Aid groups appeal for Syria funds as donors head to Brussels

“Save the Children” NGO displayed a drawing by a Syrian child outside the European Commission and Council headquarters ahead of the conference. (AP)
Updated 13 March 2019
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Aid groups appeal for Syria funds as donors head to Brussels

  • European Union refuse to aid rebuilding Syria before a political solution is reached
  • Syrian government and opposition representatives are will not be at the meeting

BRUSSELS: Aid organizations appealed Tuesday for funds to help Syria recover from an eight-year war that has driven almost 6 million people out of the country, as donors from nearly 85 countries readied for a pledging conference in Brussels.
Agencies, non-governmental organizations, and think tanks say the conflict, which has killed more than 400,000 people and sparked a refugee exodus that destabilized Syria’s neighbors and hit Europe, is far from over. Around 80 percent of people inside the country live in extreme poverty and refugees are reluctant to return, fearing violence, conscription or prison.
“Syrian refugees need trust that their return will be safe, secure and dignified,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said during a weekend visit to Lebanon, which is struggling to cope with arrivals from over the border.
According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, some 100,000 people have been displaced since the last wave of violence began in mid-February, including tens of thousands from Khan Sheikhoun in northwest Syria, which has been repeatedly hit by government forces from the air and ground in recent weeks. It estimated that some 140 people, including 69 civilians, were killed over three weeks.
As the conflict enters its ninth year, about 11.7 million Syrians still depend on aid, more than 6 million have been displaced inside Syria and some 2 million children are out of school.
But donor fatigue is growing: Of around $3.9 billion pledged last year, only around two thirds were funded.
Beyond providing aid, the European Union — the world’s biggest donor and host of Thursday’s conference — refuses to help rebuild the country until a political settlement has been reached.
“It’s a message of ‘you broke it, you own it,’” said Jean-Christophe Belliard, deputy secretary general of the EU’s External Action Service — essentially the bloc’s foreign office — in reference to Syrian President Bashar Assad and his backers.
The EU is hoping that the meeting can give impetus to stalled peace moves under UN auspices, on top of gathering humanitarian aid for Syria and for neighbors hosting refugees like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
But some NGOs believe that its stance over rebuilding can be a serious obstacle to genuine aid efforts.
“All too often that reconstruction line is limiting what in every other aid context in the world is considered best practice in terms of how to provide humanitarian aid,” said Matthew Hemsley, Oxfam’s Syria policy and communications adviser.
“We’re not here to build large roads. We’re not here to build a brand-new water system for Syria. We’re not here to build a whole new school network. We’re here to make sure that children can be educated in a classroom that doesn’t have rain blowing into it from broken windows, that people don’t have dirty water flowing into their home,” he said.
Absent from the donor conference are Syrians themselves. No government or opposition representatives have been invited, but civil society group representatives in Brussels for the occasion are concerned that donor countries want to pressure Syrian refugees to return, despite the dangers and uncertainties they could face.
“We have to be very careful,” warned Rouba Mhaissen, director of Sawa for Development and Aid. “A lot of government delegations are here to sell return, especially from neighboring countries.”


Taste of kindness: Buddhist monks serve iftar at a Dhaka monastery

Updated 21 May 2019
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Taste of kindness: Buddhist monks serve iftar at a Dhaka monastery

  • The monastery’s generosity has not gone unnoticed by the fasting Muslims

DHAKA: As the clock strikes 6 p.m., Shudhhanondo Mohathero hurries to the kitchen to alert his army of 15 monks that they have less than 40 minutes until iftar. 

Soon, people will begin queuing outside the Dharmarajika Bouddha Bihar, a Buddhist monastery in Dhaka, where Mohathero hands out free food packs to fasting Muslims who are too poor to buy a meal to end their fast.

It is a tradition that 89-year-old Mohathero started 10 years ago when he assumed responsibility for the temple’s upkeep.

“Since the early days of the monastery, we have received tremendous support in celebrating different Buddhist festivals from our Muslim friends. So I thought it’s time to do something in return,” Mohathero told Arab News.

Built in 1951, the monastery, which is located in Basabo in the eastern part of Dhaka, has been involved in various social welfare activities. Since the start of Ramadan this year, almost 200 food packs have been doled out every day, with plans to double the number by the end of the month. The 15 monks who live in the monastery prepare the food boxes for iftar.

At a cost of around 80 cents, which is funded by the temple, each box contains traditional Bangladeshi iftar items such as puffed rice, boiled and seasoned chickpeas, jilapi (a deep-fried sweet pastry), beguni (deep-fried eggplant) and dal bora (a fried item with smashed lentils and dates).

“In previous years, our junior monks used to prepare iftar at the monastery. This year, however, we are starting to outsource the items due to the sheer volume,” Mohathero said. 

“Since the early days of the monastery, we have received tremendous support in celebrating different Buddhist festivals from our Muslim friends. So I thought it’s time to do something in return.”

Shudhhanondo Mohathero, Chief monk of Dhaka’s Buddhist Monastery

The monastery’s generosity has not gone unnoticed by the fasting Muslims.

“I have been receiving iftar from the monastery for three years. Since my husband works as a daily-wage laborer, this iftar has made our lives very comfortable,” Asma Khatun, a local resident, said.

Another devotee, Sharif Hossain, said that iftar from the monastery “is like a divine blessing.”

“After losing all my properties in a river erosion, I moved to Dhaka just a few months ago and started living in a slum. I can finally feed my family with the iftar provided by the monks,” he said. 

Talking about his experience being part of a project that builds communal harmony, Prantar Borua, an apprentice monk at the temple, said: “We feel proud and happy to be doing such an extraordinary thing. It’s a small contribution to the community, but it’s the best we can do at this moment.”

The monastery’s generosity has won praise from the Bangladesh authorities, too.

“It’s a nice initiative from the Buddhist community, especially at a time when the world is experiencing many hate crimes and interreligious conflicts. It upholds the spirit of religious harmony,” Abdul Hamid Jomaddar, joint secretary of the Religious Affairs Ministry, said.

“Our government believes in the coexistence of different religions, which is the beauty of this secular land,” he added.