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Jesuit priest in Syria slams World Food Programme's decision to cut aid as 'appalling'

by Donna Birrell

A Jesuit priest working in Syria has told Premier he's appalled that the World Food Programme has been forced to cut its humanitarian aid to the country by 40 per cent.

Fr Tony O'Riordan says survivors are still struggling with the effects of the disaster with food and aid desperately needed.

Last month the World Food Programme said an 'unprecedented funding crisis' had left it with no option but to cut its level of aid.

Six months on from the earthquakes, Fr Tony who has been working with Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) for the last decade, said people were still struggling to comprehend what had happened:

“It affected people in so many different ways. I know one man who had got up early that morning to get the bread for his family from the bakery. When he arrived back just as the earthquake hit, he saw before him his building collapse with his entire family inside, and they all perished.“

When the earthquake struck Fr Tony was about 400 km away but he felt a minor tremor. When he arrived in Aleppo he says he saw “collapsed buildings but also collapsed spirits. In those deadly two minutes of the first earthquake, almost everyone thought they were going to die and then they had this traumatising experience.“

Fr Tony says JRS is only “a small player” but is able to “get into the cracks” and identify people who are affected.

Over the last six months JRS has been able to provide food for about 100,000 people and accompany around 10,000 people – including 2000 children – through their journey of trauma and grief.

Fr Tony says the WFP's decision to cut aid will make the situation even more desperate :

“This to me calls to heaven that in the midst of a growing need for a basic commodity like food, and the increasing numbers in need of this, the response of the World Food Programme is to slash its budget by 40 per cent. It’s just appalling.

“It’s a treadmill of a worsening context economically where the value of the currency has effectively halved in value. It was put very graphically for me by a mother at one of our health clinics last week who said that if she had to buy antibiotics for her child’s chest infection it would cost half her monthly income. People are very desperate and the levels of desperation have increased. So there's a lot of work we have achieved thanks to the goodness and generosity of others but there's just so much more that needs to be done to help people stand on their feet.”

The earthquake struck in the depths of a bitter Winter, but now survivors are struggling with the effects of extreme heat. Fr Tony says he’s concerned about the risk of dehydration and contaminated water increasing the risk of diseases such as cholera.

He says children are particularly suffering the effects of the earthquakes:

“There are now over 2 million children out of school in Syria, because the parents have to rely on them to earn some money. They do dirty jobs collecting rubbish, scavenging in bins, and they get very miniscule return for that, but everything counts when a family is on the verge. So there's a huge swathe of children out of school, and we do our best to work with them.”

Even in the midst of their suffering, Fr Tony says it is possible to bring hope:

“I never underplay the value of just being a listening ear, a comforting ear to people. In this way the spirit of God, the healing presence and strengthening presence of God somehow goes through those conversations and brings healing and strength. So this is really, really essential.”

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