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This article originally appeared at The Hill's Congress Blog.
By Sarnata Reynolds
On a craggy, windswept hill in northern Lebanon, high above the Mediterranean Sea, my Refugees International colleague and I knocked on the door to what looked like a small, derelict building. A woman opened the door, looking hesitantly at us. A trusted member of the village told her why we had come – to meet with refugees from Syria and hear their experiences and needs – and she allowed us to enter. Her family had fled from Homs, a city that has been under constant bombardment in recent weeks by the Syrian military.
We walked into a room that was cold and bare. Members of the household huddled around a small stove fueled by gas. Next to it was a round plastic table where we sat and had small cups of coffee. We learned that this shelter hosted 13 people in all: a grandmother who was still in her forties, some of her children, and her grandchildren. Her daughter was there too, with her husband and children. The youngest person in the house was three years old. One woman was about to have a baby.
The entire time we were there, the grandmother appeared nervous, asking us repeatedly whether the Syrian government knew we were there, or what we were asking. We assured her that we would never reveal her name. I'm not sure she was convinced. When we asked how long the monthly rations they received from international agencies lasted, the grandmother said about ten days, sometimes longer. They did not include fresh fruit, vegetables, or meat. We asked what they did when they ran out of food and she said that they scraped by, looking for whatever work was available and hoping for gifts from local charities.
Three of the men had been trying to get jobs, but for months none have been hired. The only one in the family to find work was the grandmother's thirteen-year-old son. He brings in $25 per week by working from 8:30am to 8pm, six days a week. A local doctor who is providing free services diagnosed him with tonsillitis, and he has chronic asthma. When his family tried to get him medicine and an appointment at a hospital they were turned away because they were not registered with the government, even though they were registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency.
Later, we met another family from Homs who were recovering from bullet wounds they sustained while trying to flee the city. A 12-year-old boy lay in one bed, having been shot in the leg by Syrian soldiers. His mother lay across from him, recovering from being hit in the foot. Her husband, however, was not in the room: he had been shot in the head and lost a substantial part of his brain function. The mother and child told us their stories because they wanted the world to know what was happening to the Syrian people. It was devastating. We then met others recovering from bullet, shrapnel, and mine wounds. More than one had lost a limb, and more than one was a child.
As the world argues over whether and how to protect the Syrian people from their own government, the killing and maiming continues. Without a doubt, the military is not limiting its offensive to just the opposition – or to men, or even adults. The elderly and young seem also to be considered fair game.
But the families we met were, in a way, the lucky ones: they got out. Because of landmines and snipers placed along the border, many more are locked inside Syria and cannot escape. That is why the international community must immediately dispatch – and the Syrian government must allow – impartial humanitarian assistance. Relief organizations are willing to enter Syria to treat the wounded despite the dangers, and they should be permitted to do so. Whatever their political positions, all parties should agree that allowing medical staff to do their work is vital, and that humanitarian space should never be a political bargaining chip.