the Author

Jack Myer is the leader of the Syria Regional Disaster Assistance Response Team for USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.

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