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PHIL DONAHUE: The revolt in Syria also has created a refugee crisis beyond imagining. Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for National Public Radio and has reported on the Syrian civil war since it began. She has been in the refugee camps and on the frontlines. Deborah Amos, welcome.

DEBORAH AMOS: Thank you very much for having me.

PHIL DONAHUE: Let me share with our viewers two quotes here. This is the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees. Imagine the responsibility of this man,

PHIL DONAHUE: "Syria has become the great tragedy of this century - a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history." Supporting his thunderous description of what's happening there.

Tobias Billström, Swedish Migration Minister, "No other conflict on earth today is as terrible as the long and bloody conflict in Syria. That should make many politicians inside and outside the E.U. think about our responsibilities."

DEBORAH AMOS: I think that Guterres is trying very hard to break through what is almost an overwhelming amount of statistics. It's very hard to take onboard two million refugees, tenfold in the last year.

To make people understand, whenever I'm out there and I'm in one of these camps, or I'm in a small Jordanian town that's filled with Syrians, I come home and I just want to shake people and say, do you understand what's happening out there? And I think it is very hard to get the message across about how dire this is, how underfunded it is, and not because countries aren't giving.

But because the crisis is so overwhelming. 5,000 people leave every day. 5,000 people in Syria are killed every month. It is very hard to take that onboard. You have an entire generation of Syrians who find themselves either displaced in refugee camps, outside of school. So this is not a crisis that goes on for the next year, but for the next generation. And you feel that acutely when you're in the region.

PHIL DONAHUE: Let's just take our viewers for just a moment to a geographic lesson here for us all. All right, here is Syria. Now an unprecedented number of people are fleeing Syria. Displaced persons. And they're going to the countries surrounding. What where is the hot spot right now?

DEBORAH AMOS: Well, about a year ago, you saw a great number coming down to Jordan. They now have a half a million since a year ago. The big bulk are in Lebanon. And they went west. This is where 700,000 refugees have settled.

Also Turkey, 450,000 people. They came north when this whole area of Northern Syria became contested. Many, many more, thousands, thousands more are on this side of the border because Turkey started to shut those borders because they couldn't take anymore.

Now in the latest exodus, we've seen thousands, 30,000, sometimes thousands in a day, moving from this part of Eastern Syria into Iraq. These are Kurds who are coming into Northern Iraq seeking refuge.

PHIL DONAHUE: Imagine this, You're in this crowd with your family and everything you own is on your back.

DEBORAH AMOS: And here's the thing about looking at these pictures, you know that these people have thought about this decision. They didn't get up in the morning and say, gee, it's a bad day and I'm going. They have been through a lot before they decide to get on the road and throw their future into complete turmoil. These people don't know when that they're going to be able to go home. They hardly know what kind of reception they're going to get when they stop.

PHIL DONAHUE: Going to Iraq to escape chaos in Syria. You know, there's something very sad about that. Iraq--

DEBORAH AMOS: I think that is how bad it was in many of those villages. Here's what's so interesting about Syria, of course, it is a mosaic. And so you, there's always a sectarian element to this.

The people who are going to Northern Iraq are Kurds and they're moving to a place that is predominantly Kurdish. So they are embraced by their own sect, if you will. And they are under attack from two elements, the regime and radical Islamists who are in that part of Syria. So that's why they left. Now the government in Kurdistan has, you know, pulled out all the stops to help them, have been resettling them.

But there's also something called "moral hazard" in the refugee business, meaning if you can settle all of those people, then those who are at home, who haven't quite made the decision, it's not quite bad enough for them to make that trek, will also think, it's better there than it is here. So we may see even more people coming out of Eastern Syria.

PHIL DONAHUE: The camp in Jordan you tell me is called--

DEBORAH AMOS: Zaatari.

PHIL DONAHUE: Zaatari. Here's Zaatari in November of last year. Here's Zaatari in July of this year. Look at this. And that is the fourth largest, we don't want to say city, but what else will we call it, in Jordan?

DEBORAH AMOS: In Jordan. A year ago, 60 refugees. A year later, 120,000. The trajectory of people who are leaving is going up and up and up. Tenfold over the last year.

PHIL DONAHUE: These displaced people are in some ways, if I'm not overstating it, working-class people. Am I, is that so?

DEBORAH AMOS: That was correct. Syria was, let's say, a second-class country. You know, this is not Africa. These are people who were used to having healthcare and were used to having a vaccination program for the kids for measles and all the other childhood diseases. They were used to going out to dinner on the weekends.

And some of them had farms. Dara’a, which is the city that flows into this refugee camp, boasts the most college graduates of any place in Syria. You also have, you know, villagers who are part of that refugee population. Farmers who are part of that refugee population. So you pretty much have a spread from the top of the line to the poor.

So you, you are right, this is middle class people who now live in heat and dust and communal bathrooms and communal kitchens, displaced, disorganized, and their children are no longer going to school.

PHIL DONAHUE: And they may have to go to the water tap 20 times a day.

DEBORAH AMOS: Yes. They're in the middle of a desert. This is where the camp was placed. A year ago that may have seemed like a good idea. Once you get to 120,000, it is not such a great idea because you have to bring all the water in and carry all the waste out.

Jordan as a country has less, is the bottom four countries of no water. It has no water. Zaatari was built on a desert over the Jordanian aquifer. So you can't, not a good idea. So you can't let waste stay in the camp--

PHIL DONAHUE: Oh my, no.

DEBORAH AMOS: You have to pull it out. And there is no water there, so you have to truck it in. So there's a huge infrastructure to keep this camp going with water and showers and bathrooms and cooking. And the trucks are coming in and out all the time into Zaatari to just keep people hydrated.

What I saw the last time I was in Zaatari is people are beginning to put fountains into their enclosures. That there are some organizations, certainly not UN aid organizations, but refugees among themselves have figured out that you can actually get some water, build a fountain, steal some electricity, and have one of these in your front porch where you can cool your fruit, you can sit at night and you can have some sort of decent life in this refugee camp.

PHIL DONAHUE: And how do you steal electricity?

DEBORAH AMOS: There are hospitals in the camp. There's an Italian one, there's a French one and you steal from their lines. So in fact, there is a mafia don of electricity. And his workers will climb up on a pole, bring a line up, steal the electricity, and then he gives it out, some people say he sells it. But he gives it out to shops that have grown up in the refugee camp, to people who want to make, you know, their fountains.

Syrians are remarkably resourceful people. Remarkably resourceful. Probably the best entrepreneurial spirit in the Middle East. What's been interesting to me is to see in the most horrible of conditions that Syrians are Syrians.

They have opened an entire street of shops that in the camp is called Champs-Élysées of Zaatari camp. And you can buy a fresh chicken, you can buy fruit, you can buy an ice cream cone for your kid.

And so, you know, you, some of these children work. Some of the men leave the camp and work in construction in Jordan. If you have to fourth largest city in the country, you are going to have an economy. Human beings will make the best out of any situation.

And Syrians have brought their particular spirit to Zaatari. There's also crime, there's prostitution, there's child marriage, and there's domestic violence. All the things that happen in any city are now happening in Zaatari among these refugees.

And let me also make this distinction. There are, and let's just do a little bit of numbers. There are half a million refugees in Jordan. Only 120,000 of them live in Zaatari camp. The rest of them are in Jordanian cities. There are small towns in the north where one out of every four persons is a Syrian. That's how many people have come to the country.

In Amman, you don't notice it so much. But you go to small border towns in Jordan, and you can hear that Syrian dialect. That's how you really tell. And they're the ones who are on the streets selling whatever they can think of, you know, to make just a little bit of money so that they can survive in this urban environment, which is new even for the humanitarian aid agencies to deal with urban refugees. They're not in tents, they're not in camps, you can't line them up, you have to go and find them and you have to go and help them.

PHIL DONAHUE: How is Amman adjusting or responding?

DEBORAH AMOS: Jordan relations with Syria are tense to say the least. And so, King Abdullah, the King of Jordan, has to really walk a fine line. He's an American ally. But he has said he will not let his territory be used for any strikes on Syria. He welcomes refugees, but at the same time, he runs a covert weapons and training program for rebels that we have a large hand in. His role is enormously complex and dangerous. He's under pressure because the refugees have strained every institution in his country.

Jordanians are tired of standing in line at hospitals because they think Syrians are taking up all of the beds. They are tired of having to pay so much for water because they believe that Syrian refugees are wasting it. It is a very difficult situation for him. And there are some people who are arguing in Congress that Jordan is in danger of becoming destabilized. And they use it both pro-striking Syria and anti-striking Syria that we have to make sure that Jordan stays stable.

PHIL DONAHUE: And you would know more than most of us how this movement of people destabilizes the whole region.

DEBORAH AMOS: It's destabilizing all of Syria's neighbors and all of Syria's neighbors are in one way or the other American allies.

Same is happening in Lebanon. Overwhelming pressure on food, electricity, also in Turkey, and now in Iraq. And so these things cost money. Money that these countries will not get back, even from the international community that is giving money to the UN and to individual refugee organizations. This money is coming out of their own budgets. And that is why it is so destabilizing.

PHIL DONAHUE: Don't you sometimes feel like you're in the back of the bus? We don't talk about this issue. I don't think it came up at all in the hearings, the debate in Washington. Nobody says, what will our bombing do? Will we create more refugees? There was some talk in the Iraq War, four million. Four million displaced.

DEBORAH AMOS: And we didn't say a word about that. Not a word. I wrote a book about that. Not a word. So this is not unfamiliar territory for me that the refugee issue is always the back-of-the-bus issue. But I think unlike the Iraq War when the Bush administration said not a word about those refugees, this is a little different.

Because in this case, what you have are American allies, Turkey, Jordan, and in some ways Lebanon and Iraq are under enormous strain. This is an issue that is pushing all of them to the abyss of instability. And the American administration is very aware of it. So they, it is not part of the debate now. But it is certainly part of their thinking. The U.S. government gives more to the refugee issue actually than any other country. The problem is even that is dwarfed by the, just the size of the problem.

PHIL DONAHUE: We don't see the outpouring of world concern that, for example, follows a tsunami, an earthquake--

DEBORAH AMOS: You know, I ask this question often about why people don't give. And I was in an office, young Syrians who were running a private aid organization and they said, come, let me show you something on the computer. And they had looked up the countries that had given money to Katrina, given money to the United States.

And they said, Afghanistan, gave a hundred thousand dollars. Did they give any to us? No. And it was really an impressive list. And I had no idea that so many countries had given the United States, you know, a rich, Western, industrialized country, so much money for Katrina. For a natural disaster in Louisiana.

And I started asking UN officials, and they said, it's a very interesting phenomenon. When there is a natural disaster, people really will give. And in fact, when the snows in Jordan and Southern Turkey collapsed roofs of refugee homes, when people saw snow in the refugee camp and little kids with no shoes on standing in the snow, they gave. But when it is a political calamity, when it's complicated, who are the bad guys, who are the good guys, I don't understand what side I'm on, people don't.

They close their wallets. They don't have the same emotion than when they see Katrina. When Afghanistan thinks that it's a good thing to give America a hundred thousand dollars for our weather catastrophe and give zero for Syrian refugees. So I think this is an emotive shutdown when it comes to a political calamity.

And it is why you see the head of UNHCR, the head of the Refugee Office at the UN continue to give these amazing quotes, this is the great tragedy of the century. Because he's trying to break through. He's trying to make you think, this is simpler than you think it is. These are people in desperate need.

PHIL DONAHUE: So then, as we go forward here, what would be your counsel to the grandees who make decisions for us and millions of other people?

DEBORAH AMOS: Go watch the movie Lawrence of Arabia. A hundred years ago, Lawrence's movie ends in Damascus. And Lawrence knows that this is a big power conflict that can only be solved by the big powers. Which ultimately it is. The borders are drawn and a hundred years go by, and now we are here. We are again at a moment in Middle East history where it is a big powers decision.

That Syria will not be settled until the United States and Russia, and Saudi Arabia, and Iran, can all agree on the parameters of a settlement. No way to solve this refugee crisis until that can happen. And at the moment, I see no movement towards that grand bargain, those grand talks. We have a little movement towards Geneva, but certainly not a date set. No delegations chosen, no objectives written out.

This week President Putin and President Obama will be in the same room. But they will not be meeting one on one, which is what they need to do to settle this. So my counsel would be that the great powers have got to find a way to stop this war. Because the refugee crisis cannot be solved without that.

PHIL DONAHUE: Deborah Amos, thank you very much for sharing your considerable experience and your informed commentary with us.

DEBORAH AMOS: Thank you.

Deborah Amos on Syria’s Refugee Crisis

The revolt in Syria has created a refugee crisis beyond that country’s borders — a “disgraceful humanitarian calamity” and “the great tragedy of this century,” according to the United Nations. Deborah Amos, a veteran National Public Radio correspondent, joins guest host Phil Donahue for a discussion about the human toll of the Syrian fighting, and the potential impact of millions of displaced people on the region.

Deborah Amos has reported on the Syrian civil war since it began and has been on the front lines and in the refugee camps. She tells Phil Donahue, “The crisis is so overwhelming.  5,000 people leave every day. Five thousand people in Syria are killed every month.  You have an entire generation of Syrians who find themselves displaced in refugee camps. So this is not a crisis that goes on for the next year, but for the next generation. The great powers have got to find a way to stop this war, because the refugee crisis cannot be solved without them.”

Interview Producer: Gail Ablow. Editor: Rob Kuhns. Associate Producers: Rob Booth and Lena Shemel.

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  • John Gilkenson

    Best take on human side of this crisis I’ve seen. Spread it around. Deborah Amos needs to be all over the airwaves getting this story out front.

  • AJ

    Phil does a great job in both interviews. Very down-to-earth style. Thanks for the great analysis of the refugee crisis. I don’t believe the mainstream media has made it as clear.

  • Anonymous

    So the question for me is this: How long and how many more lives are we and everyone else willing to sacrifice before we do something? I know war is not popular and I do not see a war coming out of this for the US. However I do see many more thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands more refugees, billions of more dollars spent on the humanitarian disaster this is creating and of course the total abandonment by the US of it’s often stated position on protection of freedoms, equal rights and human rights all around the world. It is easy to say NO to war with no other plan to stop the current war on humanity in Syria. How about a plan if NO to bombing of Syrian military assets?