Medair in Syria: A Complex Crisis With Simple Needs

March 30, 2014

Leena Kulkarni is a graduate of the International School of Lausanne. She is currently a junior at Cornell University where she is studying health care policy and maternal and child nutrition.
Imagine you are living a stable life, your children are in school, you have a job, your business is running smoothly. You are happy. Then, there are explosions everywhere. You have to run for your life and leave everything behind. If you are lucky, you manage to grab a few possessions. People around you get away in cars, but you are on foot, slowly making your way to the border of Lebanon. Others flee to Jordan, Iraq or Turkey. Once they reach the border, maybe they are allowed to cross. Maybe not. This is a journey where fear, sickness, pain and death cloud every inch of your peripheral vision – the only thing you see for sure is uncertainty. This is the Syrian crisis.
Lives turned upside down
“I was a car mechanic in Syria,” explains Mohamed, “I had my own house, my own shop and I could work. We moved seven times from place to place to avoid the fighting.” When the violence became too much, Mohamed had no choice but to move. “I waited until the last second to leave. I carried my daughters under my arms. There were so many checkpoints. We had to pay nearly all our savings to get through them all until we reached Jordan.” It took the family 13 hours to travel from Homs to the border, and when they arrived, only his wife and children were allowed to pass through. “I slept at the border for seven days until they let me cross.”
Staggering numbers
According the United Nations, there are 9.3 million people needing humanitarian assistance inside Syria.  Some 6.5 million are still in Syria but are displaced from their homes. There is very little humanitarian aid for these internally displaced people because humanitarian access is so limited by the violence. More than 2.3 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries. More than half of these are children and adolescents.
An NGO you may not know about
UN agencies and humanitarian NGOs are working to help the ever-increasing number of refugees now living under very difficult conditions. One of these is a Swiss NGO you may not have heard of before, Medair. Based in Ecublens, Medair provides emergency relief and recovery services to people in some of the world’s most remote and devastated places such as Afghanistan, D.R. Congo, Somalia, South Sudan and – since September 2012 – to refugees in Jordan and Lebanon who have fled the Syrian conflict. Medair focuses on providing the basics of what people need to survive in crisis situations:  health care, nutrition, clean water, latrines and shelter.
When we think of humanitarian crises, often the images that come to mind are of large refugee camps like the Za’atri camp in Jordan.  But that is only a small part of the Syrian crisis. Refugees are living wherever they can, in rural and urban settings. This creates particular challenges for the humanitarian response. In Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, which is about the size of Lac Leman, tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have set up informal “camps” – groups of families who have fled and are grateful to find a piece of land they can rent from local farmers or other Lebanese landowners.
Medair is providing these families with essential materials they need to build warm and dry shelters – wood, vinyl sheeting, stoves, blankets, water filtration systems and hygiene kits. Medair also helps these groups plan and lay out their “camps” to best deal with rain, run-off, sanitation and garbage.
Awesh is from Aleppo. “Living here is so different,” she said, “We had houses and beds in Syria. It’s been so difficult here. We didn’t take anything, there wasn’t any time.  You just flee.” For now, Awesh and her family are safe. “This project has helped us a lot because when we came, there wasn’t anything to put up to protect us from the sun or from the cold.  We made our tent strong with the wood planks and the vinyl gave us shelter. For people in Switzerland, I would say thanks a lot and please continue to help us. Things are getting worse and we cannot return. We love the people of Lebanon.”
Out of the bomb shelter, into the cold
Ali, 7, suffered severe burns to his face and body when a rocket exploded in his family home in Syria. He and his family made a makeshift bomb shelter in the rubble of their house and lived there for two months before running for their lives. They arrived in Lebanon with little more than the clothes on their backs. Medair provided the family with new shelter materials, mattresses, blankets, and other survival items. “The assistance came at the perfect time,” said Ali’s father. “It rained the very next day.”
A crisis that threatens a whole generation
With so many of the refugees being children and teenagers, another kind of crisis is beginning to emerge. For most young refugees, school is a thing of the past. Many teenagers fear that their futures are lost and their dreams gone. The hope of attending school or university grows fainter with each passing day. “When the bombs starting falling, our children had to stop going to school,” said Foda, mother of seven, “it was like being in prison… we have nothing.”
There are real fears that this will be the “Lost Generation” – an entire generation of children and teenagers whose futures have been ruined because of no education. UN High Commissioner António Guterres said, “If we do not act quickly, a generation of innocents will become lasting casualties of an appalling war.”
What can we do?
No one knows how long it will take for the fighting in Syria to stop so people can return home to rebuild their shattered lives. The political reality behind this tragedy is complex, but the needs are simple. We can help stabilize these communities by providing decent shelter, food, water, and health services. While the needs may seem overwhelming, we can make a difference – one family, one community at a time.
Education is a powerful tool.  Help us spread the word.
Visit for real stories and facts about the Syrian crisis.  Share these with your friends on your personal social media outlets; Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn.
Connect your school with Medair through the Medair Mentor program. Your school will receive a school visit with a multimedia presentation about the Syrian crisis. The situation will be explained with maps, videos and real field stories to bring this situation alive. Your school will have a connection with a mentor who will work directly with the students to create a school-wide fundraising challenge or other project.

  • 35 CHF provides a child with a warm blanket and a mattress
  • 105 CHF provides a family with a stove to cook and heat their home
  • 230 CHF provides a family with heavy vinyl sheeting to insulate their shelter against the cold and rain

Medair was founded in 1988 in Lausanne, Switzerland, and became a recognised sanctioned Swiss NGO in 1989. Medair helps people who are suffering in remote and devastated communities around the world survive crises, recover with dignity, and develop the skills they need to build a better future. To learn more about Medair’s work visit For more information about the Medair Mentor program, contact Jim Jackson, Medair’s Executive Office Director.

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