How do you keep a tragedy like the Syrian conflict in the news?

Little surprises me about this month's Twitter trends. Top of the list is Britain's Got Talent, shortly followed by the new Mad Max film.

Jo Harrison on a previous assignment in Palestine (pic credit: ActionAid)
Jo Harrison on a previous assignment in Palestine (pic credit: ActionAid)
Only a few weeks have passed since more than 8,200 people died in the major Nepal earthquake and this tragic disaster is already almost forgotten in the minds of the UK public. 

Working in comms for an NGO is tough. It’s even tougher when you are trying to keep a four-year long-term bloody civil war on the news agenda. 

The UN is soon set to announce the devastating milestone of four million refugees displaced outside Syria, making this the worst refugee crisis since World War Two, yet the feeling inside lobbying circles is that this story will go unnoticed. 

So how do you keep a tragedy like the Syrian conflict in the news? As I said it’s bloody tough.  

Not only are you facing a fatigued audience who think the Middle East is a lost cause, but it’s also a pretty hard crisis to document.  

The majority of Syrians have taken refuge in Lebanon (1.8 million), Jordan (627,000) or Turkey (1.7 million). By contrast the UK has officially allowed just 97 Syrian refugees. 

Exhausted Syrians are tired of media wanting to hear their misery; they’re disgruntled by the lack of meaningful change; and most people are politically affiliated – by talking to international media they run the risk of their family members back in Syria being identified and possibly killed. 

Also it isn’t your ‘usual’ refugee crisis.

Most people tend to think of refugees as living in makeshift tents and walking six miles to get to the nearest water hole.  

Some refugees do live in tents or refugee camps but many I have met live within local communities, some in empty farm buildings, garages and abandoned building sites.  

Others rent houses or apartments; some even have televisions.  

It’s not what people expect your typical picture of ‘desperation’ to look like. The real story that is harder to tell is that some Syrians fled Syria (pre-war, a relatively developed country) with savings that are now running out. 

At the start some people even managed to bring their furniture or luxury items when they fled. 

They have been paying rent for the past four years from these savings; they’ve sold wedding rings and anything valuable they might have had. But now their safety net has run dry. 

Some families are living with 20 people in one-bedroom apartments where they can barely afford food. Many are turning to begging, forced marriage or prostitution as a means to survive. 

So on the surface it can look like Syrian refugees are coping. But dig a little deeper and you’ll see that’s not the case. That’s what my job is to do. To go out into communities and find out how the crisis is really affecting people.  

Take the story of Mohammed – a former breadwinner without a job, unable to provide for his family and so desperate and hopeless he was suicidal. 

ActionAid helped Mohammed by providing him with psychological support. But how do we get the plight of Mohammed and millions of others like him back on to the main news agenda and international political sphere? 

NGOs have teamed up to form joint coalitions and media campaigns. We try to find the newest and most horrible statistic we can to make the next headline. 

We’ve brought A-list celebrities, politicians and journalists to the region, and told countless heartbreaking stories of people both inside and outside Syria. 

And we will continue to do so until the international community acts and brokers a political solution to this bloody conflict. 

Until then we will continue to write emails, call newsrooms and tell the stories of those suffering.  

But the power to change this situation lies outside of our hands. Until decision makers across the globe see this for the tragedy it is, we have a long road ahead. 

Jo Harrison is a comms adviser for ActionAid's Arab Regional Initiative

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