06/20/2013 12:56 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Amid Pain, Opportunities to Help Syrian Refugees via the UN

"We can't know your pain." These are the words from Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy to UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency, spoken this week to families who have fled Syria.

How distressingly true they are. Today -- on World Refugee Day -- the pain of Syrian refugees takes center-stage in the ongoing two-year civil war.

As a father, the plight of these families strikes a chord. It is impossible to conceive of the agony of someone like Ahmad. At 13 -- nearly the age of my youngest son, a boy who loves soccer and tennis -- he is in Lebanon, learning to cope without the use of his right leg. It was amputated after his hometown was shelled recently.

How can we truly understand what it is like for four-year-old Shahad, whose name means "the sweetest part of the honey"? Last September, fighting leveled her family's three-story home, killing her 10-year-old brother Jasim, baby sister Aya, and five other family members. Her face was lacerated and her petite curls torn from her head.

Stories like these have become horrifically commonplace along the borders of Syria, where the war has forced more than 1.6 million civilians like Shahad and Ahmad from their homes. About half of the refugees are children. If the fighting continues, UNHCR estimates that nearly 3.5 million refugees will have fled by the end of this year. Nearly seven million more will be displaced inside their own country.

The pain may be hard to imagine, but the opportunities to help are not.

Led by UNHCR, a coordinated effort between seven UN agencies, international NGOs, and partners is underway to address the refugee crisis. The plan is based on three objectives. The first is to ensure that Syrians and other refugees have access to neighboring countries and international protection. The second is to provide for the basic needs of the refugees, especially the most vulnerable. The third is to ensure contingency measures are in place in the likely event of a larger-scale outflow.

The needs of the refugees have been paramount not only for UNHCR but also other UN agencies, including UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization, and the World Food Program. Without the UN presence in Syria and neighboring nations, food, medicine and vaccines, shelter, hygiene, blankets, and other bare essentials would be unattainable for these families.

Still, the needs far outstrip available resources, and global action is urgently needed. A few clicks can help raise the profile of this crisis, spread the word about UNHCR's life-saving work in Syria, and encourage friends and family to get involved.

We all know kids like my son who can't wait to get on the soccer field and run and play. We may not be able to imagine what it's like for a child like that to suddenly flee from his home, and wake up with his life forever changed. But we can support the UN in its vital work to alleviate that suffering.