THE BLOG
02/05/2014 03:25 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2014

Weeds for Dinner

In the icy grip of this all too frigid winter, I'd planned to write about the miserably long, snowy weeks that stretch ahead, and how, like so many others, I am sick of shoveling the white stuff. It's lost its allure for me. It no longer represents a scene of hushed beauty, instead all I see are hours of shoveling just to get out of the house. And, let's face it, in a year when even the south is snowed in, you know we've got problems.

But, the truth is, snow is merely an inconvenience, and I know too that my complaints wither in comparison to a crisis such as the one reported on NBC Nightly News this week. It is a story I know only too well from my days as a humanitarian aid worker. It is the story of starvation, a killer as surely as a bullet, though its victims will linger and suffer the consequences for weeks and even months. In Homs, Syria, as reported by NBC News, the population has been without food for weeks. Their meager supplies have been exhausted, and though a lucky few scrape by on a handful of olives, for the rest, it will be weeds for dinner. Those hardy little bits of green pushing through an earth seared by war, represent another day, another chance to survive. And the desperate people of Homs are not alone.

Around the world, people choose to eat weeds over the certain death of starvation. But, weeds are not the sure remedy they might seem. In Darfur and Afghanistan, I treated people, in my little clinics, for the toxic and sometimes fatal effects of eating the seemingly harmless sprouts, and I felt the desperation of people who dreamed only of a full belly, and instead gambled with survival. The risk is all too real. The LA Times reported this week that fifteen people in Syria have died from starvation, ten from eating poisonous greens.

That almost unthinkable desperation, the choice to eat weeds or nothing at all, is one I will long remember from my own experience with its victims, but it is a little girl in Homs, a once thriving city, now reduced to rubble and tears, who articulated the crisis in a way that is both heart wrenching and unforgettable. "I want cookies and milk," she cried, her eyes shining, her little arms wrapped around her equally hungry friends. Her plea for cookies and milk went unanswered that day, but it is one that is universally understood, and as hard to forget as it is to imagine -- cookies and milk -- a simple request, but not so simple these long days and nights in Syria.

There is help -- the UN has just implemented an airlift to deliver much needed food aid, and groups such as the International Rescue Committee are on the ground working to provide relief. But, there is much to be done, and cookies and milk will be a long time coming for the tiny girl with the shining eyes.