As ShelterBox Operations Co-ordinator Sam Hewett returns to the Turkey/Syria border for the second time in a fortnight, he invites us all to empathise with families on the run or besieged in a city at war.
Response team members with Cornwall-based disaster relief agency ShelterBox see life in the raw, witness to families displaced and made homeless by natural disasters, and those caught in the crossfire of conflicts and civil wars.
Last year ShelterBox’s Sam Hewett was on the Greek Island of Lesbos, helping to provide shade and respite for refugees who had made dangerous sea crossings from Turkey. He was also part of a team improving conditions in refugee camps in Iraq Kurdistan. Sam has brokered deals with partner organisations that have kept a steady stream of aid pouring into Syria itself. Dangerous territory, especially for the media and aid workers from western countries.
Now the focus for Sam and his colleagues is Aleppo, once Syria’s most populated city and one of the oldest inhabited places on earth. Constant bombing and ground fighting has left it in ruins, without power, utilities or safe housing, its people reliant on outside supplies of food, medicine and shelter. The one remaining aid route to the north is becoming tenuous, and day by day there are fears that it will be completely cut off by military action, trapping civilians in the eye of a military storm.
Sam’s colleague Daisy Pitcher has described the aid situation as ‘Rushing towards a closing door’. The faint prospect of a negotiated ceasefire brings some hope, but in reality ShelterBox and its partners are racing to reach Aleppo before its aid lifeline is cut off.
Sam will head up a ShelterBox team returning to the border city of Gaziantep on Thursday. ShelterBox has already confirmed the distribution of 750 large UN-specification tents in the Idleb area and Aleppo by long-term partners, UK-based Hand in Hand for Syria, and 2,000 kits containing blankets, mattresses, solar lighting and waterproof tarpaulins being purchased locally within Turkey, then taken by New-Zealand based ReliefAid into Aleppo city.
Sam, impatience in his voice, says, ‘Our work to support displaced people in Syria is run remotely. It’s too dangerous for anyone except Syrians to work in the country. Instead, I am coordinating with staff from our partners, who are liaising with their opposite numbers within Syria. Remotely, we are trying to understand the needs of the people in a rapidly changing situation.’
‘We’ve been working to help those displaced by the war since 2012. Refugees, the displaced, migrants, asylum seekers – call them what you will, they are all people like you or I, and most of them are running scared. Responding to their changing needs requires real flexibility. We’ve broken our own rules and bent the organisation out of shape just so we can support these unfortunate people. Flexibility can save lives.’
‘Back home a lot of people seem at a loss to understand the situation. Drawing a diagram of the different factions and their loyalties doesn’t really help. The Americans are backing the Kurds, who are fighting the regime, which is backed by the Russians. Both the Americans and the Russians are bombing the Islamic State, along with the Turks, but the Turks are also shelling the Kurds, even though USA and Turkey are allies. Then there’s Jabat al Nusra and the Saudis. The drawing becomes an incomprehensible mess.’
‘In the middle of this are 13.5 million people in need. To me, there’s no confusion.’
NOTES TO EDITORS
• ShelterBox needs your support to send aid to these families before it is too late. We plan to provide shelter kits that contain mattresses, tarpaulins, plastic sheeting, solar lights and water carriers. The tough tarpaulin can be used to restore roofs and walls, while clear plastic sheeting can be used to cover broken windows.
Blankets and mattresses, five in each kit, not only provide warmth but can also be used as room dividers to create privacy. Solar lamps bring a source of light to a city without electricity, and water carriers allow people to collect water from safe sources.
All of the items in the kit are easy to carry, flexible and durable. If a family needs to leave their home and find shelter elsewhere, they can easily take the contents with them and use them over and over again. A shelter kit for a whole family costs just £88.74 and contains the essentials people need to survive in such difficult conditions. Please donate today.
• We can arrange interviews with Sam and colleagues before they depart for Turkey, or seek connections with them once they are back in the Middle East. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or phone on 07584 489194.