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Navigating Humanitarianism: The Logistics of Saving Lives

Friday, December 20, 2013
Hand in Hand for Syria is one of the few charities left operating inside Syria. The charity’s extensive network of aid presents a massive challenge for logistics. Luke McManus talks to Fadi Al-Dairi, the charity’s co-founder and operations director, to understand the vital role we play on the ground, what donors can do to help and the practicalities of getting aid to those who need it most.

You’re co-founder of the charity – how did it all begin?
During the last week of July 2011, my friend Faddy Sahloul – current chairman and co-founder of the charity – and I discussed the need for establishing a network that would allow us to provide aid across Syria. Up until this point, I had just been collecting funds in my spare time and Faddy would send them to Syria. At the same time, I was working in the finance and treasury department at E-On. Helping Faddy as a part-time volunteer, I worked weekends, took paid leave from my job and committed any spare moment to fundraising. When things became more serious in August 2013, I took on a full-time role at the charity and am now based in Turkey.

Do you have an operational advantage, being based in Turkey?
Yes, of course. We currently manage all our operations from there. On a day-to-day basis I’ll be meeting with international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) and partner agencies, arranging which supplies are needed to go where and when, liaising with our warehouse staff, placing orders for more aid – there’s no such thing as a ‘slow day’ at the office. My role here used to be different, going into Syria at least once a week to meet with our teams and advisors. But as the charity has grown, I’m needed more in Turkey now. Besides, crossing into Syria via the Turkish border – a process that used to take 20 minutes – now takes 2 hours. In this line of work we’re always looking to make efficient use of our time.

Are your supply trucks given safe passage once inside Syria?
There is no safe passage inside Syria as there are checkpoints everywhere.

So far we have been okay in transferring aid between various areas. My job as an Operations Director is to manage the delivery and supplies in addition to coordinate relief into where it’s needed most. Communication is not easy though, and we have to keep in touch with our team deep inside Syria via satellite communication (satellite phone & internet via satellite modems). There are various risks in a number of areas but so far we’ve had no issues at all.

What else can obstruct the logistical operation?
Due to our small number of UK-based staff, we simply don’t have time to sort through bulk donations such as second hand clothing or medicine. We appreciate people’s generosity, but we would ask them to reconsider sending these things; sometimes clothes are of poor quality and the shipping environment can spoil medicines, rendering them useless (even though harmless). All medicine has to be listed and must be in date before we can apply for permission from the Ministry of Health in Turkey to bring it into the country; permission must be obtained before the container is loaded. We purchase all medical aid from Turkey now, as our sources are cheaper, closer and reliable.

What is the scale of assistance you provide?
First and foremost, there’s the medicine. We provide vital medical supplies for each of the 84 field hospitals and makeshift clinics we support – and this is no simple feat. Put in perspective, our latest shipment is made up of £200,000 of medical aid. This is predicted to last just one month but, the way things are going, it’s likely that it’ll run out far sooner. I also liaise with our Director of Medical Projects, who spends 95% of his time either here in Turkey, or inside Syria. He gives his professional opinion on a situation and then sends me shopping lists for medicine and supplies. He also oversees good delivery of medical treatment and ensures that the right training and support has been provided. We respond to his recommendations as quickly as possible but sometimes we fall victims to red tape and some partner agencies can take 2-3 months to give us emergency supplies.

Syrian civilians also lack food – are donations helping to address this too?
Yes they are. The situation is extremely dire in the north of the country. It’s difficult to get supplies and food baskets out there but we try. With regards to food, we only buy it from inside Syria because logistically, it’s cheaper this way.  We currently focus most of our food aid on areas such as Damascus, Daraa and Homs where it is particularly scarce and expensive.

What other supplies do you provide?
Syria’s children are at serious risk, the UN warns, of them becoming a ‘lost generation’. Thus, schooling is of great concern to us at the moment. We’re setting up schools, supplying educational resources and paying teachers’ salaries inside major cities. To reach them we often have to source extra trucks, as the scale of our operation is always in flux. We also have workshop schemes in place for adults, which benefit those, such as widows, who have already lost so much. Through a process of ‘empowering’ communities we give them something tangible again. Teaching knitting or stitching is such an example and enables them to produce and sell clothing. From basic fabrics to shirts and trousers, there is a shortage of everything in Syria right now, so this makes a positive impact on their current situation.

The seasons have changed – are there new problems to face?
Yes, without a doubt. A bitter winter has descended across Syria and its people are grossly ill equipped for it. We’re providing tents, sleeping bags and blankets, and a range of hygiene products, including water-purifying tablets. A £5 donation will buy a sleeping bag normally worth £60, thus allowing us to buy in bulk, while still retaining quality. We then store these at our warehouse in Turkey, or at our much larger one inside Syria. But due to constant demand, these supplies are rarely there for long.

Hand in Hand for Syria’s operations were tested over the last few months. With Syria experiencing one of its worst winter for 100 years, the population’s dependence on aid was great. If you would like to help the Syrian people and fund our work, please make a donation here: http://www.handinhandforsyria.org.uk/donate/