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The situation in Syria is bleaker than ever. Here’s what you can do to help

Yesterday’s horrific chemical bombing in northern Syria left up to 100 people dead, many of them children. With no end to the brutal six-year war in sight, it’s easy to despair. But don’t give up, says Murdoch Stephens – there are steps you can take right now to help those in desperate need.

If you follow the news from the Syrian war you’ve likely noticed that the conflict has escalated in the last six months, from the bombardment of Aleppo through to the Turkish offensive from the north and the US backing of the Syrian Defence Forces as they approach Raqqa. On Wednesday we heard of a terrible gas attack in Idlib province, leaving dozens dead.

The United Nations refugee agency has just announced that, after plateauing, refugee numbers are on the rise. Syrians forced to flee war and persecution are now more than five million with over half of the country internally displaced.

After the flourishes of care shown in late 2015, eighteen months on the wealthier countries of the world have slowed the flow of refugees and moved the crisis off the front pages.

But with the increase in violence people are starting to ask again what they can do. As the guy who started the double the refugee quota campaign, you might think that would be my only answer. But, actually, there are so many things that New Zealanders can do as well.

Support local peace groups

Yes, the Syrian conflict is very, very complex but some things are simpler than others. One, oppose the unfettered aerial bombardments of civilian areas, both by the Russian-led team in Aleppo and the USA-backed forces in Mosul. Two, oppose the global weapons industry, as it exists locally.

It was pretty easy in 2003 to know which side to be on as the US launched their misbegotten invasion of Iraq. That was also the most recent peak of anti-war activism in New Zealand. Since then peace activist groups have made most headlines for opposing the annual weapons conference, usually in Wellington, but in Auckland in 2016.

Support Peace Action Wellington and help them oppose groups like MAS Zengrange, in the Wellington’s Hutt Valley. See Peace Action Wellington’s comprehensive report on New Zealand’s involvement in arms manufacturing.

Support Auckland Peace Action who are on the front line of opposition to warmongering in Tāmaki Makarau.

A displaced Syrian child in a makeshift refugee camp only miles from the border with Syria in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, November 2013. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Push for NZ to increase aid – and donate yourself

Oxfam’s fair share analysis shows the result of Murray McCully’s refocus of aid on the Pacific when he first took office: the government is full of claims like “we’re pumping aid into camps” which are outright lies. We’re doing about 15% of our fair share. It’s a disgrace. We’re giving less per capita than Saudi Arabia, Japan and Poland.

On the NGO front you’ve got your Oxfam, WorldVision, Unicef, Tearfund and Red Cross (don’t make me google/hyperlink them for you) campaigns to give aid to Syria. But if you’ve got a whiff of the DIY community action about you, then perhaps you’d prefer to support a small group like the No Borders Kitchen.

Double the quota

Taking our fair share of refugees wont stop the war, but it’s the right thing to do for those least likely to survive prolonged displacement. It should also be a damn easy thing to do. No-one is saying we should welcome a million people like Lebanon, nor even as many people as Sweden which, at the height of their intake in 2015, welcomed more than 80 times as many people per capita as New Zealand. We’re just saying do our bit. Australia – not exactly humanitarian Olympians – accept more than three times New Zealand. Their quota will rise to 18,500 in 2018 when we’ll be taking 1000.

Sign up to help on the Double the Quota campaign by Doing Our Bit as we pressure political parties to do our bit in the lead up to the 2017 election. We also just finished our PledgeMe campaign, but you can email us to get the same rewards. T-shirts for all y’all!

Help refugee communities in New Zealand

Syrian refugees have been resettled in Wellington and Dunedin. But all the resettlement regions (Auckland, Hamilton, Palmerston North, Wellington, Nelson, Dunedin and a new one to be announced soon) have opportunities to volunteer, both via the Red Cross and by volunteering to teach English. We talk a lot about having a world-class resettlement programme, but community volunteers hold so much of it together.

Volunteer with the Red Cross by donating goods, offering help with employment or helping a new family in their first year in Aotearoa. Also, check out the massive list of organisations and resources compiled by the Red Cross including refugee-led groups helping raise the profile of their work.

You might also like to spread the word about the need to Save Shakti, a group that offers protection to migrant and refugee women experiencing violence in Wellington. Head along to their fundraising film screening in a few weeks at the Lighthouse Cinema.

A Syrian Kurdish woman waits with her daughter near the Syria/Turkey border on October 2, 2014. (Photo: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Apply political pressure

Election years tend to sharpen the focus on domestic concerns. But given National’s “mean-spirited and callous” response to the refugee crisis there are also opportunities to challenge their weak leadership on international issues. We need to see a genuine compassionate conservatism. Their Whanganui MP Chester Borrows, who is not seeking re-election, has been taking names and kicking ass on this front. Who else in National is blessed with vertebrae? Where’s my tumbleweed emoji?

And if none do, who from the opposition can hold them to account? Andrew Little visited a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan – a trip that no other sitting MP has made.

What about the Greens? It’s a shame Catherine Delahunty is out of Parliament, but the presence of Marama Davidson in a higher list placing is good news as is the possibility of having New Zealand’s first refugee-background MP in Golriz Ghahraman.

If you’re loath to join a political party then consider supporting Davidson and Ghahraman individually via the Facebook links above.

Get to know the worlds outside the West

I know at least a dozen friends – mostly strong, smart women – who have spent months volunteering on the front lines of the refugee crisis from Calais in France to Lesvos in Greece. Why not OE in Lebanon over London if you’re looking for adventure? You’ll learn a new language and do some good.

On top of the immediate intensity of your experience it’ll mean you have a deep personal connection to the people displaced by war. Knowing people means getting beyond seeing all refugees as angels or devils – they’re people like us, enduring stress but often showing remarkable resilience. Much of my own commitment to the double the quota campaign comes from connections to Afghan refugees who I met in Iran and to Syrian friends who became refugees after we shared a flat in Aleppo in 2009 and 2010.


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