Chris Clarke: Looking for hope after five years of Syrian war

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World Vision New Zealand CEO Chris Clarke reflects on what he has witnessed of the war in Syria, and the generosity of New Zealanders to those suffering.

For five years Syria has suffered through a civil war that has tortured its people and destroyed the country.

For five years too long children have witnessed things no one should ever see. Millions of people have been forced to flee their homes; a desperate decision for the survival of their families.

But even after five years of war I still see hope. I saw it in the faces of fathers who believe they will one day return with their children to Syria. I saw hope in a refugee camp in Lebanon where Syrian children laughed and played for the first time in many months and were given a chance to reclaim their childhood. And I found hope in the generosity of New Zealanders who gave so kindly to help Syrians survive this war.

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the conflict, an unfortunate word to use for a conflict where the statistics in terms of the death and suffering are immense. At least 250,000 people have been killed. There are nearly 5 million registered refugees in Syria's neighbouring countries alone - half of them children.

Hundreds of thousands more have attempted the perilous journey to Europe. And inside Syria an estimated 13.5 million people need humanitarian assistance.

This conflict has cost Syria an estimated $US275 billion. If the war continues to 2020, the cost of the conflict will grow to $US1.3 trillion. Life expectancy in Syria has fallen by 15 years, and is now just 55 years. Young children are leaving school and are forced to work to help their families survive or into marriage for their own safety.

In the Middle East I came within 400 metres of an ISIS controlled town, black flags hanging limply in the heat. I joined long lines of refugees queuing for food. I interviewed Syrians who somehow survived a hail of bullets to reach 'freedom' and held a limp baby girl so malnourished she could no longer cry.

At the same time I saw hope in the people desperate to survive. For the millions of refugees who fled their homes, it was hope that drove them to make the dangerous journey out of Syria to try and find a better life for their children.

While the statistics of this war are splashed across the news, the stories of hope often don't make the headlines. For most hope is intensely private; an act of defiance - a refusal to be defined and destroyed by circumstance - and also gestures of love. A father who travels to the city to earn enough money so his children can go to school. A mother who goes without so her children do not. A 12-year-old refugee boy who gets up before dawn each morning to cut firewood for the princely sum of $2 a day.

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This hope comes from people who refuse to be defined by what they do not have, or by what they have lost. They know there will be more heartache, tears and faltering steps ahead. Yet it is their sense of vision and possibility that sustains them. It's why they flee their homes, and it is why the Syrian refugees who have arrived here, chose a new beginning in New Zealand.

And for so many Kiwis it was their sense of helplessness watching so many Syrians suffer, that drove their generosity and overwhelming support for World Vision and the Herald's Forgotten Millions campaign. This gave me hope and faith in the work we do for the most vulnerable citizens of the global community.

Since 2011 World Vision has assisted more than 2.37 million people affected by the Syrian crisis. To continue this lifesaving work, World Vision needs more funding to meet the urgent humanitarian crisis across Syria and neighbouring countries.

With hope we can stem the tide of helplessness. And in the face of so much suffering I know the generosity that New Zealanders show time and time again, gives hope to those who have little else left.

Chris Clarke is the CEO of World Vision NZ.

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