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Signs of hope among Syrian despair [Commentary]

We have reached a solemn milestone in Syria: It has been three years since the beginning of the war that has uprooted the lives of millions of people. From a distance, this conflict can seem overwhelming or even hopeless. Up close, it feels personal — with hope just about the only thing people have to hold onto.

What is striking are the masses of women and children who make up nearly 75 percent of the estimated 2.5 million Syrian refugees. While we don't see them as much because many women in the region are not comfortable being photographed, they shoulder some of the greatest burdens of this crisis as they struggle to find help and to care for their children, who are too-often severely traumatized.

They express a deep sense of humiliation at being in this position, for needing help to meet their most basic human needs, at having no control over what's to come.

"This is not who we are," Zahaya, a Syrian woman in Lebanon, said to me.

I was visiting on behalf of Catholic Relief Services, the Baltimore-based international humanitarian organization. CRS has been working with partners throughout the region to provide 240,000 war-affected Syrians with critical medical assistance, food, hygiene and living supplies, counseling and children's education.

The physical and emotional toll is devastating along the border, yet signs of hope are not lost.

I saw a tent where a young mother had made a centerpiece for the middle of her mud floor: a small pile of rocks with a blade of grass coming out the top. It was such a simple, significant gesture of home when hers had been bombed. If a young mother who has lost everything can try to move forward, how can we not help?

The international community must recommit itself to working together, making clear that peaceful negotiations can build an inclusive Syrian society that will welcome its citizens and protect their rights no matter their ethnicity or religion.

This is no doubt easier said than done. But that shouldn't dissuade us from upholding our principles to help those in dire need. We cannot stand idly by when innocent people are facing atrocities.

"Children are the biggest loser in this conflict," Hasan, another Syrian refugee and former teacher, told me. For some, all they know is war. "If they see a star in the sky, they think it is a plane. When they hear a voice, they think it is the sound of a rocket."

Syrian families like the ones I met must be protected and cared for. This will require robust humanitarian assistance from the United States and other nations for the refugees and the countries that are hosting them. To get that assistance to those who need it, humanitarian access must be unfettered and sieges lifted.

Our support for Syrian families now, and when they rebuild their communities and lives, is vital if Syria is going to become an inclusive, stable society.

While the goal of almost all of those who are displaced is to return home, we recognize some Syrians are especially vulnerable. Congress should facilitate resettlement of 15,000 refugees this year.

For now, the spotlight needs to shine not just on the violence, but on those who for three years have shown the ultimate valor: the Syrian families, women and children who struggle against all odds, who just want to live in peace, and who — with expressed humility — need our help. These are the families who will ultimately be rebuilding their country when the time comes. They are the beauty of what Syria once was and can be.

As I prepared to leave Lebanon, Zahaya plucked the only spot of color in her world, a yellow flower outside her tent, and insisted I take with me as a parting gift.

"We're going through a difficult time," she said. "We hope people will be kind to us."

I could only assure her that I hoped so, too.

Hasan and Zahaya are not likely to become household names in the United States or around the world. But they are the heart of the humanitarian crisis that is Syria today, and they need our help.

Caroline Brennan is with the Humanitarian Response Team of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian organization of the Catholic community in the United States. Her email is caroline.brennan@crs.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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