June 20 marked World Refugee Day — a time to pause and reflect on the millions of people forced to flee their homes to escape conflict, persecution and natural disaster. This is the fifth World Refugee Day since the Syrian conflict began, and many struggle to keep alive hope of someday returning home.
Today there are almost 4 million Syrian refugees living in neighboring countries — the most of any refugee crisis in the world. Emad is one of them. He lived a middle-class life in Damascus before the war. He had a steady job, a safe home and a good school for his children.
But like millions of other Syrians, his life was ripped apart. He fled Syria two years ago and now shares a tiny apartment with his wife, three children and parents in Amman. Emad’s experience isn’t too different from many of us in South Florida, where so many of our families and neighbors fled violence and hardship for a more secure future.
When Emad arrived in Jordan, he provided for his family with work as a tailor and food assistance from the United Nations. Unfortunately, as he and many others have learned, life as a refugee does not guarantee food assistance or that you can work or stay indefinitely.
“Now we Syrians are scared to work because if you’re caught, they will send you back to Syria,” said Emad. Following a government crackdown on Syrians working illegally, he’s now unemployed, and because of funding shortfalls, their food assistance has been cut in half.
Elsewhere in Jordan, around 100,000 Syrians don’t even have a cramped apartment to call home. They live in tents and caravans in sprawling refugee camps like Za’atari. “I just want to go back to school,” 12-year-old Amna told my Oxfam colleagues and me when we met her and her family.
Amna fled to Jordan just over a year ago with her mother and siblings, while her father remains locked up in a Syrian-regime prison. Amna is one of many little girls in Za’atari, and throughout the region, whose families have been separated and whose only wish is to return to school and a normal life in Syria.
But as uncertain and challenging as life is as a refugee in Jordan, going back to Syria is not an option. Right now, the Syria that Amna and Emad ache for doesn’t exist.
There might not be a school for Amna or Emad’s children to return to, as many parts of the country have been destroyed by barrel bombs and political violence.
Many people in Syria now lack even basic necessities like clean water or electricity.
The total number of refugees, nearly 4 million, is a hard number to fathom. But in reality, there are so many more still trapped in Syria looking to follow. Now, however, neighboring countries have restricted or closed their borders, and it’s no surprise. Jordan already hosts more than 625,000 Syrian refugees — more than the populations of Miami and Fort Lauderdale combined.
The arrival of these newcomers, who in most cases flee with only what they can carry, is a massive weight for countries like Jordan, which already faced water and electricity shortages and high unemployment. But while the Lebanese and Jordanians and the Turkish people host millions of refugees, the international community has been slow to do its fair share to meet the massive funding needs or accepting Syrian refugees.
While money and resettlement help, the only sustainable solution is political, which requires the world’s powers to take meaningful action so Syrians like Amna and Emad can return to school and get back on their feet.
With a renewed dedication to ending this conflict, hopefully by next World Refugee Day, Syrians can return home to resume their educations, jobs, and dreams.
Alexandra Saieh grew up in Miami and works in Jordan as a policy advisor for Oxfam.