Visiting Syrian refugees - November 2013

HAII team at Dublin airportGiven the overwhelming response to our Syria Winter Appeal (SWA) we decided a team from Human Appeal Ireland would oversee distribution from Ireland into Syria ‘on the ground’.

On Tuesday 26th November  2013 our manager Belkacem, Dr. Hamid from Cork, Moustapha from Castlebar, Aengus Cox, an independent journalist, Khaled and myself met at Dublin Airport.

Both Khaled and I were fortunate enough to have visited Syria in October of this year, with Human Appeal UK for the Flour and Food Parcel distribution. This time it felt reassuring to be travelling with our manager Belkacem and other members of the Irish community.

After a long journey we arrived in Hatay tired, but with the immense demands on the Human Appeal team ground staff, it was time to work.  We were taken to HAII offices on the Turkish side of the border in order to meet with Taraq and Esmatt again, ‘head of missions’ for Human Appeal, who had taken care of us so well in October.

From the onset it was obvious things had changed since our last visit. The ground staff were definitely more unsettled. There were issues, perhaps we would not get into Syria, over the past few weeks aid workers had been kidnapped and even killed! Eventually we got news that two from each nationality could go through.We were all Irish! How could we choose?

With this feeling of uncertainty, a gentleman in charge of maintenance did his best to ensure we were comfortable, making us tea and bringing us seats from the office. Our team noticed he was wearing a ‘surgeons’ t-shirt and inquired as to why. The gentleman explained he had only begun working two weeks ago.  He was a Syrian, from the camps, with five children and no clothes; so a doctor offered him the t-shirt to cover himself and Human Appeal decided to employ him. He was so happy to be able to buy bread for his family.

A child then came up to the group, well dressed, a ‘dapper’ little fellow.  I automatically assumed he was a child of someone working in the offices. His grey trousers matched with a warm grey pullover and he carried upon his face the most beautiful and uplifting smile!

His father turned out to be the maintenance man, who told us that Human Appeal had selected clothes from the ‘stores’ for his children.  Irish clothes! At that moment it became clear that all the effort from our donors, our staff and Ireland in general was being felt. I pinched myself really hard trying to hold back tears.

We waited nervously for the go ahead to come through. Finally we were told there was a chance we could go together as a group if we moved quickly and did not go through the Bab Al Hawa border.  Our driver took us some distance away to another rural crossing, where we waited inline still unsure if we would pass. Eventually we went through and up to the actual border.

This was nothing like my experience in October.  It was difficult then but this seemed unreal. Tension was palpable.  Immediacy was evident.  No doubt our security was at risk.  Guns everywhere, hoards of people shouting, soldiers in different uniforms. Suddenly we were ushered out of our vehicle and split into three cars and driven away at speed.  Our armed escorts from the Civil Security group covered their faces.  I was not sure where our team was.  I looked behind and realised that we were being escorted by an anti aircraft gun supported on the back of a lorry. The driver weaved his way through dirt roads. Silence resounded!

We drove through Atma camp in Idlib. Time seemed to stand still when we were brought face to face with the conditions.  A camp originally established for 5,000 now holding 30,000,  tents were literally on top of each other,  damp and cold, the ground beginning to get muddy from the recent rain, children running around barefoot. In tent after tent there seemed to be someone lying listlessly and this was one of the more established camps.

For more photos of the visit, see HAII Flicker page HERE.