November 17, 2013
AMMAN: As Syria’s humanitarian crisis expands, children are bearing a catastrophic portion of the suffering. Roughly half of the 2.2 million refugees who have fled to neighboring countries are under the age of 18, as are some 4 million of the 6.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). This means that over half of all Syrian children are currently in need of humanitarian assistance. A confirmed polio outbreak in Deir e-Zor threaten to exacerbate this already dire situation.
Juliette Touma is a spokesperson for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) operations in Amman, Jordan. She spoke with Syria Direct’s Nuha Shaaban about the Polio threat and impediments to humanitarian access inside Syria.
Q: What measures is UNICEF taking to address the recent polio outbreak?
A: Two and a half weeks ago, the World Health Organization confirmed ten cases of polio, and Monday 13 cases were confirmed in Deir e-Zor. This disease was eliminated in 1999, and now one case is enough to sound the alarm and begin a wide-ranging vaccination campaign, inside and outside Syria. We started with Deir e-Zor, and then moved to neighboring states like the Gaza Strip and West Bank, fearing that the disease would spread. We always say that these diseases don’t know borders or political affiliations. So we started this process to reach children inside Syria and here in Jordan, encompassing children of all nationalities under the age of 5, because it is so easy for these children to become infected.
UNICEF and the World Health Organization are launching an immunization campaign to combat polio. Photo courtesy of UNICEF.
Q: Does the Syrian Ministry of Health cooperate with you?
A: Yes, because there’s no denying that the outbreak of polio after 14 years is a tragedy. We all have to cooperate, even in opposition-controlled areas. Last week we reached over 100,000 children in areas affected by the outbreak.
Q: How do you reach camps inside Syria?
A: We have sent about twenty caravans across the borders to both rebel and regime-held areas. Some places get more aid than others simply because they are easier to reach. Our crews sometimes have to cross over 50 military checkpoints to reach their goals, and are sometimes harassed as they attempt to deliver aid. We are continuing these efforts, but we have limited financial resources and the humanitarian tragedy is so great that we cannot meet all of the IDPs’ needs.
Moadimiyet is one among dozens of examples—for nine months we’ve been sending aid convoys, but they’ve come under threat while carrying out their missions. These efforts are important, but they’re not the ultimate solution; they are temporary, but they’re what we can do.
Q: How are you dealing with the refugee situation in Jordan? Is there a plan for if the crisis carries on into the future?
A: We started out focusing on urgent, rapid response services such as vaccinations and water. We also offer health and personal hygiene services, not only for children, but for families.
The second stage was based on providing education and psychological and social support for children. Our plan for 2014 is to attempt to integrate children into schools or to build new schools in Jordan. Jordan’s educational infrastructure is weak—it can’t withstand the huge number of refugee children—so we will focus on improving this infrastructure in both Jordan and Lebanon so that Syrian children can learn in a positive environment. This is an investment that will benefit Jordan in the long-run, as we make improvements such as expanding schools, improving teacher training, and so on.
This is a key part of our emergency response plan, because when we send children to school we are distracting them from their problems, from all the violence that they’ve been exposed to, and helping them to grow by focusing on something else.
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