Securing Syrian refugees’ future tied to Israel’s security

I have visited Israel many times in my life, but my most recent trip will remain seared into my memory forever. On a two-week trip to Israel and the West Bank, I saw many incredible sights. In Israel, the triumphs of the “startup nation” are miraculous and ever-present, while on the Palestinian side of the Green Line the new city of Rawabi is literally rising out of the desert hills.

But what shocked me most was the nightmare occurring just miles over the border. It was in Jordan, in a meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Jordan Stuart Jones and United Nations Refugee Agency/United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Representative Andrew Harper, where we caught a glimpse into the humanitarian tragedy of the Syrian refugee crisis. After that visit, I knew I had no choice but to cry out about the refugees’ plight and urge our community and government to act, if not out of concern for the refugees themselves, then at least because anything that destabilizes Jordan could have grave repercussions for Israel.

In Amman, we visited a UNHCR registration services site. The monumental task of registering the refugees and ensuring their safety and health falls largely to the UNHCR, working in coordination with the Jordanian government. The UNHCR ensures that refugees are properly registered, have access to protection, legal assistance, shelter, food, potable water, medical care, education and psychosocial support. Watching innocent children playing on a crowded climbing tower and swing set while their mothers were being interviewed and arranging for services was, simply put, heartbreaking.

As of June 8, 2014, there were more than 597,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan. More than half are under the age of 17. And, new refugees are currently crossing the border from Syria into northeast Jordan at a rate of 2,000 to 3,000 per day. Imagine the United States suddenly absorbing 31 million people over a three-year period and you might begin to understand the scope of this crisis. And, there are dozens of challenges that extend beyond the need to provide food and shelter to the refugees.

Jordanian schools are struggling to integrate thousands of children despite vast cultural differences. Refugees living within and outside of refugee camps strain the Jordanian economy, inflating prices and depressing wages. As these problems grow, so does resentment of refugees among Jordanian citizens.

The list of global humanitarian tragedies is long, but the Syrian crisis ranks right up there at the top. And for those who care about Israel’s security, the situation in Jordan looks especially dire. Israel already has to worry about civil war and chemical weapons use by Syria, and political upheaval and uncertainty in Egypt. The last thing Israel needs is its one stable neighbor collapsing under the weight of this refugee crisis.  

Given that the civil war in Syria is not likely to end any time soon, we who love and support Israel owe it to ourselves to do something — and, fortunately, there are a number of steps we can take in our communities that can help make a difference. We can encourage philanthropists who support Israel to dig deeply into their pockets to offer direct assistance to UNHCR in Jordan. We can ask manufacturers here in the U.S. to donate playground equipment and small toys to the Syrians living in Jordan’s refugee camps. And, we can urge lawmakers on Capitol Hill to strengthen aid and support to the Jordanian government.

We know from our tradition, in Talmud Sanhedrin 37a, “Whoever saves a life, it’s considered as if you saved the whole world.”

This teaching was essentially the message we got from UNHCR’s Harper who said that even a small act like helping to provide families with toiletry kits containing soap, shampoo, toothbrushes and toothpaste could make a significant difference to public health in the camps. Let’s empower him with the resources he needs to do his job and impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrians. That humanitarian aid could be crucial to ensuring Israel’s security, as well.

Janet Halbert is a Los Angeles-area CPA who specializes in providing practical problem-solving services to midsized companies and nonprofit organizations. A member of J Street’s national leadership circle, she participated in J Street’s congressional and leadership mission to the region in May.