Remarks by Administrator Rajiv Shah at the Middle East Institute Conference on Saving Syria's Civilians

Friday, January 31, 2014

[As Delivered]

Good afternoon. Thank you, Wendy, for that kind introduction. In all honesty, one of my favorite moments in this role was visiting the Syrian-American community outside of Detroit, which, as you my may know, is the largest Syrian-American community anywhere in our country.

There are doctors from that community that go in and out of Syria, and make a huge difference, doing extraordinary things at great personal risk. So, I’m proud to be from Detroit, and proud to highlight the accomplishments and service that come from that great city all the time.

I also want to recognize Ann Richard, our Assistant Secretary of State for PRM, who is here, and I think shared some thoughts with you this morning. And Nancy Lindborg—Nancy, as you know, is really the one who is on behalf of USAID leading this effort, together with her colleagues Rob Jenkins and Alina Romanowski, they have really come together to make sure that all of the resources of our government and our agency can be deployed, in whatever means are required, to address what is the largest humanitarian crisis we face. So, thank you, Nancy, for your leadership. Nancy needs no introduction.

I’m thrilled to see so many of our partners here as well, and look forward to a panel discussion with outstanding experts who will share with you, I think in much more granular detail, the quality, the effectiveness and the challenges we all face trying to address a humanitarian catastrophe that of course gets worse every day, because its root underlying cause remains uncontained.

So thank you—many of you are partners, many of you take risks to do this work, and many of you are critical to our efforts to help serve the millions of people who are in dire need right now.

I was in Lebanon and Jordan just a few weeks ago and had a chance to meet with a family—a young woman and her five young children, who are Syrian refugees embedded in a community inside Amman. She told me about leaving her home, and her businesses, she described that her husband, after arriving in Amman, went back to make sure that their assets and property were protected—and never returned. And as we were talking, her young children—kids about the same age as mine—were running around the room and holding onto her. And she described how for the first time in two years, they were just getting the chance to go to school. How they had spent down all of their assets; went for a period of time without any food support; and were now getting vouchers from the world food program, to allow them to buy food in local communities; and trying to get back on their feet, but in an extraordinarily difficult circumstance. 

And while I only met one mother that day, we know that there are more than 11 million people like her inside Syria and across the region—who have left their homes and been cut off from their communities and their livelihoods.

I only met a few of the kids that day, but we know that more than 5 million of the people are children whose lives that will never be the same.

Think about that.

It is as if every student in the 25 largest U.S. school districts—including New York, LA, Chicago, Miami and 21 others—had been affected by violence, homelessness, hunger, disease, or malnutrition, all at once and simultaneously.

Since this time just last year, there are more than 4 times as many internally displaced persons and 4 times as many refugees.

Over 40 percent of Syria’s population is now in need of humanitarian assistance.

The scale of this challenge is unprecedented.

In three years, we have seen a brutal civil war has created not only a humanitarian crisis, but has taken a country of engineers and artists; entrepreneurs and doctors; teachers and scientists; and destroyed more than three decades of capital stock in that country.

The UN estimates that Syria has lost 35 years of development in just two and a half years of conflict.

So even as we struggle to grasp the real meaning of all these numbers, we really can’t lose sight—as Secretary Kerry just recently noted—of how this revolution began. Not with Scud missiles, barrel bombs, and systematic torture. But with graffiti cans and the peaceful protests of citizens calling for change.

The United States will continue to stand with the Syrian people against the brutality of Assad’s regime, but so long as the violence and bloodshed continues, no amount of humanitarian aid—and we have led the world in providing nearly $3 billion of support in development support throughout the region—no amount of developmental and humanitarian aid is going to address this challenge.

A negotiated political transition—as outlined in the Geneva communiqué—represents the best opportunity to create a transitional opportunity.

And as Secretary Kerry has said, Bashar Assad cannot be a part of that transition.

A man who holds his own country hostage; a man who retaliates against hospitals and doctors; who has used both starvation and chemical weapons as tools of war against his own people; does not have the capacity to bring about peace.

So, in this context, Syrians themselves must chart their own path forward, Secretary Kerry and the United States government are working relentlessly toward a political solution, and I know that you heard from Jeff Feldman earlier about efforts in that regard.

But it doesn’t mask the fact that there is a critical crisis going on, and in many cases, has acute consequences. Right now, in too many parts of Syria, civilians are being used as chess pieces in this conflict.

In Homs, people have been cut off from life-saving aid for months. In the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, 160,000 citizens are still waiting for clean water and other life-saving supplies that cannot get past the regime’s blockades.

We’re not talking about fighters here. We’re talking about men and women; girls and boys; families and children.

The roads are being closed by a government that has the capacity to enforce checkpoints and literally stop from being delivered across the line. This violates every basic humanitarian principle, and is absolutely unacceptable. 

As Secretary Kerry recently noted, “If the regime can allow access to United Nations and international weapons inspectors, surely it can do the same for neutral, international humanitarian assistance.”

It is absolutely within their power to open these areas—and open them immediately—in order to avoid the very real and accelerating pictures of abuse you have seen.

Despite these challenges, and despite the dire nature of the challenge we face, there are aid workers, doctors, and nurses who risk their lives every day to bring medicines, perform surgeries, and deliver food in regions torn apart by violence. Since the crisis began, more than one hundred NGO workers have been killed, tortured or abducted.

Not all of them have been caught in the crossfire. Many have been directly targeted—especially those who work in medical facilities—for the very act of providing humanitarian support to those in need.

They are truly humanitarian heroes. And the fact that some of them come from Detroit just makes me more proud.

And thanks to their sacrifices, they are saving lives every day.

The United States government has been able to supply food, clean water, shelter, medical care and relief supplies to help 1.4 million refugees and 4.2 million people inside of Syria, including in the most ravaged areas like Daraa and Aleppo.

Majid and his family were among them when intense fighting forced them to flee Homs. When his family arrived in Tartous, they had nothing but each other and the clothing on their backs.

They managed to find shelter in a shared apartment with another displaced Syrian, but this new “home” did not have the capacity to protect them.

They were sleeping on cold, hard floors, and its our humanitarian resources and partners that reach them and families like them with basic winterization supplies—mattresses, extra thermal blankets, and winter clothing to help them through the cold season.

It may not sound like much. And in the context of what we see on television, and the fact that the number of people have died in this crisis in over 100,000, it certainly is not enough. But I want to ensure you that America’s investment in humanitarian support has made a huge difference for millions and millions of people.

At the same time, nearly one million patients have been treated at 260 field hospitals and clinics that we help support. Early warning systems for communicable diseases have helped manage and maintain widespread child disease and death at a time when infrastructure is literally falling apart.

So it was in this context, earlier this month, Secretary John Kerry and Nancy and Ann led our delegation to Kuwait, where the Secretary General was trying to raise billions of dollars for the humanitarian effort in the year going forward. He committed $380 million in additional humanitarian assistance—which now brings our total to more than $3 billion when you include the support we provide in Jordan and Lebanon.

This is allowing a wide-ranging humanitarian effort to do things as unheard of—and as timely and necessary—as a massive polio vaccination campaign. We were all deeply concerned to hear about 23 confirmed positive polio cases inside of Syria, and the very fact that it surfaced inside of Syria, when the disease had been eradicated from the region for a decade, is an indicator of how quickly things can go backwards.

Today, the UN is leading the largest-ever polio vaccination campaign in the region, aimed at immunizing approximately 20 million children across the Middle East, including 2.2 million kids inside of Syria.

So what does it tell us, that we are able to mount these types of large scale efforts when we put effort and get support to do so? It means that even though right now is a time of extraordinary crisis, we also have to look for and find and take advantage of certain core opportunities.

And we’ve been trying to do that by bringing our humanitarian and development teams and efforts together to focus on building resilience in the country and in the region.

Today, for the first time ever, both Jordan and Lebanon have resilience plans in place to help their countries withstand the impact of the crisis and keep their borders open to Syrians in need.

Today, almost 2.5 million Syrian refugees now live in these neighboring countries.

In Lebanon, 1 out of every 5 people is from Syria. And in some cases, Syrian refugees now outnumber local populations in certain towns, especially along the border.

In Jordan, the influx has been so significant it’s as if the entire population of Canada moved to the United States over the last 18 months. No comment about our Canadian colleagues [laughs].

In both countries, the greatest concentration of refugees overlaps with the poorest communities—and this is important. Because this means we have to do things in a sensitive way. If we just rush in and provide traditional humanitarian support to refugees—walking by the children who are not going to school, who are getting displaced, who are also in dire need as their economies are under extraordinary stress—we will only be fueling the divisions and the risks and the consequences that prevent unity from succeeding. 

And that’s why we’ve done some really unique things to help our colleagues in supporting Jordan and Lebanon in particular.

In Jordan, one of the driest countries in the world, we are providing more than $20 million through a Complex Crises Fund to help communities manage their precious water resources.

In fact, our developmental water programs with Jordan over the past five years have put enough water infrastructure into the north so that the entire Zaa’tri refugee camp—the largest one in Jordan—is fed clean water through a USAID project that completed just before the crisis started.

We’ve set up a revolving credit fund so families have loans to install cisterns for harvesting rainwater. We’ve expanded access to health systems and schools and clinics so that the Jordanian and Lebanese people also have better access to basic services.

And this effort around local school systems is perhaps most critical and most significant, since half of all refugees coming from Syria to these two countries are school-age children.

In Lebanon, we’ve helped rehabilitate over 180 public schools to improve the infrastructure of those schools, train teachers, get science and lab equipment into them. And as a result, in many of these places, they are now able to provide education to Lebanese kids in the morning, Syrian kids in the afternoon.

And this trend towards the double shift is going to be a big part towards making sure that these kids get a chance to school.

Now, we want to be sure that this devastating crisis that has robbed them of their homes doesn't rob these children of their future.

That is why we launched, in Kuwait, the “No Lost Generation” initiative. The idea is very straightforward: to make sure that even as we face a crisis now, we are putting in place some solutions as best we can to make sure that we don’t end up with a generation of young children whose only experience with the international community is not being there when they needed us most. 

Many of these kids have been out of school for over two years, and nearly 4,000 of their schools in Syria are sheltering displaced families or have been damaged or destroyed.

And yet, the future of what we hope is democratic, stable Syria depends precisely on these kids returning with the skills and capacity to be part of a positive future. That’s why the United States has now committed more than $100 million to schools in Lebanon and Jordan—and some inside of Syria—as part of this No Lost Generation Initiative. It’s why I’m spending time calling my counterparts to ask them to match these efforts—because even as we fight an immediate and critical humanitarian crisis, we need to build the infrastructure that keeps this generation of kids on track to be a productive citizens for a more peaceful and brighter future.

So I’d like to conclude just by saying thank you. I look around this room and see so many folks who are part of our partner organizations who are out there doing this work. And I know that largely what you do is unheralded. Almost every article that we read or see starts with a narrative that says, “We’re all not doing enough.”

And it’s hard when you look at these kids, and you see what they’re going through, to think we are doing enough. We can never really do enough. But the United States can be proud of the fact that we’ve been the primary support of humanitarian aid and assistance. That we’ve done it differently, aggressively, more creatively, in order to reach people inside and outside of Syria. And that we’ve done it in a manner to enable Syria’s neighboring countries to at least continue to have economic stability and hope for the future.

And my final request of all of you is that you continue to stay committed to this, continue to tell this story in Congress and around our country so that we have the capacity to extend this forward in the years ahead. Thank you.

National Press Club, Washington DC

Last updated: February 21, 2014

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