03/18/2014 05:02 pm ET Updated May 18, 2014

What I Learned in a Syrian Refugee Camp

Winter had fully set in when I arrived at Jordan's Za'atari camp for Syrian refugees in late December. The first seasonal storm had closed Jordan's schools, and the icy roads leading to the camp were nearly impassable.

As we trekked through frozen mud, it was painful to see children walking barefoot in the bitter cold. Za'atari -- now the world's second largest refugee camp as the war enters its fourth brutal year -- is overflowing with people who had to flee their homes abruptly with no time to pack their things. That's why so many are unprepared for winter; they have almost no material possessions.

However, there was one thing I did see in abundance -- the compassion Syrian refugee children displayed toward one another.

I met one boy, at most 3 years old, who was among a group of children that were clearly hungry. I remembered some biscuits a colleague had put in my bag and began to hand them out. The little boy hesitated before taking one. Then, he carefully broke it in half and offered it up to his baby brother.

Pure empathy -- children naturally have it; they instinctively want to help others, make things right, ease pain. I saw it again and again at Za'atari. These children might have very little, but whatever they have, they're going to use it to take care of each other.

I replayed that incident in my mind on the flight back from Jordan. I thought about how hard it has been for aid organizations to generate empathy at home for these children who so desperately need it, or at least channel that empathy into something concrete: donations to keep these children healthy, fed, warm, and in school; demands for the violence directed against them to stop.

It's not that Americans lack empathy. Time and again we've been moved to action -- particularly when children are involved. The outpouring of support my organization received after Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines was nothing short of overwhelming. Beyond the donations and the phone calls, people would stop me to say "Thank god you are helping those children" or "How can I go there and rebuild homes and schools?" We saw the same thing after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, but the slow-burning disaster in Syria hasn't generated nearly the same level of concern among the American people.

Why is that? The magnitude of the devastation for both emergencies is striking. Five million children affected by the typhoon, 5 million children affected by this war. Over a million children forced from their homes in the Philippines, over a million Syrian children living as refugees in neighboring countries -- with millions more displaced within their country. Certainly, the need of a child for shelter after losing his or her home to a bomb is every bit as great as that of the child who lost a home to a 30-foot wave; the need for education, medical care, and clean drinking water for those living in a refugee camp or embattled Syrian neighborhood is every bit as great as for those children living in an typhoon evacuation center.

Part of the problem may be the feeling that we are helpless in the face of a savage, seemingly insoluble, manmade disaster. But we are not. Just as we're aiding the victims of an unprecedented storm in a country of 7,000 islands, surely we can provide food, water, shelter, classrooms, sweaters and boots for every Syrian child in Homs, Aleppo, Za'atari, Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, and beyond. We are in no way helpless.

Unlike Typhoon Haiyan, this war hasn't arrived in the middle of the night delivering its destruction in a sudden, sweeping blow. We still have time to provide for survivors of the conflict and prevent further disasters from unfolding if we summon our empathy for an entire generation of Syrian children and say they must not suffer more.

Yes, the violence needs to stop. But until then, we must be a lifeline to millions of children. We have an obligation to provide them with resources so they have the future they deserve when this war finally ends.

I have seen the power of our empathy when we channel it to provide for those who need it most. I have also seen what failure looks like when we don't. Let's not look back and say we didn't.