Six Australian politicians, one bus and a few tears in the shadow of the Syrian war

Six Australian politicians, one bus and a few tears in the shadow of the Syrian war

Six Australian politicians, one bus and a few tears in the shadow of the Syrian war

Updated 13 August 2017, 12:45 AEST

What happens when six cross-party politicians spend a week together on a mini-bus in the shadow of war?

Six Australian parliamentarians spend a torrid week on a mini-bus in the shadow of war.

A Greens senator, an independent, a Liberal and three Labor senators are thrust into the centre of an ongoing humanitarian crisis and forced to live in each others' pockets for a week.

The group of cross-party politicians are usually in each others' crosshairs and it seems unlikely that will change if they are confined in close quarters.

A reporter rides along for fun — That might be the punch line.

A hot, tiring and emotional journey

The group is on a foreign aid lobbying trip, paid for by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and organised by Save the Children, deep into the heart of the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan and Lebanon.

The mission is to confront the politicians with the harsh reality of Syria's seven-year conflict and force them to reaffirm or reassess their views on refugees and aid.

About 2 million Syrians have fled to Jordan or Lebanon.

In many cases they are living in squalid conditions, with no legal rights and fading hopes for their future.

The parliamentarians hear from mothers who have lost children; children who have seen streets littered with dead bodies; and brides married off far too young.

It's hot, tiring and emotional. There are tears and sweat, but, spoiler alert, no blood was drawn.

The horrors of the conflict have united this group in a way no political party can.

Swapping the bus for an armoured convoy

The Bekaa Valley is on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's "do not travel" list.

It stretches along the porous border with Syria and is home — if you can call it that — to hundreds of thousands of Syrians.

Two heavily armoured cars roll up to the hotel in Beirut and the parliamentarians pile in.

Winding deeper into the Bekaa Valley, a police escort in an old black sedan leads the way, guns slung casually across their chests and tanned arms slung out the window.

Lebanon and Australia are worried this is a terrorism hotbed.

Fifty kilometres north, it is.

Fighters with Al Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra hid among the refugees fleeing Syria, and now control a significant tract of northern Lebanon.

But in the south of the Bekaa Valley, the Lebanese Government's biggest worry is actually that the refugees will never leave.

"I'm so sick here, this water, it's making me sick," says a woman as she shows her arms, covered in sores.

Her toddler looks malnourished, sitting under a UNHCR canvas slung over a dirt floor, the stench of squalid water permeating the air.

The smell lingers on the skin for hours after the group leaves.

A world away from the comforts of Canberra

"It's the stories of the women, some of the horror stories that are the most confronting," says radio broadcaster-turned-politician Derryn Hinch.

"And the kids, you see some kids and think 'Oh you're going to be a child bride in about five years'."

Lebanon does not formally recognise the refugees, and they are not allowed to settle in formal camps or to build any permanent structures.

No homes, no waste water systems, no electricity, no toilets. It's a world away from the comforts of Canberra.

The refugees say after dark, young girls are being raped when they relieve themselves outside, and every winter dozens of babies freeze to death.

"It's just the scale of what we're all trying to deal with here," Greens Senator Nick McKim says.

"I was expecting to see large-scale human suffering and we really have seen that."

Back in the capital Beirut, Liberal MP Tim Wilson walks up the stairs of an old building to a tiny two bedroom apartment.

"How many people live here?" he asks.

"Sixteen. Four adults and 12 children," the person escorting them says.

"We eat here, sleep here, live here."

'We're facing the cold, hard, brutal side of conflict'

The humidity is heavy and Mr Wilson steps into the breeze coming through the window.

"It's clean, but you get this many people in this heat, and it's not exactly a hospitable environment to live in," he says.

"There's lots that's surprising me. We're facing the cold, hard, brutal side of conflict.

"It tests us, as a country, what are we doing to do?

"And what is the international community going to do to help and support people that, but for the grace of God, could be us?"

For Mr Wilson, the experience has brought the humanitarian crisis to the fore.

"I'm going to go back to Australia and talk directly to the Government about what more can be done to get targeted outcomes for the crisis in Syria," he says.

Seeing the crisis first hand and hearing personal stories reminds the parliamentarians it could just as easily be them and their families.

At different times, each one of them falls silent on the bus, staring out the window, processing.

"It really hits home, very, very strongly," Labor MP Tim Hammond says.

"I think it's more pronounced since I've become a dad, how desperate must your situation be to pick up your kids, pick up your family and thrust yourself into the unknown.

"We should very much be opening our arms and make people fleeing persecution feel as welcome as we can."

Faced with awful suffering, humanity comes to the fore

Syrians fleeing the fighting have also travelled south into Jordan.

They have better legal protections there, but life is still hard and many refugees have had to pull their kids out of school to work just to survive.

At a drop-in centre run by the aid group CARE, Labor senator Jenny McAllister becomes emotional after meeting a Syrian woman called Fiza.

"She was exposed to bombardment, she had to flee and she lost her five-year-old son to hepatitis," Senator McAllister recalls later.

Senator McAllister has a son just a few years older and the stark contrast between her family and Fiza's is hard to ignore.

She sits with Fiza and her 14-year-old daughter Marwa, fighting back tears.

Marwa tells the senator she had two years off school working, but is now back studying and working part-time in a beauty salon.

She says she wants to be a lawyer or an engineer.

"It's a story about how amazing humans are when faced with truly awful things," Senator McAllister says.

"It's sometimes easy to see aid as a policy issue that can be put to one side, but I think the human nature of this crisis really needs a fairly forceful response."

'I'm so grateful to be here'

Fellow Labor senator Kimberley Kitching was also moved to tears by what she saw.

"I think what's shocked me most is the number of children and the fact that it's accepted that they're engaged in child labour," she says.

"I've met boys who are five or six carrying heavy articles at the market.

"It's been a pretty heavy week, but I'm so grateful to be here.

"While Australia is geographically a long way away, the world has become a lot smaller. And what goes on here has ripple effects back home."