Volunteerism in Syria: a journalist’s journey to the heart of Syria

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*Volunteers from the Saaed Association after Eid activities for children in Damascus.

Jul 24, 2016, American Herald Tribune

-Eva Bartlett

Syria has long been celebrated not only for its rich historical and cultural mosaic but also for its modern culture, secularism, sheltering refugees from neighbouring countries—including Palestinian refugees who are treated as well as Syrians and with the same rights, and its socialist provisions for the Syrian people, among which are free education and health care.

Yet, since 2011, in the minds of many outside of Syria, the country has largely been equated with the death and destruction of the NATO-GCC-Zionist-Turkish alliance’s pre-meditated war on Syria.

Unless one is actively-seeking information on positive aspects of life in the Syrian Arab Republic—which, perhaps to the surprise, many do abound—it is images of war which overwhelm.

One of many positive aspects that prevails in Syria is the spirit of volunteerism, throughout the country. Syrians of varying ages and faiths, in ad hoc groups or established non-profit charities, have been quietly working to help and support those rendered less-fortunate by war and the immoral western sanctions on Syria.

During the month of Ramadan, many volunteer associations (Christian and Muslim) provided hot meals to Syria’s poorest. One of these is was the Saaed Association‘s “No to Hunger” initiative, in which volunteers prepared Iftar (the fast-breaking meal) for some of Damascus’ most impoverished residents.

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Essam Habbl, Director of Saaed, said while at the start of Ramadan volunteers in Damascus were cooking 3,000 Iftar meals daily, by the end of the holy month, the number had more than tripled to 10,000 meals a day. This was the fourth year of this program in Damascus. In Hama and Homs, for the first year, volunteers provided another 7,000 meals per day. 

At the meal preparation site behind Damascus’ Umayyad mosque, on another unbearably hot June day, volunteer Fadi Assi explained:

“Every day we have a new team volunteers, most of whom are in their twenties, including many young people from other associations. They work all day until the time to break fast, and then they join us for Iftar. We’ve had over 1,000 different volunteers come and work with us in Damascus alone.

For people living outside of this area, volunteers drive to their homes to deliver the food. The poor people who live in Old Damascus come here for fresh food every day half an hour before Iftar.”

June and July saw soaring temperatures in Syria, most days reaching 38-40 degree heats. Of working all day in these temprartures, Mayada Abdelhak, a Saaed volunteer, said:

“We were under heat for hours, many of us were fasting, but nothing stopped us from looking after the poor. This is Syria and the Syrian people.”

For the first two days of post-Ramadan ‘Eid celebrations, many of the same Saaed volunteers held activities for children in the courtyard of Damascus’ Azem Palace. Activities included painting, karaoke, a puppeteer, sports activities, and more. Volunteers said that a combined 700 children turned out for the two days of activities.

Many associations quietly work year-round to help in whatever capacity they can, giving food, clothing, hygiene and financial aid, as well as educational, housing, and medical services, among others.

Fadi Assi of the Saaed Association explained one of their other initiatives.

“We also throughout the year have ‘Saaed stations’ on the street where we give hot food every morning to people passing by. Every day in Damascus we serve more than 3,000 meals.”

In Aleppo, small groups and established charities work to serve the poorest and hardest-hit, in a city of now around 1.5 million people that has been repeatedly besieged by terrorist factions since 2012 and likewise continually hammered by terrorists’ mortars, hell-cannon-fired gas canister bombs and larger dirty bombs, as well as explosive bullets and foreign-supplied rockets.

Reverend Ibrahim Nseir is head of Aleppo’s Presbyterian church (destroyed by terrorist factions in 2012), and his charitable work is an example of the types of efforts which arose as a direct result of the different needs of communities during the war on Syria.

“Our church helps 200 families per month, around 40% of whom are Muslims. We have a building in al-Kora Ardiya neighbourhood (western side of Aleppo) which we gave to an organization called Ahl al-Khayr. It is not a Christian organization, but we cooperate with each other to decrease the pain of people. All of the community there are Muslims.”

Over the years, terrorists have repeatedly cut the city’s water lines, meaning a dearth of water to many Aleppo neighbourhoods—although both the Syrian government and independent associations have dug wells and sought to provide alternative sources of washing and drinking water for the residents.

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Volunteers from the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East brought for 6,000 families in Nubl families and 4,000 in Zahra’a, villages north of Aleppo besieged by terrorist factions for 3.5 years.

Reverend Nseir’s church also helps provide water sources. “Last year, when Aleppo was greatly suffering due to lack of water, we dug two drinking water wells there for them. The churches have played a very important role in cooperating with Muslim organizations to decrease the suffering of the population in Aleppo.”

Dr. Nabil Antaki is a gastroenterologist in Aleppo and also a volunteer in the Blue Marists, an association to help impoverished people. One of their programs is “War-Wounded Civilians”.

Dr. Antaki prefaced the introduction of the program by speaking on the terrorist-fired mortars and bombs.

“Usually you don’t have just one mortar, you have a rain of mortars: ten, twenty, thirty, and more in a few hours. Many people are wounded at the same time. When ambulances bring people to the public hospital, maybe 20 or 30 people arrive at the same time. The public hospitals lack enough medical staff and equipment. So if you have ten severely wounded persons arriving at the same time at the public hospital, by the time care comes, a victim has time to die.”

Dr. Antaki works in both a private hospital and also a public one, like many of his colleagues.

“One day three years ago we said we have to do something, to create a program to treat severely-injured civilians in private hospitals. We started doing so in December 2012.”

Since then, when they learn of severely-injured civilians, the association brings them to a private hospital. “We have the best nursing and best doctors of Aleppo. The doctors offered their service for free, and the hospital gave us 25% reduction of all expenses (x-rays, labs, medicine, intensive care, respirator).”

According to Dr. Antaki, the team of around 15 doctors has treated between 400-500 severely-wounded patients since starting their program. These are patients who needed intensive care in hospital for weeks, including life-support.

“Fortunately we have all specialties, including: three general surgeons, one heart surgeon, one neurosurgeon, two orthopedic surgeons, and 3 anaesthesiologists. We have equipment we need to replace, but because of the sanctions on Syria it is difficult.”

One of the older charities in Aleppo is The Association of Raising the Standard of Health and Social Status, established in 1964. In the 1970s, Syria’s Grand Mufti, Dr. Ahmad Badr Al-Din Hassoun, became the director of the association. Even during the current situation, it every month provies 3,000 families with aid, including medicine, food aid, and when needed, school clothes and supplies.

The storage room of Mufti Hassoun’s mosque in Aleppo is crammed full of the association’s aid items, also including mattresses, blankets, and diapers and baby-related items to be given to those in need.

In Damascus, Mufti Hassoun explained further about the association’s charitable work, and the attacks by terrorist factions in Aleppo.

“We have two hospitals and ten medical clinics in Aleppo. Every day, they received between 1,000-1,500 patients. Treatment and medicines are free.

Terrorists invaded the first hospital, the Omar Ibn Abdul Aziz hospital, in the Maadi district. It used to have three operating rooms, an MRI, and fifty beds. The terrorists stole most of this.

It also had three amublances, gifts from Europe, which operated as mobile clinics. We used to send them to villages around Aleppo with both a female and male doctor, for those who couldn’t get into Aleppo.

The terrorists stole the ambulances and mounted machine guns on them.

The second hospital, in Ashrafiya, has thirteen floors and 250 rooms. The hospital as a building is finished, and the first and second floors are operational as medical clinics. However, it is near Beni Zeid area, where terrorists are, including many snipers. We stopped further work on and the hospital because of the sniping. Some nurses and doctors were killed by the sniping.”

These are some of the medical and charitable initiatives in Aleppo which will never make the headlines, as they defy the corporate lies on sectarianism in Syria and a lack of doctors in Aleppo.

In Damascus, volunteers of the Sayar initiative work with children forced into begging on Syrian streets, something they say was not very common years ago.

According to one of the four founders, Lama, the initiative began two years ago, and the volunteers began actually working with the children in mid-2015, in a garden of the Abu Romana district of Damascus. Five months later, they were using rooms in a building lent by the Massar project of the The Syria Trust for Development.

Currently, around 60 volunteers—mainly university students and/or early twenties, but also a handful of older volunteers, including some of the founders—work with children as young as two and up to fifteen years old, to teach them the basics of reading and writing, as well as the social norms they miss in a life working on the streets, and providing art therapy to help them deal with unspoken problems.

“Now, they know how to write, how to read. In one year. We see a big change, because they didn’t respect anyone, they are free from rules. Now they have rules, they respect us,” said Lama.

Samia Nahas heads the art therapy program, which includes using drawing as a form of therapy. “For example, we let the child draw themself. If we notice something in the drawing, we work with them without actually speaking about the problem directly. The kids have the same sort of drawings: long arms, big palms, never faces or a body, just legs, representing walking to money, and arms reaching for money.”

She noted that while a small percentage of children working on the streets were doing so prior to 2011, many are being used in forced labour, from which they do not benefit, “used like in a mafia,” sometimes even by their own family. “When asked to draw their family, they don’t draw their own, draw another family.”

One of Sayar’s volunteers, Waseem Sakhleh, 22, is active in another twenty-four volunteer groups, including: a group which since 2011—and prior to any UN support—was providing shelters in Damascus and its countryside for internally displaced people; a community group in Mezze providing capacity-building workshops for women, communication skills for youths, and English classes for children; and an association for children of martyrs, which does annual camping trips for the children and provides support for the children and families of martyrs.

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Another group in which Sakhleh volunteers works with the wives and children of terrorists, families who have been displaced to Damascus. Regarding the obvious question of how people living in government-secured areas, deals with those families, Sakhleh noted:

“The militants are fighting us and shooting mortars at us, but when families leave this area and come to Damascus asking for help, we will give help. We help all people who need it. We work with their women, youth, children about leadership, communications, small projects and new work.

While we do show them how fighters are killing us, we don’t indoctrinate the children to be with us. We teach them leadership skills, what is an opposition and political system, and what citizenship means. We educate them against extremism and teach them about unity.”

Most interesting about this latter volunteer group is that their activities are done with the knowledge and support of the government, Sakhleh said. “I’ve been a volunteer since 2007. At no time has the government stopped any of the volunteer activities I’ve been a part of. The government and we think that we have many needs, we can’t work alone to solve the crisis. We have to connect all our work to build our country.”

These are some glimpses into the spirit of solidarity and volunteerism in Syria which is widely-found but rarely, if even, mentioned in corporate media. They are volunteers who don’t walk sectarian lines, whose concern is humanity and Syria first.

SEE ALSO: my writings from Syria


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