Connecting with Rukban

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Enabling critical assistance through connectivity in Syria’s most remote settlement

By Elizabeth Millership / WFP

Located 300 kilometres from Damascus at the south eastern border with Jordan, Rukban’s informal settlement continues to be a desert in every sense of the word. One of Syria’s most challenging places to reach, a UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) convoy was deployed to Rukban on a preparatory mission in August 2019, to provide humanitarian assistance and assess the needs of the 13,000 people remaining there, while preparing to assist with the departure of those who wish to leave the area.

This was Muhammad Khaled’s first time supporting communications services for a UN convoy. A native of Syria, Muhammad joined the World Food Programme (WFP) in 2010 and is now serving the WFP-led Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) as a Telecommunications Associate. Muhammad was moved by the vast expanse of Rukban, stretching across several kilometers of rust-red soil. Since nearly 19,000 people have left this year, the remote area now feels even more isolated. Many thousands more could leave over the coming weeks as part of a series of UN-assisted departures.

'Muhammad was moved by the vast expanse of Rukban, stretching across several kilometers of rust-red soil'

“This assessment mission is part of an extensive operation”, Muhammad explains. Usually busy providing connectivity for humanitarians operating in Syria’s bustling governorates of Aleppo and Homs, Muhammad found his new workspace a change from his usual ETC missions. As the sole provider of connectivity and telecommunications services for 42 humanitarian personnel (from WFP, UNDSS, WHO, UNICEF, UNHCR, UNFPA and local partner SARC) participating in the nine-day convoy, the ETC made the entire humanitarian operation possible.

“Almost immediately after departure from Damascus, we needed to improve radio communications so that the vehicles could communicate with each other”, Muhammad recalls. In the field, the ability to communicate with each other and with the wider response community is vital to ensure the safety and security of staff. In the context of the crisis in Syria, reliable communication channels can be critical.

More than eight years of conflict in Syria have taken their toll on the country’s communications infrastructure, creating multiple power and connectivity gaps on the long road to the border. Deploying a range of services during the journey was key to ensuring humanitarians stayed connected. “It is important the ETC be a part of any humanitarian convoy. When we reached Rukban, Internet connectivity provided by the ETC made all the team feel like they were working in their offices as usual, sending and receiving emails”, Muhammad says.

For most of us, it’s hard to imagine being disconnected from daily communications and continuous access to information. Yet in Rukban, services such as 3G connectivity are simply not available. Based 18 kilometres from the settlement, the humanitarian convoy staff operated on customized Wi-Fi connections, charged laptops from solar panels and were trained in radio communications provided by Muhammad, who worked tirelessly to facilitate access to critical connectivity.

'In the context of the crisis in Syria, reliable communication channels can be critical'

Clearly proud of his work with the ETC, Muhammad remembers one evening during the mission, when a humanitarian was able to call their family using connectivity systems he had installed.

“The UN team and our partner SARC were like one family – like brothers and sisters. This made me so motivated”, Muhammad says. “Working for the ETC makes you learn quickly, especially in the field. Through my experience, I learned how to overcome so many challenges such as how to effectively operate portable communications equipment as part of a large-scale and complex operation. For me, I consider it great work to fix communications”.

Since returning from Rukban at the end of August, Muhammad has already deployed to Dara’a in south western Syria to repair a storm-damaged radio tower, has trained IT staff in France on radio communications and is now heading back to Damascus from Deir ez-Zor where he set up a new communications network.

Muhammad sometimes feels as though he is always on a mission to a different destination. Thinking back on his recent experiences, he is grateful: “I am very lucky to be working with the humanitarian sector through the ETC. It reflects the human reality that people live daily”.

Led by WFP, the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) is a global network of humanitarian, private sector and governmental organizations that work together to provide shared communications services in emergencies. The ETC seeks to ensure all those responding to emergencies — including affected communities — have access to vital communications services.

The ETC operation in Syria was activated in 2013 to provide life-saving communication services across the country and from neighbouring countries Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. This approach ensures a more effective humanitarian response inside Syria.

Learn more about the ETC in Syria