x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Time for talk on Syria refugee crisis is over, says Sheikha Jawaher

The first Arab woman appointed as Eminent Advocate at the UN High Commission for Refugees calls for action now and she wants everyone in the UAE to play a part.

Sheikha Jawaher Bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, the first Arab woman to be appointed an Eminent Advocate at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), meets refugee children in Lebanon. Courtesy of Sheikha Jawaher Al Qasimi's office
Sheikha Jawaher Bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, the first Arab woman to be appointed an Eminent Advocate at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), meets refugee children in Lebanon. Courtesy of Sheikha Jawaher Al Qasimi's office

It has become a tradition that if a child happens to cross the path of Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, they will leave with a smile and a toy.

As the first Arab woman to be appointed an Eminent Advocate at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), with a special focus on children, the wife of the Ruler of Sharjah and Chairperson of the Supreme Council for Family Affairs has already touched the lives of more than 200 Syrian refugee children.

"I could not leave them without buying each one of them a toy that will make them smile and happy, if just for a moment," says Sheikha Jawaher, who visited Syrian refugees in Lebanon this month in her new role as a voice for the cause.

She was advised against buying the gifts herself by the UN officials, who wanted to buy the toys and distribute them later as donations. But Sheikha Jawaher says she just couldn't help herself.

She went to City Centre in Hazmiye and bought more than 200 toys, from Barbie dolls to remote controlled cars. "I would have continued buying but the staff at the toy store said enough," says Sheikha Jawaher, who personally handed a gift to each child.

After big smiles and cheers, some of the children ended up kissing her, with one particular girl blowing her a big kiss as she left.

"It melted my heart," she says with a smile. "I want children to live like children. The amount of suffering and trauma that the Syrian children must have gone through is not to be taken lightly."

In an exclusive interview following her appointment this month and after meeting some of the refugees, Sheikha Jawaher is determined to highlight both the plight of the Syrian people and what the public can do to help.

"I am trying to find the best ways to help the Syrian refugees and secure the right paths to reach the public and get them engaged in this massive humanitarian crisis that will just keep on getting worse as the conflict continues," she says.

While immensely "honoured" and humbled by the latest appointment, given to compelling individuals to highlight the UNHCR's priority cases and draw attention to its operations, Sheikh Jawaher views it as a great responsibility and a "challenge" on both a personal and a regional level.

"It is difficult to get people to sympathise, mainly because they see it as a repeat of the Palestinian crisis," she says. "Since people here give or gave to that cause, they feel jaded or sceptical to give again especially if they have been tricked in the past or their donations ended up in private pockets of corrupt officials instead with the people in need."

The Emirati pop star Hussain Al Jassmi, a UN Goodwill ambassador, visited the refugees with Sheikha Jawaher after a chance meeting at the Four Seasons hotel in Beirut.

Her meetings with the Syrian refugees in Beirut left a strong impression, when she had the chance to sit with 10 mothers and listen to their stories. "I wish I could help each and every one of them. To take away their pain. Every single one of them has a story to share and is struggling to survive," she says.

"Imagine how I felt leaving these women behind with such great hope in their eyes that somehow I have a magic wand to fix their situation and make it all better. It really broke my heart."

One of the most common complaints was the women's inability to pay rent. Several Syrian families can live in a single apartment, sometimes in buildings that have not yet been finished. "Refugees should register with the UNHCR, as they get some assistance from the UN such as help with the rent and medical services," she says.

"Unfortunately, in every conflict zone, there are the war merchants that take advantage of conflict and people's suffering and make money off people's misery and needs."

Even the land used by the UNHCR for its registration tents costs several thousands of dollars a month, an example of the expenses involved in the crisis.

"The Syrian refugees case is massive and it is scattered across countries and places," she says. "They fled with just the clothes on their backs, and their children and loved ones. They left everything behind.

"Most of us can't imagine this kind of loss and sacrifice. Their situation has become extremely critical, we really have to intervene and help them."

As an advocate, Sheikha Jawaher decided to focus on raising funds for educational programmes organised by the UNHCR. The programme targets mainly primary age children as they are currently the majority age group residing in Lebanon, around 400,000 children, exceeding the number of Lebanese children of the same age group

"Children are especially close to our hearts because they are defenceless, vulnerable and innocent. We often say children are the future, but the future is only possible if we act today," she says. "Every child has a right to dream, and education will empower them to elevate themselves above their hardships and pursue their dreams in a sustainable long-term vision."

There are already some schools in Lebanon running on two schedules: day lessons for Lebanese pupils and evening lessons for Syrian pupils.

"We want to expand those, include more students and start hiring Syrian teachers so that they have a source of income," says Sheikha Jawaher.

More than US$282 million (Dh1 billion) is needed this year for refugees in Lebanon alone. After a UN appeal for $1.5 billion to cover the cost of aid to Syrians in the first six months of this year, the organisation said it had received barely a fifth of that.

"This is just for those in Lebanon, so imagine the scope of this crisis," Sheikha Jawaher says. "I have full trust in the UNHCR work and know that whatever is donated ends up going to the rightful people.

"They have the experience and the dedication, with most of its staff working on a volunteer basis out of the goodness of their hearts."

At the same time, Sheikha Jawaher says she is "one person" and she hopes she can gain the support of others "who can stand with me" in making a difference in the lives of the Syrian refugees.

"I really hope that everyone who can help out in the UAE, from a sheikh to a merchant to anyone with the means, joins me in this campaign," she said. "Many want to help and now there is a place where they can focus their efforts and help out either financially or through donations of toys, good clean clothes and whatever they can."

She reminded the public that "life is a circle" and one should not forget others.

"We should put aside whatever issues we have and work together as Arabs as sisters and brothers and not hold grudges or cause further conflict at a time when there is a great need for unity and patience," she said. "Charity work should know no religion or race."

Sheikha Jawaher commends the efforts by the host countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. She understands the pressures on the citizens who had welcomed the refugees and how resentment might be growing.

"There are around 4,200 Syrian refugees fleeing to Lebanon on a daily basis and they are saying that for every four Lebanese, there will be a Syrian residing in a country already riddled with political and economic instability," she says.

"There is added pressure on a country like Lebanon that already has the case of the Palestinian refugee camps, which were supposed to be temporary solutions when they were set up decades ago."

More than 400,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon and the UNHCR projects that a million Syrian refugees will have crossed into Lebanon by the end of this year.

The UNHCR and its partners have helped 463,000 refugees, although 102,000 of these are awaiting registration to become documented refugees in Lebanon.

"The Syrian refugee camps were set up as a temporary solution. As the conflict continues, and the months go by, the camps have become inadequate living quarters. They are unsustainable and Syrian refugees can't continue to live in them like this without a more permanent solution," says Sheikha Jawaher.

She calls on the rich and the powerful in the Arab world and beyond to help out and make a difference.

"We are grateful for international names like Bill Gates doing humanitarian works. We need more Arab names and Arab models in the humanitarian and charity field," she says. "Our religion and our Arab traditions call on us to give, care, help and to be patient and understanding.

"Religion is not based on the length of a beard, or a thobe, or by carrying a weapon. Today's generation is misguided and believes that to carry weapons, destroy and kill is being a good Muslim."

With Ramadan around the corner, Sheikha Jawaher hopes that in the month of giving and zakat, the focus will be on the Syrian crisis.

Anyone wanting to help can contact her office directly or wait for the nationwide campaign to raise funds and raise further awareness about the dire state and needs of the Syrian refugees."Arabs are very generous, I have witnessed with my own eyes over the years Emirati women who would give up their jewellery and precious items for the Palestinian cause and then find out that money never reached the refugees.

"And so over the years people have closed their hands, but I believe if you can show them how they can really help, they will never refuse to help."

One of the projects Sheikha Jawaher hopes to see is community service becoming part of the curriculum in schools and universities.

"There are people sending money to Syria, but for destruction. We need to send money for rebuilding and reconstruction," she says. "It is time for serious work and less talk regarding the Syrian crisis."

rghazal@thenational.ae