The Crisis in Syria and Why Perception Matters

New York Times correspondent Anne Barnard recently stated that the relief organization Mercy Corp received $20 million in private donations within weeks of the Haiti earthquake, yet three years into the Syrian War—comparable to Haiti in its death toll—the organization had received a modest $2 million in aid. Barnard attributed this phenomenon to the complexity of the conflict and difficulty for Americans to conceptualize or determine who they should help and why. As UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres pointed out, in Syria, “the victims become double victims—of the conflict and of the perception” due to the flawed notion “they are all bad guys” and “do not deserve this help.” As the Syria crisis grows, the public’s perception of Syria and Syrians will continue to influence the amount of aid received. Each day countless individuals are directly affected by how the outside world views the situation and its willingness to assist.

The numbers paint the truest picture of who is actually suffering: 10,000 children have been killed, with countless others facing torture and sexual abuse; nearly 10 million Syrians have either been internally displaced or have fled the country; and 9.3 million Syrians are in need of aid. As a top European aid official recently estimated—twice as many people die in Syria from treatable diseases the crippled healthcare system can no longer address than those who die from injuries sustained during combat. These civilians are dying from preventable diseases, not just missiles being launched at schools and hospitals.  Details such as these paint a picture of the situation in Syria for what it truly is: a humanitarian crisis.

It is important for the humanitarian community to stress publicly all statistics available, particularly those cited less frequently, as different figures succeed in raising awareness among different groups. The number of Syrian refugees has been frequently documented, but little recognition has been given to the fact that in parts of Syria, school attendance has dropped to as low as 6 percent. Beyond raw data, pictures can prove powerful as well. The unforgettable Yarmouk camp photo released by UNRWA in February depicted an unending line of Palestinians waiting for food and fueled outrage internationally that conditions had become so deplorable. While changing perceptions is difficult, the effect proves worthwhile.

–Matthew Timmerman