Seeing Syria’s Horrors: A Message for Finance Ministers

Images from Syria are on display at the World Bank. The target audience is the 188 finance ministers there for the IMF-World Bank Spring Meetings.

By: /
11 April, 2014
Residents wait to receive food aid distributed by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) at the besieged al-Yarmouk camp, south of Damascus on January 31, 2014, in this handout picture made available to Reuters February 26, 2014. Picture taken January 31, 2014. REUTERS/UNRWA/Handout via Reuters
Bessma Momani
By: Bessma Momani

Professor at the University of Waterloo’s Balsillie School of International Affairs and a CIGI senior fellow

At the IMF-World Bank Spring Meetings, there are often many fascinating debates and discussions that draw you in. This week I was drawn into a most unusual panel about the art of resilience into the horrors of war in Syria. In the main atrium of the World Bank were a dozen or so artistic works and photographs that provided powerful visual imagery of the enormous human toll and suffering of the Syrian people.

A Syrian artist and founder of the Art Residence in Aley, Raghad Mardini, recalls how as a recent refugee of Lebanon she craved to find a workspace for displaced Syrian artists in Lebanon. Her program assembles young Syrian artists from all ethno-religious communities to create “a family,” in her words, who can resume apprenticeships pursuing their artistic passions. Unable to divorce their pain and suffering from their art is not surprising, Mardini noted; and the result are haunting creations.

While many of the art forms displayed in the World Bank atrium are conjured from the imagination of the Syrian artists in the Art Residence Aley, the most daunting and real—so to speak—is the large iconic photograph taken by Chris Gunness of thousands of Palestinians awaiting food aid in the besieged Yarmouk refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus. The now infamous picture taken by the UNRWA spokesperson was re-tweeted more than 20 million times and republished thousands of times in international papers and news channels. Indeed, the image haunts us because it shows the inhumanity of war upon innocent civilians who are queued up in desperation for rations of food aid.

Today, the plight of Palestinian refugees inside the Yarmouk camp remains desperate and their dependence on food aid—because of the  siege placed upon them by government forces—mean that horror and uncertainty continue to plague their lives to this day. The dependence on food aid means people in Yarmouk eat only when the international community open their wallets and have empathy for these forgotten refugees.

So why are these powerful and political images of war in the corridors of the World Bank? Well, as the MENA Vice President of the World Bank noted, these images are at the World Bank when 188 finance ministers are in the building. She appealed to them to see the art and images of Syria and accordingly open their cheque books and give generously to the people of Syria.

Syrians don’t need friends or allies, they need food, and the UN has estimated it needs at least USD$6.5 billion to feed, house, and take care of the more than 10 million refugees—approximately half of Syria’s population. Already falling short of UN’s needs, 23 countries of the international community have pledged USD$2.4 billion this year and yet little of that has actually made its way to the UN’s World Food Programme.

In the coming weeks, we can hope that Finance Ministers from some of the world’s most developed countries take heed and remember the real victims of Syria’s war: its people. As they attend the IMF-World Bank to talk about their budgets, they must not forget their financial commitments to Syria and the faces of people depending on them for basic needs. Political leaders, too, must look at their collective influence and ability to address a conflict that has limped from one tragedy to the next.

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