In March 2011 protests erupted in Deraa, southern Syria, after government officials arrested and tortured a group of teenagers who had drawn revolutionary messages on the wall of their school.
When security forces killed several of those protesting against the treatment of these teenagers, further protests were encouraged, leading to mass demonstrations calling for the end of President Assad’s regime. The continued use of the military to try to silence the protesters led to some demonstrators arming themselves, resulting in a bloody conflict in which over 150,000 people have been killed
The conflict in Syria has gone on for over three years and has resulted in a humanitarian crisis within the country, with half the population (over 9 million Syrians) in need of humanitarian aid.
Due to the nature of the conflict in Syria, in trying to deliver the aid that is so desperately needed by its citizens. One of the few charities that has been able to operate on the ground within Syria itself and deliver aid is Hand in Hand for Syria.
Speaking to Young Perspective, Fadi Al-Dairi, director of operations in Syria and Turkey with Hand in Hand for Syria, said he thought it was the charity’s neutrality, combined with the fact that their volunteers and staff are local that allowed them to operate in such a dangerous environment.
“For the international agencies, operating in Syria is too much of a risk. We are from Syria – we know the terrain and we know the people. We aim to deliver aid to everyone in Syria without looking at their race, religion or political background. We are quite neutral; we take no sides.
“For example, in the hospital you ask the patient’s name because you have to know in case anything happens, but no-one can say that we treat one person but not another for any reason – there is no discrimination. So I think it is the neutrality we have that allows us to operate successfully.
“Of course, it also helps that our staff are local. You are from Scotland yourself: you know the terrain, you know the area and you know the people. It is the same for us. Our staff are also well known in the community which makes it much easier.”
Despite the charity’s neutrality and the local knowledge of their volunteers and workers, it would all be for nothing if they could not get aid across the border from Turkey into Syria. The charity is able to move its aid into the war-torn country thanks to ‘special arrangements’ with the Turkish government, whose generosity to those fleeing Syria is overwhelming, with the country currently hosting roughly 25% of the 2,5 million refugees created by the country’s conflict.
Speaking about the logistics of delivering aid across the border, Fadi Al-Dairi said, “We have special arrangements with the Turkish government. We are a registered charity in Turkey plus we have the office in Syria. If you are a registered charity, you are allowed to cross the border within certain restrictions – that’s thanks to the Turkish government. On the Syrian side, we have a massive warehouse where we store the aid and from there we deliver it into different areas depending on the need.”
While well-known staff means that people know where to go when they need help, the charity simply cannot afford to help everybody who comes to them, as Fadi Al-Dairi explained.
“People can always ask for help, but our staff would have to assess how desperate their situation is. We can’t just give aid to everyone who asks, we have to assess the need, because there are some people that need more help than others. We have to make a lot of very disappointing decisions for people, we do have to let down a lot of people – we have no choice.”
Hand in Hand for Syria operates in all areas of Syria, managing to reach 90% of Syria’s people. However, as Fadi Al-Dairi explains, the rules for operating in government controlled areas are very different to those in the opposition areas.
He said, “In Syria we operate in the opposition held areas and we also operate in the government controlled areas, but we have do this under extreme secrecy. [In the government controlled areas] you wouldn’t see Hand in Hand’s name; you would see a normal name. We have two schools and a hospital, but these do not look like they are associated with Hand in Hand, they would look entirely normal. This is to protect the people on the ground and the people who attend.
“We do it totally differently in the government controlled areas. In these areas we would do it in normal vehicles: small saloon cars or normal cars. In opposition held areas we can travel openly, whereas in government controlled areas, you cannot fill a car with more than two food baskets – two is the maximum. Anyone seen with a lot of aid is targeted, it is a criminal offence.”
Due to the enormous risk that the volunteers and workers from Hand in Hand run when they deliver aid into the government controlled areas of the country, the charity has suffered tragic losses in personnel.
“We have lost 15 of our staff in Syria over the last two and a half years, which is why we are so security conscious. We believe that they were captured and then killed – tortured to death. We do a lot of work inside Syria, but we don’t talk about it because nothing is safe.”
As Fadi Al-Dairi explained, this danger and the lack of jobs in Syria has led to many of their volunteers becoming fulltime employees of the charity, as aid distribution workers.
He explained, “We started off with volunteers on the ground, but the conflict has gone on for about three years now, so most of those people work for us now. People just can’t afford to continue to work as volunteers.
“We have volunteers in government controlled areas, but in opposition held areas now we are giving them wages. They are paid around £70-80 a month.
“We keep getting requests [from people in the west] to volunteer in Syria and I have to say, why would you want to volunteer in Syria? Why don’t you pay someone else from Syria? For £80 you could keep a family going for a month. To volunteer in Syria you have to pay for a flight, which is about £350, think about how much that is if £80 keeps a family for a month.
“So don’t come and volunteer out here [in Syria], just give the money to Hand in Hand so that we can pay people in Syria to help distribute aid; that way, you are creating jobs. I mean, if someone is going to come from the UK to volunteer in Syria, they don’t know the terrain, so it’s not safe for them.”
The Syrian conflict has gone on for so long, that many struggle to see a resolution to the fighting and, despite peace talks taking place between the two sides at in January 2014, little ground was made and the conflict remains unresolved. Fadi Al-Dairi was pessimistic about an ending to the conflict saying that ‘over ten years maybe’ the conflict could be resolved.
This leaves the people of Syria in a devastating situation, with their only current hope being the aid delivered by charities such as Hand in Hand.
Talking about how we, in the Western world, can help deliver this vital aid and what charities themselves can also do, Fadi Al-Dairi said, “People need to keep appealing, appealing for help and people need to keep calling for peace.
“Now we need to get kids back in school, because children are becoming used to military personnel and they are beginning to think this is a normal thing in Syria. Women too, women who have lost their husbands, we need to get them jobs – anything that can be done for the women and for the children.”
To donate to Hand in Hand for Syria you can visit their website and pledge a monthly donation or you can make a one-off donation. You can also keep up to date with their work on Facebook and on Twitter.
Image: Delivering Bread, © Hand in Hand for Syria