x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Syrian aid volunteers stand against a tide of rising violence

As the bloodletting continues in Syria, volunteers are pulling together to help each other, but they wonder how their country can ever be the same.

On a flimsy table surrounded by plastic chairs, a group of women unpacked their coffee and snacks for a small picnic on the outskirts of Damascus. Despite their giggles and their energy, they shuddered when they spoke about Syria and "the crisis". These women come from different religions, sects, regions and even include some other nationalities. They reject any categorisation, but are defined by an objective: to provide assistance to the displaced families from Damascus and its suburbs.

As the violence has escalated in and near the capital, many Syrian families have been forced from their homes and deprived of their livelihoods, seeking sanctuary in comparatively more secure areas in the countryside, or in neighbouring countries. Many families have been evacuated by force, and many others are stranded in towns and cities that are under siege.

The official number, used by both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, is 400,000 internally displaced persons. Syrian refugees registered in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey number almost 80,000 people according to the last update from the UNHCR. Both those figures are widely believed to be short of the mark.

Syrians' exodus en masse is transforming the demographics of the country, and putting refugees at risk of a looming humanitarian crisis.

The number of people needing humanitarian assistance in the country has risen to 1.5 million, according to UN figures, from the previous figure of one million. Because the regime is still rebuffing humanitarian aid, the international organisations are facing significant constraints getting access to people and responding to their needs.

Aid organisations are also threatened by the violence; last month, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent lost a 23-year old volunteer who was shot and killed in Deir Ezzor.

As the international aid agencies struggle to bring resources to bear, Syrians aid workers are desperately trying to find local alternatives and provide assistance. With limited resources and experience, and facing increasing brutality, aid groups - such as that women's circle picnicking outside of Damascus - are vulnerable and exhausted.

"We are heavily scrutinised by the security," said Laila, one of the women in that group. "We tried to get a legal framework and register ourselves as a non-governmental organisation; it was a trap to detain activists involved in providing help."

The grassroots Syrian aid groups use their own funds, and raise money in small amounts from relatives and friends. To save expenses, they use public transport, crossing government checkpoints to move from one area to another.

Displaced people have concentrated in certain neighbourhoods in Damascus and the suburbs, which makes it easier for the different intelligence agencies to follow affected families and activists. For the aid groups, working with this population entails new risks every day.

The seemingly random shelling of cities and towns, and the mass arrests that have taken place all over Syria, have left thousands of families without a home or without a breadwinner. Many families, now led by a woman, refuse to accept any sort of aid for fear of antagonising the security agencies.

The regime monitors hospitals and pharmacies to prevent activists from receiving medical attention, so aid workers have to search every single pharmacy in Damascus and in the surrounding areas just to buy a few packages of cotton gauze or painkillers. Undercover activist groups are also working across the city to document cases of abuse and, when possible, provide psychological support, especially to affected children.

"We fought to get our freedom and dignity, now we are fighting to get our bread," one such activist, Nizar, told me. "Syrians are never beggars, and I feel like I am begging whenever raising money for afflicted families."

There is a growing feeling of suspicion and fear across the country. When helping your fellow citizen becomes a crime, when the untold stories are so much worse than the terrible ones that we know, and when many informants report on their families, friends and neighbours, the "status quo" is destroying the country.

Syria's infrastructure is being demolished, her people are being displaced and forced from the country in large numbers, and men, women and children are being left traumatised. Even in a moment of wishful thinking about a post-Assad era, these questions linger. How long will it take to restore Syria to what it was 15 months ago? Who will pay to rebuild the country and repatriate its people? Who will restore the historical sites in Busra, Hama, Homs, Latakia ...?

The slogan of President Bashar Al Assad's Shabihha, the regime's thuggish militia, has been: "Assad - or we will burn the country." Now that Syria is burning, isn't it time for Mr Al Assad to leave?


The author writes from Damascus under the pseudonym of Jasmine Roman

On Twitter: @JasmineRoman01