The difficult road of emergency aid for victims of the earthquake in Syria

A brightly colored plastic toy train stands against the wall. The rest of the items in storage – clothing, shoes, baby food, care products, blankets, and more – are packed in cardboard moving boxes, sturdy plastic bags and garbage bags. It only contains “neat things”, says Shahin Mohammad (46), founder of the Help Syria Foundation, which collected the items. “No things with stains or tears, or that have turned completely yellow.”

The items were collected for Syrian victims of the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria on February 6. At the end of February they were still piled up in various storage areas in Deventer, where the foundation is located, waiting for transport. What happened next? Have these items reached the people for whom they are intended? And to what extent has emergency aid in Syria, where a war has been raging for years, been able to get started at all?

NRC kept in touch with Mohammad in recent weeks about bringing the items, and asked major aid organizations that have been on the ground about their experiences.

Driving instructor

Shahin Mohammad, who fled Syria to the Netherlands with his parents in 1995, is training to become a driving instructor when the earthquake wreaks havoc in his native country, where so much is already broken. He leaves his education for what it is and focuses fully on his foundation, which he founded in 2014. He has since taken collected items to Syria several times, he says.

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They don’t just want to do something in Deventer. After the earthquake, initiatives started all over the Netherlands. It is not possible to determine how many items are donated in total. Well known: Giro555, which raises money for eleven Dutch aid organizations in the event of major disasters, has collected 108 million euros for earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria, according to the latest interim score.

About two weeks after the disaster, they stopped collecting in Deventer – it’s getting too much, they report on the website. The goods are stored in rented spaces in Deventer, but also in more creative places. For example, Evelien van Adrichem, who also donated items, offers to store some items at her home in Olst. “About thirty bags” were brought over and kept in her guest room. “Lots of clothes, but also sanitary napkins and tampons, diapers, diaper wipes.” Now it’s time to get everything to Syria.

Shortage of everything

While the affected area in Turkey is still reasonably accessible for aid workers, this is much less the case for the earthquake area in northwestern Syria. Humanitarian aid in Syria is “very limited,” MSF writes in an update on the situation on the ground in early April. While many people already had it so bad. Even before the earthquake, almost two million people lived in refugee camps in northwest Syria, the emergency medical organization describes, and there was also a cholera outbreak in September last year, because people had to drink polluted water.

Daphne Mulder in Syria. Photo: IFRC

For the Red Cross, the Dutch Daphne Mulder (34) has been in Syria for over a month now, where she commutes back and forth between the capital Damascus and the affected area. She supports the local sister organization: the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. Practical obstacles make it complicated to provide the needed help, she says. “For example, there is a shortage of gasoline throughout the country.” A lot of infrastructure is broken, which makes it difficult to reach some places. There are also shortages of water, food and electricity.

The security situation also complicates aid: it can be restless in northwestern Syria, and different groups are in charge in different areas. “Access is an obstacle,” says Michiel Servaes, director of Oxfam Novib in the Netherlands and chairman of the campaign for Syria and Turkey from Giro555. He recently spent a week in the earthquake zone in Syria, around Aleppo. “Immediately after the earthquake, only one border crossing was open from Turkey. There are now three. But it is distressing that it took so long.” He does emphasize that despite all the obstacles, “plenty” of help is being provided. “In a short time, aid organizations have significantly increased their operations. The experience and logistical supply lines we built up during the Syrian war are now coming in handy.”

Detour through Iraq

After the collection, Mohammad and his small foundation also run into obstacles: transport to Syria has become even more complicated due to the earthquake. The fastest route is to cross the border into Syria in Turkey. But: “It is sometimes open, and sometimes closed.” That is why Mohammad decides to do things differently at the beginning of March: “We now want to go via Iraq.” That is a bit of a detour, but then there is less chance of problems at the border, he estimates.

On March 7, the time has finally come: a large truck is loaded as full as possible. The next day the car is on its way – the transport costs are paid from donations received by the foundation. Mohammad flies to the city of Erbil in Iraq a few days later to supervise the issuance of the items in Syria. He catches the truck on the border between Iraq and Syria. A stroke of luck: “It was not made difficult for us at the borders.”

The items from the truck are further distributed from a storage facility in Kamishli, Mohammad’s hometown in northeastern Syria, says Mohammad. Not all items collected reach the earthquake zone because it is such a complex journey. Part is therefore distributed in northwestern Syria to people displaced by the conflict.

It takes “a lot of effort” to arrange that he can travel to the disaster area within Syria. With the help of a local organization, he manages to reach the area with some of the items. “With cars, because the roads we drove on cannot be driven by trucks.” A dangerous enterprise? “Yes. Until then, I pray God: give me strength and happiness to come back safely.” He avoids the area controlled by Assad. “Then everything could be confiscated.” As a Kurd, it would also be too dangerous for himself.

He receives help with the distribution from Syrian volunteers, who have sometimes been working with him for years. Abdul Razzaq Sharbatji is one of them, he has been active for the foundation for two years now, he says via WhatsApp. He says they helped local contacts determine exactly where to go to reach “those in need”, in the vicinity of Aleppo and Idlib.

At the border between Iraq and Syria, items are transferred into another truck.
Photo: Help Syria Foundation (SHS)
The items arrived just outside the earthquake zone in northeastern Syria.
Photo: Help Syria Foundation (SHS)

Lack of shelter

Daphne Mulder of the Red Cross finds it difficult to answer the question of what people in the earthquake zone in Syria need most. “There is not one thing that is most needed. There is one thing that you can see very clearly: the lack of shelter. Many houses have been damaged or completely collapsed, due to the earthquake or the conflict.”

In addition, people also need food and water, says Mulder, and warm clothing. “And health care – there is cholera.” Also important: “Mental health care. Everyone I meet here has a story. I recently spoke to a young volunteer from Red Crescent, who had pulled three of his friends from under the rubble, whom he knew from childhood. He could have saved one other friend.” Mulder is impressed by the friendliness of the volunteers she meets, she says, and their motivation to continue.

Read also: The White Helmets are helping after an earthquake in northwestern Syria without support from the Netherlands

Michiel Servaes of Giro555 saw in Syria that local aid workers struggle with the fact that the money collected is actually only intended for earthquake victims. But in practice, that’s a bit of a contrived dividing line. “They are in the field. If one building is destroyed by the earthquake and the other by the war, should they find shelter for one family and not another?”

‘I can’t take it anymore’

Even though he has been to Syria several times in recent years to bring donated items, Mohammad does not find it easy to see what people have to go through, he says in a telephone conversation in mid-March – the truck is already largely empty by then. Sometimes what he sees brings tears to his eyes, he says. He found the grief of a woman who wanted to throw herself in front of a car intense. “’I can’t take it anymore,’ she said all the time. Then I couldn’t take it anymore.”

The places where he sleeps are sometimes battered and unsafe by the earthquake. “In a house where we slept near Aleppo, there were cracks in the ceiling everywhere.” And then he also became ill from contaminated drinking water.

Once back in Deventer it’s not finished yet: the rest of the boxes and bags with stuff are waiting, they all have to go that way too. At the end of March, a second truck will arrive for transport. At the beginning of April a third – currently these items are on their way, on the border between Turkey and Iraq, says Mohammad. He himself stays at home during this second and third load and relies on the volunteers there. He now really wants to complete his training as a driving instructor, although he will also continue to work for Syria. The report that the foundation is temporarily no longer collecting has now been removed from the site. “We never stop.”