UN spotlights civilian suffering in Syria by screening ‘viral’ image in New York, Tokyo

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Yarmouk residents gather to await food distribution from UNRWA in January 2014. Photo: UNRWA Archives

New York .- The United Nations has drawn on the bustling energy of two of the world’s most fabled crossroads – New York City’s Times Square and Tokyo’s Shibuya crossing – to spotlight the ongoing struggle of besieged civilians trapped amid Syria’s civil war, launching a “flashmob” and simultaneously showing on the junctions’ mega-billboards the now-iconic photograph of thousands of people in a Damascus refugee camp waiting in line for food supplies.

The massive international social media campaign led by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which ensures the well-being of Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, culminated with last night’s simultaneous events on either side of  the globe: in New York scores of people joined a flashmob vigil silently holding up pita bread to the gaunt figures on the giant screen above; in Tokyo, similarly enthusiastic crowds gathered.

The image being viewed by the crowds is jaw-dropping: it shows thousands of Palestinian refugees waiting amid the rubble of crumbling buildings to receive food aid in Yarmouk, which is a suburb on the outskirts of Damascus, and to which UNRWA and its humanitarian partners had had only sporadic access during the Syrian conflict.

The iconic image of a huge crowd waiting for UNRWA food parcels in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, Damascus has gone up simultaneously on the "Jumbotron" billboard in New York's Times Squareand in Tokyo’s Shubyia district on the same day Photo: Alexandra Eurdolian and Smita Sharma for unrwa.org

Prior to the armed conflict in Syria, which began in March 2011, Yarmouk was home to over 160,000 Palestine refugees. Since December 2012, fighting has caused at least 140,000 Palestine refugees to flee their homes in Yarmouk, as armed opposition groups established a presence in the area, with Government forces controlling the periphery.

After UNRWA released the photo in February, the image went “viral” and was shared millions of times via social media. UNRWA Spokesperson Christopher Gunness has said the image is “cinematic in scope,” starkly revealing “vignettes of inhumanity” that have become the daily lives of those suffering in Yarmouk and, ultimately, throughout Syria.

“When an image embodies the collective conscience of its time in a manner that is at once universally epic and deeply personal, it takes on a transformative power of its own.”

Mr. Gunness said that the international social media campaign built around the photo, which kicked off earlier this week with a Thunderclap – reached almost double its target of 23 million, the pre-war population of Syria.

The broader #LetUsThrough initiative generated over 38.5 million social media impressions and reached over 26 million people, demanding humanitarian access to what the UN estimates are 10 million people in Syria who need assistance, including 5 million children.




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