TheHill.com: Where hunger is a weapon of war, food fights back

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Washington, March 15, 2017 | comments

The war in Syria enters its seventh year today. The fighting has now lasted so long entire cities are reduced to rubble. At this very moment, besieged communities in Syria are being starved by the brutality of the Assad regime. Graffiti scrawled by government loyalists reads: Kneel or starve. Without a means to put food on the table, families become desperate, making them easy recruits for extremists who can manipulate their hunger and fear.

Right now hunger is being used as a weapon of war, but we have the tools to fight back. Humanitarian workers remain one of the few good elements left on the front lines of the Syria conflict. Aid agencies like the World Food Programme (WFP), the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and UNICEF are among the last stabilizing forces left in a country that has been consumed by chaos for half a decade.

The crisis in Syria has serious implications for international — and national — security. As Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) wrote last year: “Show me a nation that cannot feed itself, and I'll show you a nation in chaos.” But I believe we have an opportunity to help stabilize the world by feeding those in need.

Adequate humanitarian assistance can also alleviate the global migration crisis by helping refugee-hosting nations in the Middle East who welcome Syrian refugees. In Lebanon alone, WFP’s electronic food vouchers have injected more than $700,000 into the country’s economy since their introduction in 2012. These “e-cards” enable Syrian refugees to purchase locally produced food, including fresh meat, dairy and produce. This approach not only saves the agency millions of dollars in shipping, storage and distribution costs, it also provides a more nutritious diet for Syrian refugees that, in turn, supports local food producers and shopkeepers.

As we look to renew America's greatness and role in global leadership, we need to recognize that access to food is one of the most basic building blocks of a healthy economy and society — not just here in the U.S., but abroad as well. Even if Syrian families could return to their homes tomorrow, many won’t have anything to return to. Bombs have turned their homes to dust. When peace is finally restored to Syria, its people will face many decades of rebuilding and recovering from this senseless war. And humanitarian assistance — especially food — will play a critical role in this process.

This lifesaving aid doesn’t just mean providing food rations. There are already steps being taken by agencies like the WFP to revitalize Syria’s shattered economy and agriculture by rebuilding greenhouses and providing seeds in the coastal area of Tartous, a region that was once among the world’s top tomato producers before the war broke out.

At a time of unprecedented global instability and humanitarian crisis that we have not seen since World War II, cuts to funding for international disaster relief will have long-term, far-reaching consequences to our national security. Syria is just one of many countries where prolonged violence has pushed people into hunger and out of their own countries completely.

America was created for a fundamental mission: To be an example for human dignity and strength. If we fail to support critical humanitarian assistance in Syria, we create a void that extremist militants can and will fill. In many ways, they already have.

But it’s not too late.

Three years ago, I met a 13-year-old girl at a refugee camp in Iraq whose parents had been killed by ISIS. She was now the sole caretaker of her younger brother, who had cerebral palsy and required special care. And now she was responsible for finding their next meal. I’ll never forget the courage in her eyes, despite all of the horrors she had been through and witnessed.

I’ve met hundreds of courageous men and women during tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the U.S. Air Force. But this little girl is one of the bravest people I’ve ever met.

As we mark this awful milestone today, I’m reminded of the strength and determination in this little girl’s eyes and how fiercely she looked after her brother. Children like her are suffering the most and it is our mission as Americans to be that “shining city on a hill” and offer these children a shot at a better life.

This op-ed was originally published by The Hill and can be found in full here: http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/foreign-policy/324026-where-hunger-is-a-weapon-of-war-food-fights-back
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