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Q&A: World Vision president, back from Lebanon, talks of Syrian refugee crisis

Many of the children’s drawings Rich Stearns saw in Lebanon this month depicted war and sorrow.

During a four-day trip to the country, Stearns, the U.S. president of Federal Way-based World Vision, met with Syrian refugees to learn more about the crisis facing the region.

Part of World Vision’s work there is helping children cope with tragedy, including with art therapy.

The kids Stearns met had been asked to draw life before the war: mostly smiling families and playing. Then they drew life after the war: mostly bombing and tragedy.

Stearns talked with The News Tribune about the trip, and World Vision’s work in the region.

Q: Can you give an overview of the crisis?

A: The Syrian refugee crisis is probably the area of greatest human suffering in the world today. We believe there are about 12 million people displaced from their homes. Almost half the country has fled, because of violence and shelling and fighting.

About 4 million have made their way out of Syria, and they are pouring into Turkey and Jordan and Lebanon primarily.

The crisis in a nutshell is: What do you do with 4 million people outside of Syria who are now homeless, with pretty much just the clothes on their backs?

Q: What is World Vision doing?

A: World Vision has been responding pretty much since the beginning of the conflict.

We’re running a program that costs about $100 million a year in the region. It’s primarily funded by government grants from various countries, and also private donations.

Q: How has this affected Syrian children who are refugees?

A: Half of them are children. These are traumatized children. They’ve seen violence, they’ve seen a parent killed maybe. They’ve seen other children killed. They’ve been subjected to chemical weapons attacks.

We’ve got loving, kind counselors working with the kids to deal with their situation.

One girl we interviewed, we asked her to explain her drawing. And she said: ‘Well, this is my house and this is the bedroom my father was in, and I was on the stairs when the rocket came and hit my father.’

Q: Of the countries with Syrian refugees, why did you choose to visit Lebanon?

A: I wanted to see the situation in Lebanon. We wanted to see and speak to and meet Syrian families. Speak to some of the Lebanese people on the ground as well.

And we wanted to get a sense of the dimensions of the crisis and the human face of the crisis. It’s very easy to get caught up in the numbers and forget that these are human beings.

Q: Did anything surprise you during the visit?

A: The notion that the great majority of these refugees have disappeared into the apartment buildings, into the alleyways. Appalling conditions. Most of them don’t have an income, and they’re having to pay rent and find places to live.

If you went to Beruit, if you weren’t told, you wouldn’t know there was a refugee crisis — 80 percent are kind of invisible. I describe it like water going into the sand. Where’s the water now?

About 20 percent of the refugees have settled in temporary tent encampments. But the Lebanese government will not allow official refugee camps.

They’ve allowed over a million refugees to come into a country of about 4 million people. One out of every five people in Lebanon now is a refugee. Maybe even one out of four if you look at refugees from previous conflicts.

Q: What were the situations of some other people you met?

A: There was a woman in one of the tented camps. She and her five daughters lived in a 10-by-10 tent. They had not talked to her husband for over a year. We don’t know whether he is alive.

When they were back home, she was walking with her children, and a sniper shot her in the leg. She managed to get away with the kids, but she took a bullet in the leg. That was the last straw, they realized they needed to flee.

Most of the folks, we’d call them middle-class families. They’re business owners, they’re carpenters, they’re working people. They had homes they owned, in many cases.

A lot of the refugees, they have their keys to their home with them. It’s almost symbolic, like: “We’re going back.” They all want to go back.

They want to see the war end. They’ve got different views of how it should end and who should win, but they all want to go back to a peaceful Syria someday. The children especially.

Q: Any particular stories people told you?

A: One family had two children, a 15-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl.

The boy had been sitting on his porch in Syria and a car bomb went off, and he took shrapnel to the head, He was in a coma, rushed to a hospital. He finally came out of the coma, but he’s paralyzed on his right side.

He used to play soccer. He had a picture of the soccer team he was on. They had to flee, because some of the combatants were in the same hospital, and they were worried the hospital would get shelled by the regime.

They took this handicapped boy and fled to Lebanon. They don’t have a wheelchair.

Q: Is the need for food and medical care being met?

A: The total humanitarian effort is grossly underfunded. People are despairing. The refugees are not allowed to hold most jobs in Lebanon, so they can’t even go to work. We’re doing water and sanitation in some of the camps. The food system is diminishing.

We need more funding. We raise money for a lot of things. As of April of last year, the war was 4 years old. We had raised, over four years at World Vision in the United States, about $2.7 million to respond to the Syrian refugees. There was an earthquake in Nepal in April, and we raised $8 million the first week.

In September, the photo of the 3-year-old boy, Aylan Kurdi, appeared in the media. Since that photo appeared it’s either $3 million or $4 million has come in.

People said: That’s a little boy who could be mine. Whoever’s fault it was, it wasn’t his.

Q: How do you explain the political situation to people?

A: I basically say, it doesn’t matter why people are suffering, what matters is that they are suffering, and it’s something they’re helpless to do anything about.

In this particular conflict, it’s hard to figure out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. It’s part of this massive Arab Spring that started four or five years ago, which was an uprising against dictators or oppressive governments.

The mega story in the region is the clash between the Sunni and the Shia Muslims. In Syria (President) Bashar al-Assad is a Shia Muslim, and the opposition are Sunni Muslims.

Boiling underneath this is literally a 1,400-year-old conflict between Sunni and Shia. Syria is kind of the last eruption of that tension.

For more information

To donate or to learn more, visit worldvision.org.

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