For Syrians -- both refugees and those remaining -- the past five and a half years have been a living nightmare with no end in sight. Those trapped in Aleppo -- the world's oldest continuously populated city and former capital of Sephardic Jewry -- are under siege, starving, and under constant rocket attack by Syrian forces and their Russian and Iranian allies.
With over 400,000 casualties and over 12 million Syrians forced to flee their homes, 5 million of whom are refugees in neighboring countries or abroad, the situation is being called the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.
To shed light on the current situation and Israel's inspiring role in responding, JUF's Jewish Community Relations Council, the Syrian Community Network, and The Syrian American Medical Society sponsored a panel discussion titled, "Humanitarian Crisis in Syria: Realities and Responses," in late September at Chicago's Fourth Presbyterian Church. (Watch a video of the full discussion below).
"With ceasefires continually failing, we continue to see targeted attacks on civilians and hospitals, which constitute war crimes under international law," said Steven Dishler, JUF's Assistant Vice President of International & Public Affairs. "This is why we are gathered here today as Jews, Christians, and Muslims to show that as communities of faith, we cannot be silent to the suffering of the Syrian people."
Dr. Georgette Bennett, founder and president of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding and the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, opened by stating that as the child of Holocaust survivors, she feels she owes a "great debt for my life. This is one of the ways that I pay it."
She reported that among the nearly 5 million refugees, Bennett estimates that hundreds of thousands if not millions of others are not registered and therefore have no access to services. 80 percent of these unregistered refugees are women and children who live outside of the camps and who are not permitted to work and have to survive below the radar.
Just as vulnerable are the millions of asylum seekers crossing borders at grave risk, often in the hands of criminal smugglers. Compounding this are the refugees who do finally make it to the other side, only to wallow indefinitely inside camps.
"Education is one of the great losses of this war," said Bennett who estimates that 200,000 Syrian children in Lebanon alone have not gone to school for the past five years.
Shadi Martini, Senior Syria Advisor to the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, shared his story from businessman to activist and then refugee. As a hospital executive in Aleppo, he watched events unfolding elsewhere in the Middle East from a distance, until 2011, when the war came to his country and his family. Eventually, Martini began to secretly help victims of the bombings. He soon found out something surprising: one of the major supporters of humanitarian aid came from Israel. "That was a shock for us," Martini said.
Speaking before members of Congress earlier this year he relayed how this encounter with Israelis changed his thinking. "You know, there's no love lost between Syrians and Israelis. I can tell you that. But all of a sudden, we looked at each other and I said, 'why are you doing this?' And the simple [answer] was, 'because you need our help.' Somehow we managed to bypass all our political differences, all our anger, and work together with other groups, through faith lines, and it just didn't matter."
"It was a real eye opener for me and my friends," he said.
"At that moment I understood not to look at people because of faith or nationality but to look at them as human beings who come to aid other human beings who are suffering and needed their help. This is what brought me to the interfaith world.
If I can work with my [former] 'biggest enemy' to save lives, I think anyone anywhere in the world can work together," Martini continued.
Dr. Zaher Sahloul, founder of the American Relief Coalition for Syria and past president of the Syrian American Medical Society, spoke about the dire conditions medical personnel are working in, and urged Americans to implore President Obama and Congress to protect the citizens of Syria with a no-fly zone.
Lina Sergei Attar, co-founder and CEO of Karam Foundation, spoke about the work her foundation is doing to help Syrian refugee children. "When are we as collective humanity going to decide to finally disrupt fear and hate?" she said. "It is unacceptable for us to watch people starving, being drowned, dying. It is the failure of the world, the failure of humanitarian models, the failure of our promise of 'never again.' We need to end the conflict."
Closing the program, David T. Brown, JCRC Chairman, spoke about JUF's global humanitarian efforts: "Through the generosity of Chicago's Jewish community, the Jewish United Fund not only provides human services to 300,000 Chicagoans of all faiths, but also lends humanitarian assistance to millions of people in Israel and 70 countries around the world, rushing aid to communities in crisis across the globe."
Abigail Pickus is a Chicago-based writer and editor.
JCRC staff contributed to this article.