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I have seen the way that HIHS are taking aid to places in Syria that no one else is getting to

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Gill travelled to Syria with the charity in early January 2013, having raised a significant amount of funds for the HIHS Winter Appeal.  Here she writes about her very unique experience and of the desperate need for more aid to reach Syria.

This is to thank all those who have supported my sponsored walk to raise money for refugees in Syria. It has so far raised almost £10,000 for Hand in Hand for Syria’s Winter Appeal (Jan 2013) and last week I went out to Syria to help deliver some of this aid to the refugees themselves. I cannot possibly do justice to all the experiences I had there but I would like to try and give you a tiny flavour of what happened.

I flew out last Monday with a wonderful woman called Carol. Our husbands are colleagues in the Church here in East London  and, amazingly, Carol offered to go out with me. I’m not sure she would have done so if she’d had any idea what she was letting herself in for so probably just as well she didn’t! But she was amazing and I’m convinced God’s hand was on her coming as it worked out so well.

Our plane into Istanbul was delayed by snow so we missed our connecting flight – and consequently our pre-arranged meeting with the two trustees from the charity who had made the connecting flight. So we had an unscheduled night in an Istanbul hotel courtesy of Turkish Airways. This turned out out very positively as we met up with some aid workers from other charities and began to get a feel for the difficulties charities are facing in getting aid into Syria.

We were up at 3am on Tuesday and, despite heavy snowstorms, managed to get the early flight to Hatay in Southern Turkey where we were very pleased to find one of the trustees of Hand in Hand for Syria (HIHS) waiting for us. He went out of his way to look after us while we were there. Tuesday turned out to be the most intense of our three days there. We were introduced to the small team who work out of offices in the border town of Reyhanli, and by lunchtime were on our way to make our first trip across the border and inside Syria.

Gill meets internally displaced Syrian children living in Atmeh refugee camp

The largest of the refugee camps in Syria is the Atmeh camp, literally just the other side of the rolls of coiled razor wire that delineate the border. It is a sea of white tents that now houses around 15,000 people. They have fled from villages and towns obliterated by government shelling. They have witnessed and been subject to unspeakable brutality. They are now trying to live in a wasteland of red earth that turns to mud every time it rains. The children play in the dirt; are covered in dirt – but movingly continue to grin and laugh when you talk with them. They cut down and burn the branches of olive trees in an effort to keep warm – as soon as the sun begins to sink, the temperature plummets. Several tents have recently burned down because of accidents with candles. A family of seven children burned to death on New Years Day – the father had gone out to get firewood, the mother had fallen asleep breastfeeding the baby.

I asked the camp doctor what they were most in need of. “Everything” was her reply. The medical centre is a dark breeze-block room with earthen floor and no electricity.  A Turkish charity provides water and two small meals a day to people in the Atmeh camp. In Al Karama camp, the refugees get just one meal a day. Yet even this is more than many of the people who are living in towns and villages deeper inside Syria. A UN report this week has just warned that 1 million Syrian people are facing the threat of starvation.

We visited the makeshift school where the teacher talked about the difficulties of trying to provide an education for the 5,000 children there. He would like each child to have their own bag with notepaper and pens. “People come and they make promises..but nothing ever happens,” he says. I am going to now try and involve  church schools here in Stepney, London, to see if we can raise the money for school bags.

We travel out of the camp a little deeper into the Syrian countryside bouncing up and down on the un-made roads. We visit another camp where a mother shows us inside her tent. It has some carpets and mattresses round the side and looks quite cosy. But it has to provide shelter for 12 people and the mother explains that condensation forms on the plastic sides and drips down making them wet inside.

In this camp, I notice many children with bare feet almost purple with cold; I hold some of the children’s hands and feel the coldness of their skin. One girl stands shivering. It is this camp where we will distribute our aid on Thursday. As dusk falls, the air is chilled; small fires belch out thick smoke and the atmosphere feels more tense than in Atmeh – here 3,000 people are living in very close proximity in a small purpose-built camp – and they have had no food since the morning.

Leaving Al Karama we visit a children’s hospital that has just been built by HIHS. Previously, the obstetrician had been delivering babies on her living room floor. We are proudly shown us the new delivery room – seven babies have been delivered there already in the past two weeks. The monitor can’t be used yet as the only electricity is coming from a car battery – the lights suddenly go out as we stand talking. HIHS are shipping out a generator in their next container.

We drive further and visit a school which has been turned into a hospital, HIHS supply their medical aid. We visit some of the ex-classrooms that are now wards. While we are there there is a small commotion as a family arrive in the corridor. They have just arrived from Hama. The traumatised daughter has been shot in the side – three of her brothers killed by a regime bomb as they queued for bread at the bakery. She is draped in a blanket and moves awkwardly and slowly. Her face is blank and expressionless.

We go back down to the staffroom and wait as the surgeon explains to the doctor from HIHS what supplies they are in need of. Suddenly tables are set up, large bowls of food and bread appear and we are all sharing a meal together! Then an amazing coincidence – Martin Fletcher, a journalist from The Times walks in – here to talk to our HIHS doctor. It was in an article by Martin Fletcher two months ago that I had initially heard about HIHS for the first time and that had started all this. And now here we are – together in a makeshift hospital in Syria. He is pleased to hear that his reports do have an impact!

There is so much more to describe but it would take too long. I will just say that of the £2,000 sponsor money I took out, I gave half to HIHS to spend on the children’s hospital they are setting up (this is one of  their most pressing needs) and with the other half we bought a load of children’s boots, warm socks, coats, hats and gloves. We distributed some of this ourselves at Al Karama camp and left the remainder to be distributed by the camp leaders.

I have seen with my own eyes the way that HIHS volunteers are risking their lives every day and taking aid to places in Syria that no one else is getting down to. I have heard some of the stories of people who have come to their offices from nearby villages in desperate need of food, blankets, medicines and clothing. I have a new understanding of the appalling situation in Syria. It has been an amazing experience and a privilege.