When over a million Kurdish refugees poured out of Iraq into Turkey in 1991, the United States sent in military cargo planes loaded with food, blankets, and other supplies. In one day six U.S. Air Force C-130 transports dropped 32 tons of aid. The U.S. also provided air cover as the UN brought a convoy of trucks from Turkey bearing tents and other supplies. Other nations joined to help, but the United States took the lead—and some argued should have for its role in the Gulf War.
Today over 9 million Syrians out of a country of 20 million stand in desperate need of food and essential supplies. At least 2 million have left the country (see our Daniel of the Year coverage plus “Outside the camps,” Nov. 1). Any visible show of America’s humanitarian side has come on the ground and by an army of nonprofits. Yet some will argue that the sudden and final withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in December 2011 created a vacuum for the armed uprisings that began the following month in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere.
To be sure, the United States, according to the State Department, has agreed to fund $1.3 billion in humanitarian assistance for Syria. The State Department claims American taxpayers are “the single-largest contributor” of aid there.
But that billion-plus is only authorization to fund. It will be paid out via multiple government agencies and nongovernmental organizations over multiple years—think of having your hungry 10-year-old son plead for dinner and offering to buy him a steak when he turns 16. It’s not the kind of U.S. rapid response we’ve seen even as recently as last month’s typhoon in the Philippines.
As we’ve covered this, now the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis, and watched the death toll mount to well over 100,000, WORLD readers have written us, vexed over how to help. More than several of you even have offered to take a Syrian family into your home.
Some of the best work we know of involves aid groups networked to local church groups. Peter Howard of Food for the Hungry told me this model has given his organization hope in an otherwise hopeless situation: “We don’t have to be operational there because we have such a strong church network we are working with. And the beauty of that is it’s more sustainable when we are gone.”
Howard pointed out that churches in Lebanon have been especially helpful because “they have come from war to war to war.” It’s a resilience you see among Middle East churches in general, he said: “They have a theology of suffering, and can live in the midst of it. They know how to keep going, how to steward resources, and how to bless others.”
In addition to Food for the Hungry, Barnabas Aid Fund, Mercy USA, Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision, Open Doors, and Voice of the Martyrs are groups we know to be working with Syria’s most needy. The International Rescue Committee and Save the Children are working in refugee camps outside Syria’s borders. International Orthodox Christian Charities is providing aid via Syria’s predominant Orthodox churches, and Caritas and Catholic Relief Services are doing the same via Catholic, Chaldean, and other churches. Those in America looking to give might consider a group (or church) fundraiser with proceeds donated to one of these organizations.
Helping Syrian families resettle in America is more difficult. The United States in 2013 has taken in only 31 Syrian refugees. It and 15 other nations agreed to take 10,000 but have yet to follow through.
Lebanon’s minister of social affairs Wael Abu Faour complained: “Nothing of significance has materialized so far. … We are more than disappointed. We are frustrated. It has been more than two years of advice, of lessons, of promises and nothing.”
What most Syrians want is a country they can return to. Once stood up, the Kurds returned, and today Iraqi Kurdistan is an economic marvel. Its 2011 GDP was $20 billion, ranking it (as a region) ahead of Iceland. It’s pro-American and less violent than the rest of Iraq. For the Middle East, and for the United States, these aren’t bad dividends for helping when it matters most.