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Syrian Aid and the Earthquake

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Jenny Brennan, Syrian Aid

Thanks to local lady Jenny Brennan for this wonderful insight into her recent trip to Syria to deliver much needed aid to those who need it most on the ground.  Jenny is without doubt a brave, passionate and empathetic lady, who is giving us all something to think about.  We take our freedom, our homes, our families and our standard of living very much for granted, this piece will certainly make us appreciate how fortunate we are.

 

The morning of the 6th of February, millions of people are asleep in an area along a Fault line, separating two countries. And then it happens. A magnitude 7.8 earthquake hits, the ground shakes and opens up and buildings fall on top of each other like pancakes. It’s like something out of a horror movie. And then two weeks later, another one, this time 7.5. The largest regions affected are in Turkey, but also in Syria, a country already decimated by civil war, 12 years of hunger, cold and then the pandemic.

In Syria alone 6,000 are dead, 12,000 families left homeless. The worst areas are Hama, Aleppo, Latakia and the rebel held area of Idlib.

Myself and a friend from Belgium were granted a visa and clearance to enter Syria the week the earthquake hit. We had already decided to visit this country but then we decided to put the wheels in motion and take in as much aid as possible.  It’s difficult getting aid into a country under US sanctions, and aid tends to be a big geopolitical card. All aid must come through government held areas. Trying to get aid into a rebel held area is a no go as Syria’s president Bashar Al-Assad isn’t exactly going to keep the people warm while also bombing them.

Over the next few weeks, we collected 130kgs of baby supplies, food, soothers, hygiene, sanitary products, school supplies etc and raised €6,247, some of which was being brought out with us in cash due to sanctions and the fact that money cannot be transferred electronically to Syria.

Off we flew to Beirut in Lebanon and we were picked up from there and driven across the border into Damascus, the oldest capital city in the world. The sun is only rising as we enter, so I haven’t seen any signs of the war yet.  Our driver smuggled some gas for cooking, across the border for someone in the city.  Fuel is a massive problem in Syria as it doesn’t own its own resources anymore.  The lack of fuel was a major problem when trying to rescue people from the rubble as getting fuel to put into the machines to dig was almost impossible.

Damascus, the fairy-tale city in the south of the country. Cobbled streets, beautiful mosques, it exudes grandeur, history and culture. It’s where café’s still have storytellers, shoe shiners on the street, old mansions turned into luxury hotels. It’s something to behold until …..

Ten minutes outside the city, it starts. The destruction, buildings for miles, gone, car dealerships lying empty, if standing. I’m nowhere near the earthquake zone yet.

Among the ruins, washing on the line, cars parked, people’s homes. Life must go on. It’s a country where the people are used to electricity for one hour in every five, most of the time, if it’s supplied at all.

We spent the night in Homs, a city we have all heard of in the news. The ‘home of the revolution’, a city predominantly lying in ruins.  We visit one of the most important medieval castles in the world. I’m still not in the earthquake zone.

But then we make the 4-hour journey to the ‘Jewel of Syria’, the most destroyed city from the civil war and now, the earthquake on top of it. It’s the road to Aleppo, only safe to travel and open since 2019. Nothing prepares you for the raw images of UN tents along the road, town after town, village after village, shops and fuel stations, everything lying in rubble. This is what a civil war looks like. This was a crossroads of the merchants traveling the ‘Silk Road’. As we get closer to the city, the earthquake damage becomes evident. There’s colour in the buildings that are lying on top of each other. Someone has lived here recently.

We have arrived in Aleppo.

The famous citadel in the centre, flanked by a huge poster of Bashar AL-Assad, which is everywhere you turn in Syria, is now badly damaged by the earthquake and it’s not safe to enter.  Streets have literally dropped, buildings newly destroyed, the famous Hotel Baron, now emptied with cracks in its walls due to the earthquake. We stroll around this once beautiful city, now 50% of it lies in ruins, before we meet a special bunch of people.

Throughout our journey in Syria, we are under the protection of the church, so that we can enter some premises and to go through checkpoints. The church does a lot for the people in this region who have suffered hardship, become homeless, unemployment and the ability to be able to feed their children. It’s through them that we were able to distribute the aid.

Firstly, we paid for a truck full of food, which is only happening due to people fundraising in the area. There is no government help. We hired a kitchen for the day, to make 4,000 biscuits for the people in need. We hired some incredible women who are war widows or their husbands are amputees, and they are the main breadwinners. The kitchen was in a private school for children who are deaf, run by an incredible couple and all self-funded. We made a donation to them as the government wants to evict them from the building next month as it is needed. It was an amazing day and an honour to be in the company of such strong willed, independent women.

Then it was off to meet mothers. Imagine not being able to feed your children, every day is a struggle. We distributed some formula, food and dummies among some gifts to these women.

And then, to meet little groups of children. We had a lot of toys, school supplies for them and it’s all about the smiles at the end of the day. Some of these kids know nothing but war, and then the earthquake, it’s time they caught a break.

It was a long rewarding day, but a surprise for us lay in store.

That night, a man who has a very busy schedule in a city he described himself as ‘catastrophic’, met us for dinner. The Bishop of Aleppo. Lovely man whose nephew lives in Dublin, took time out to thank us, two women who brought aid to a part of the world that sometimes is forgotten. It showed us just how appreciative they were of what we had done.

Another donation was made to the school, for the amount of work they do for the children in the area, collecting them on buses and taking them into school and food.

We made a stop along our journey at the St. Thecla Monastery in Maaloula. The sisters here do exceptional work with local children. You might have heard of these ladies, who were kidnapped in 2013, for 3 months for a huge ransom. They were returned safely, they did run an orphanage, it’s not there anymore but they do provide for local children in need, so we donated to them, to help in any way possible.

Syria is a country where 90% of the people live in poverty. The military is compulsory, unless you pay your way out of it. It’s estimated that people earn $25 per month, the cost of living is 10 times this, how do you survive?  From what I seen; this is not liveable. All things that we take for granted are struggle – gas, fuel, electricity and work. They are resilient people who no matter what is thrown at them they get on with life. It was always in the back of my mind, the Syrian people who live beside me in Ireland, who can never go home, persecuted because they fled in the first place. Everyone just wants to survive. It must be heart-breaking knowing you can’t go back to your homeland, ever, but that I can enter. I was told when there, it’s an $8,000 fine if you go back but I strongly believe that it doesn’t end there and not just with money. It’s a country with incredible, welcoming people. We were told to look beyond the war. People trying to survive, who are still afraid to sleep inside for fear of another earthquake?

Thank you so much to everyone who donated to us. Special thanks to Mannan Castle Golf Club for their substantial donation, Gifts n Things, Farney Print, Burns Bar Shercock, Mountain Dew Corduff and everyone else. Shukran.

 

Incredible story by Jenny, following her incredible journey.  Well done Jenny, you’re an inspiration.