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Cordaid NL
Humanitarian Aid Syria

“Allow us to return from the dark ages”. Humanitarian staff in Syria looks back – and ahead 

After 3,5 years, the Cordaid office in Syria is closing its doors. Painfully, a lack of funding, a steep rise in humanitarian needs, and other challenges compelled us to shift priorities. Our Syrian staff looks back at the humanitarian assistance they coordinated for thousands of fellow citizens in the past three years. “We simply can’t lose hope.”   

Sometimes, small teams can do great things for many people. Cordaid’s three-member staff unit in Syria is a case in point. During the 3,5 years, in a tense political landscape and with COVID coming on top of the conflict, they managed to finance and coordinate an astonishing array of humanitarian activities, working side by side with Syrian implementing partners. 

A story of courage and commitment

The Excel 2019-2021 overview is a long list of numbers of persons and households, war-torn places, and humanitarian activities. It quantifies the damaged health centres, schools, safe spaces for kids, and apartments that were rehabilitated. Hundreds of them. The bombed sewage systems that were repaired. The safe drinking water, the food, and non-food packages handed out to tens of thousands of people. People fleeing, people returning, or people stuck in conflict zones. It mentions the assistance to thousands of gender-based violence survivors and the psychosocial support to persons traumatised by brutal loss. Dozens of Syrians were trained and given a grant to set up or improve their small businesses. And the list goes on.

A health center ran by Gopa in Katana, Rural Damascus. Cordaid supported the establishment of a mental health clinic and other medical services.

The list is more than a list. It tells a story of commitment and courage of Syrian people, including the aid workers that stand by their side. It is also a story of operating out of the spotlights. Sometimes unwillingly, because the world is forgetting Syria and the war that is in its 12th year. Sometimes willingly, because of security reasons. So much so, that our staff on the ground prefers not to be mentioned by name in this article. Or to publicly disclose the details of our humanitarian interventions. 

A growing humanitarian funding gap

For Cordaid, and for the time being, this story has ended. Increasingly, over the past few years, humanitarian aid has become a matter of not being able to do enough. There is too little for too many. The 2022 Global Humanitarian Overview painfully shows how the number of people that need humanitarian assistance went up from 235 to 274 million people in just one year. And that was before Russia invaded Ukraine. Already in 2020, global humanitarian funding had decreased to an unparalleled 52% gap 

Unfortunately, Cordaid too feels the burn of this gap. It compelled us to restrict our humanitarian interventions and phase out our Syria projects.

“I still feel this is my home. I belong here. But I will not judge those who leave. We all feel that the war has robbed us of our country, our home, our future.”

Two of our three colleagues in Syria, Syrians based in Damascus but coming from various parts of the country, were very willing to look back and share their thoughts. “Above all,” they said, “let us focus on what we achieved, and not linger too long on why we are stopping, however painful.”

To distinguish both interviewees, the quotes of one of them are in italics. 

What, among all the interventions you have worked on with so many others, stands out for you?

“It’s not so much a single intervention, but our person-focused approach that comes first to mind. Always trying to positively affect the lives of as many as possible with the limited means we had. By that I mean, for example, that we did not spend thousands on big health infrastructure projects, but on contracting doctors and existing health centres to offer good quality care to as many as possible. This remains extremely important for all Syrians. Nowadays, destructive warfare may have abated in many parts of the country, but poverty and financial stress have never been higher. For many, healthcare is still inaccessible, either because free public care is overstretched and underfunded and waiting lists are too long, or private care is too expensive.”

Aleppo, 2021. Young entrepreneurs who received a startup grant by Gopa Derd, with Cordaid support. They also participated in business skills training sessions. Here, they proudly show their certificates.

“Supporting start-up businesses of young entrepreneurs was something I really liked doing. That was in 2021. With grants and some training sessions, they managed to start or improve their business, like selling soap. It goes beyond relief; it allows people to carve a future for themselves.” 

Can you compare the Syria of when you started working for Cordaid to the situation today, at least in the government-controlled areas, which is the part where you were able to work?

“Today, in that part, and with the stalemate of the last few years, the acute phase of the war has subsided. And with that also the acute humanitarian emergency. I guess you could say we have entered the early recovery phase. But putting it that way is also misleading. Even though some refugees and displaced persons have returned, and some schools, apartments, and health centres have been rehabilitated, large parts of the bombed cities are still in ruin. There is a slight sense of moving forward. But because poverty and inflation have reached excruciating levels, and the EU and US sanctions are hitting the population more than the targeted high-level officials, there is also a frustrating sense of standing still.” 

“Or even moving backward. Some people say they prefer the times of shelling and bombing to today. Nowadays, they don’t have to run for their lives, but they can’t provide for their children and it’s driving them mad.” 

“Migration and displacement have changed too. People don’t leave the country any longer to escape life-threatening situations but to seek better job opportunities. The educated are leaving, the doctors, lawyers, the engineers. Right at the time we need them most to start rebuilding the country. I have decided to stay as long as I can. Not only to help others, I am not a saint, but also because I still feel this is my home. I belong here. But I will not judge those who leave. We all feel that the war has robbed us of our country, our home, our future. Some go and try to find a new home. Some, like myself, still cannot do that.” 

Humanitarians want to get things done. What has been your biggest frustration?

“The loss of money because of inflation. And, related to that, the EU and US economic sanctions on Syria. After 12 years, it is fair to say that these sanctions do not do what they are aimed for, which is hurting the regime. They push the entire economy further into the abyss, hurting the entire population.”

“Some people say ‘Yalla, we move on’. Others are just too scarred by the war and poverty and can only look back. We all try to cope.”

Humanitarian assistance is supposed to be exempted. But if certain ingredients for medical drugs cannot be imported, what does that mean? If inflation and joblessness push people into extreme poverty and only add to food insecurity? It means sanctions only add to human suffering. And we, humanitarians, constantly had to be very creative to work around the limitations imposed by the sanctions. Even though they say that humanitarian funds can still be transferred to Syria, most banks are extremely cautious to do that. More than hurting the government, sanctions are crippling the country. They are keeping us from moving towards recovery.” 

“Why is it that, years after the destruction took place, big parts of Aleppo, Homs, and other cities are still in ruin? The sanctions are part of the answer.” 

“For me, Cordaid’s decision to phase out projects in Syria has obviously been very disappointing. It has honestly saddened all our Syrian partners. They felt that working side by side with us felt like being part of the same team. It’s different from working with huge organisations.” 

If you look at the future, what is it that Syrians need most?

“A time machine! No, in all seriousness, sanctions need to be lifted because they hit the population. Apart from that, I think politically and militarily, the world needs to forget Syria. All foreign interventions have only worsened the situation and increased human suffering. Let us recover. Allow us to return from the dark ages into the 21st century again and into the light. And let us, humanitarians, do our work.” 

“What we need most is to break this cycle of suffering, from relief to recovery, back to relief. War fuelled acute suffering and we responded to that as best as we could. Now, we are trying to move on to a phase of recovery, but economic and financial distress throw us back into acute poverty and into a phase of relief. The sanctions are partly responsible for that. There is also the political and economic collapse of neighbouring Lebanon. We should be massively supporting people in improving their livelihoods, their income. We can’t, because we are facing the worst economic crisis since the start of the war in 2011.” 

Even before you started working for Cordaid you were working as humanitarians, pretty much since the war started a decade ago. Are you still hopeful?

“You simply can’t lose hope. But you can’t be fully hopeful either, ever. The war threw us back into the dark ages. My dream is to see Syria again as it was before 2011, as a relatively prosperous country. That’s why I want a time machine. Some people say ‘Yalla, we move on’. Others are just too scarred by the war and poverty and can only look back. We all try to cope.”

A water truck offering safe drinking water in the northeast.

“But there are parts of working and living here that give me strength and satisfaction. What Cordaid has done, together with the likes of GOPA Derd, JRS, Caritas Syria, the Latin church, and other Syrian partners, meant and means a lot to thousands of people. One of the last collaborations we started was with a small team of the Latin Church. They had been working from a tiny office inside their church, reaching out to people in distress, especially young people, providing shelter, health, psychosocial, and educational support. These fellow Syrians work from the heart, using every cent to assist others. As a team, they got stronger and bigger thanks to our support. And even though Cordaid stops working in Syria, they go on, doing more than they did before. For me, that is a satisfying and soothing thought.”

 

Text and interview by Frank van Lierde