More on our November visit to the Syrian refugee camps

Inside the camp

Main Street Atma, tents opened selling goods, small trucks were making deliveries. After three years these displaced people were trying to normalise their appalling conditions.  I am always astounded at people’s resilience.  Having visited five other camps in October I was overwhelmed at the scale of the humanitarian struggle in Atma.

We continued into the countryside noticing camps going up everywhere. Realising how much work our local partners do to ensure families are kept out of the elements.  

Eventually we reached the depot, owned by our local partners, where the donations from Ireland are stored and readied for distribution. Belkacem held ‘distribution strategy’ meetings with leaders on the ground.  Our team rallied inside.  Donations from the first two containers were in situ.  Having visited the camps previously and having witnessed Atma, I cannot overstate the importance of the donations received.  I wish everyone who has contributed to SWA could bear witness to this scene.  I thought kindly of our staff and donors in Ireland and knew they were beside us in spirit.

Hospital Visit

Next stop the hospital in Bab Al Hawa.  There are now only three CT scanners working in all of Syria.  Human Appeal Intl. medical fund which included large contributions from the Irish community supplied this hospital with one, along with 5 ICU units.  

Bab Al Hawa hospital, which is a converted commercial premises, is now the main hospital in the region.  While we were there, ambulance after ambulance arrived, however, there were not enough ambulances so people, dead or alive, arrived in the back of makeshift trucks.  Children carried in their parent’s arms, doctors scrambling to care for the wounded regardless of who they were. There was only one request…”Please leave your weapons outside!”

The emergency room seemed chaotic, drills going, nurses running, blood, blood, blood. But when you looked into the eyes of these fantastic medics there was determination, a job to be done.

We witnessed the care given to a young boy whose arm had been completely severed in a bomb blast…the doctors had sewn it back on…working tirelessly to try and save his limb.  His distraught parents sitting quietly by his side, he was hooked up to an ICU unit. It was so hard not to break down, I have children and grandchildren. The unfairness of war, always the weak and vulnerable…those who have little or no say.  Why oh why are the humanitarian corridors not open?  Why oh why do these children have to suffer so much?

Seventy percent of hospitals in Syria are not working.  Makeshift field hospitals are being set up, under equipped and under supplied.  Doctors work day and night, mainly undercover as their lives are under threat.  When they greeted us in Bab Al Hawa the main spokesman seemed really surprised to see me remarking that I was there only a month ago.  This in itself spoke volumes.  

We had to watch our time as the borders close.  Not wanting to leave but aware of the time constraints we went outside where there were hoards of people, armed soldiers, children playing in the street, the walking wounded, women carrying food inside for doctors and patients, soldiers in wheelchairs out for a smoke.

Back inside our vehicles, back through the countryside passing more and more camps, back through Atma, an air of disbelief reigned yet no one felt tired.

Again to the border, rushed from our vehicles, escorted on all sides, through the gates waiting for another vehicle to the outpost.  There were a lot of Syrian people present and others who were obviously not Syrian but armed and serious.

Later that evening we held meetings with our local partners and then debriefed as a team over dinner, eventually heading for some rest late that night unsure of what the morning would bring.


The rehabilitation unit on our second day was perhaps the toughest part of our visit. Within this unit were 50 cases of severe injuries caused by sniper fire, of these 50 cases, 20 were children. These individuals had been partially paralysed and were now wheelchair bound.

The doctors were completely overwhelmed, the lack of medical supplies not allowing them to cope with the needs of their patients. One doctor commented that “people need to be flown to proper hospitals abroad that can actually deal with the trauma”, the facility can only provide help for 2-3months and after that patients are sent back into the camps. Individuals who need constant assistance in their day to day life, have no option but to return to the camps where there are no facilities to aid their physical and emotional recovery.

Our visit to the Rehabilitation unit allowed us to assess where the wheelchairs and medical supplies that have been so generously bought and donated were most needed, ensuring the fair and equal distribution of future containers. Not all hope was lost!

Sister Power

Later that day we had the opportunity to visit a ‘Micro Industry’ that was evolving in Reyjanli on the Turkish side of the border. Syrian women from the camps were supplied with raw materials with which they created the most wonderful articles.  Jumpers, Hats, Scarves, Rugs, Keyrings etc.  These articles were then sold on locally. Women are able to feed their families from this income.  This wonderful initiative is in the process of developing an online store so that these items can be supplied globally.  Human Appeal Ireland is currently in the process of opening two charity outlets….I know where we will be sourcing some of our goods from!!!!!


Later we had the opportunity to meet with more local partners.  Those involved in education.  Children have not been schooled in almost three years.  No structure in their lives.  The importance of developing an education system in Syria cannot be understated and something that I personally intend to devote more time to in 2014.  A school can offer structure, education, food and clothing if necessary. Friendship, oneness, care!  No matter when the conflict ends education now is paramount.  

Children have suffered enormous emotional and psychological trauma.  They need some sense of order in their lives. In October  I had visited the school in Qah, which is sponsored by Human Appeal, and witnessed first hand the enormous benefit to children from the camps.  Some of these beautiful children were wheelchair bound yet in the classroom they were with their friends, learning, drawing, playing!

While at this meeting I was shown drawings which the children had completed.  The pictures were beyond words.  Most clinicians working with children who have incurred trauma will stress the importance of pictures.  Sometimes the young cannot make sense of what is happening and, unable to vocalise something that is beyond comprehension, they would be invited to express themselves through art.  Their art broke my heart!

I truly believe in the generosity of the Irish Community and believe they will help in this area as it is so vital.  Human Appeal Ireland is in a position to further develop schools in Syria. Our partners have sourced ‘safe’ areas, there are teachers ready, admin is in place, children are in need and these projects can be effective in so many areas of  life. Funding and sponsorship is needed urgently.