This month, the Syrian people are marking 10 years of unfathomable destruction and displacement. Three aid workers, involved in relief operations in the past decade inside Syria and from abroad, reflect on the challenges and the immensity of their humanitarian mission. “We are commemorating a decade of total chaos.”
Father Meletius, director-general of GOPA DERD, one of Cordaid’s Syrian humanitarian partners based in Damascus, goes back to that ominous year of 2011. “10 years have passed since the first spark of the war. We used to live in a peaceful country. In the beginning, it looked like a joke. We thought the disturbance would last a few days and then all this would be over. But one year passed, and then another. And now we are commemorating a decade of total chaos.”
In today’s Syria 85% of the population lives below the poverty line. Or, as Father Meletius puts it: “Syrians are no longer trying to live, they are only trying to survive.”
Pushed to the extreme
The scope of the humanitarian crisis in Syria defies description. José Salema, Cordaid Director for Iraq and Syria, mentions a few of the elements of human suffering: “The war has killed half a million people. It pushed millions of households into poverty, most of them can hardly scrape together enough to secure their next meal. The overall life expectancy of Syrian children has been reduced by 13 years. The situation has even become more critical when complexities were further compounded with the COVID-19 pandemic, pushing Syrians to the extreme of their resilience levels.”
Syria remains the world’s largest refugee crisis. “Today, more than half of the pre-war population of 23 million are displaced, either internally within Syria or as refugees in neighbouring countries. Most of them wish to go home, but there are no guarantees for a successful return,” Salema continues.
Women face more challenges
Within Syrian communities, all organizing their survival, women are forced to take a lot more hurdles and to bear a lot of extra weight. “Syrian women living in host communities struggle to access education, shelter, mobile technology, and the labour market. Women-headed households are struggling harder to generate any income. They are often the targets of scams and frauds and overcharged when purchasing basic supplies. Whenever they do find work, they are offered lower wages,” Salema points out.
Shelter, health care, and food assistance
Since 2011, Cordaid, also in joint responses of the Dutch Relief Alliance, has supported a range of relief operations mitigating extreme shelter, health care, and food needs, and providing winterization care. This assistance is implemented by our Syrian partners, such as Caritas Syria, GOPA-DERD, and the Latin Church. Their aid workers are the ones who face the daily challenges. Living and surviving the war themselves, they reach out to places and people in utter distress.
With our support, they provided, and keep on providing, humanitarian assistance in Rural Damascus, Aleppo, Lattakia, and Hassakeh. In 2020 alone, our support reached 70.000 Syrians.
Father Meletius recalls GOPA-DERD’s collaboration since 2018: “Throughout the crisis, Cordaid proved to be a truly supportive partner. The war destroyed all vital installations and infrastructure in the country. That was why our humanitarian efforts with Cordaid focused on enabling people to return to their houses. Together, we rehabilitated a school and two health centers in Aleppo and set up vocational training as well. Livelihood, education, health, these are pillar factors for people to be able to go back to their homes.”
‘This is what Rotterdam must have looked like’
Until two years ago, Margriet Verhoeven coordinated Cordaid’s humanitarian Syria support from the Netherlands. Verhoeven, a seasoned humanitarian aid worker who has visited and worked in crisis areas across the globe, only managed to visit Syria once, in 2019. It goes to show that humanitarian access in Syria is extremely difficult. The visit left an indelible mark.
“Improving conditions for the most vulnerable in Syria requires reconstruction and recovery money. And policies that enable and engender pathways to recovery. At the moment this is basically a no-go because it is very much tied to the political standoff.”
“I drove through the outskirts of Damascus. Silence and complete destruction were all there was. And once or twice, I noticed a few kids playing in the rubble. I remember thinking, this is how Rotterdam must have looked like in the 2nd World War. As far as I could see, everything was destroyed or damaged. For most people in the Netherlands, this scale of destruction and suffering is beyond imagination. Fortunately.”
A passion for life
If there’s one thing Verhoeven wishes to express it’s her admiration for the Syrian people, aid workers, and citizens alike. “Their resilience and steadfastness are incredible, humbling, and inspiring,” she says. “They have all seen and experienced things you and I cannot imagine and don’t want to imagine. The trauma they carry is big. Yet they continue, to live, work, reach out, and care for others. With incredible power and a passion for life. Their drive is what inspires me.”
The political standoff
Looking back on 10 years of humanitarian assistance, Verhoeven has mixed feelings. “As is often the case, but it’s specifically painful in Syria, we, the international community, have done too little. Far too little. There are many reasons to account for that. The political standoff in Syria is deterring international donors. After 10 years, there’s this fatigue, making the Syria crisis less urgent in the minds of people. But also, in my opinion, there’s a certain degree of islamophobia among many western charities. In a lot of western countries, also in the Netherlands, politics and public opinion are increasingly polarized. Somehow, in this climate, it is becoming more difficult to find funding for humanitarian assistance in Islamic countries and regions. But I will double my efforts to go against the grain. Simply because, after Yemen, Syria remains the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis.”
“These sanctions are supposed to affect a certain class in Syria. But what we see is that this class is getting richer and richer while the rest of the population is getting poorer and poorer.”
This International Crisis Group article shows how badly the political standoff is paralyzing Syria. It also says that, while waiting for a political solution to the conflict, consolidating ceasefires and alleviating human suffering is the best way forward.
The imperative to alleviate human suffering
For Verhoeven, it’s imperative to do whatever we can to bring hope to the Syrian people. She mentions the health centres we supported and rehabilitated, the food kitchen in Aleppo feeding so many people, shelter for thousands of displaced people who had lost their homes.
“In the end, all this is just a way of giving hope. Even the details, the smallest things, can be extremely important in daily life. A door and some windows that keep out the wind and the rain. A newly installed railing on a balcony, protecting kids from falling off. A community kitchen. These forms of assistance are crucial in a practical sense. But they also give the Syrian people a feeling of not being forgotten,” Verhoeven says.
Moving from emergency response to early recovery
Father Meletius believes the military conflict is over. “Except mainly for Idlib Governorate, where state and non-state actors still battle for power. We now face another kind of war,” he says, “the moral war and the economic war. A whole generation was maimed by war and now also suffers because the economy is destroyed.”
“We will continue to garner the funds needed to assist the Syrian people, to call for solidarity, and to bring hope.”
This is why GOPA-DERD has started moving from emergency responses to early recovery. “The economic crisis is what keeps us from passing the threshold to the development stage. This is why we need to stand by people’s side, giving them whatever needed to survive the poverty,” Father Meletius expands. He also criticizes the international sanctions against Syria. “These sanctions are supposed to affect a certain class in Syria. But what we see is that this class is getting richer and richer while the rest of the population is getting poorer and poorer.”
When looking ahead, José Salema can only reiterate Father Meletius’ plea to start focussing on Syria’s recovery. “Improving conditions for the most vulnerable in Syria, requires reconstruction and recovery money. And policies that enable and engender pathways to social and economic recovery. The painful reality is that at the moment this is basically a no-go because it is very much tied to the political standoff,” Salema explains. “Together with other Caritas organizations we try to reach out to more vulnerable areas. Hoping this will bring forward increased assistance and more efforts for recovery and reconstruction,” Salema concludes.
‘Even when politics and polarization are against us’
Verhoeven can only hope that the geopolitical complexity of the Syrian crisis will not stand in the way of recovery for decades to come. “The powers and interests at play in this crisis, inside Syria and internationally, are enormous. It is what protracts and prolongs this crisis. As a humanitarian, I can only say that we will do whatever we can to assist the Syrian people, as long as it takes. And that we will continue to garner the funds needed to do that, to call for solidarity, and to bring hope. Even when politics and polarization are against us.”