Spending St Patrick’s Day in Syria: an opportunity to reflect
This weekend my thoughts will be of home on the Aran islands, but I’ll also reflect on how lucky I am in comparison to the people I work with in Syria, writes GOAL distribution manager Dave Terry
My St Patrick’s Day celebrations will this year will be limited, amounting to me wearing something green, puffing my chest out a little, and explaining the significance of the occasion to anyone who’ll listen. I’m working in northern Syria, so even a quiet drink is out of the question, as alcohol consumption is frowned upon.
As distribution manager for GOAL’s programmes here, my job is to assess the needs of displaced families, and organise and verify the dispersal of aid to them. There are close to 200,000 internal refugees in Idlib province, where we are operating, and the number is constantly growing as people flee northwards from the conflict.
The situation here demands that I will spend St Patrick’s Day doing what I do most days of the week, visiting families or delivering aid to them.
I have a team of eight local staff, each of whom has his or her tragic story to tell. Such as the English teacher from Aleppo, whose wife, a university lecturer, is permanently disabled after being shot by a government sniper. Or the former manageress of a large retail store in Aleppo, who lost many friends when the business was bombed to rubble.
And then there’s the young English Literature graduate, originally from Idlib city, who likes nothing more than to discuss the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Mark Twain. On Sunday, I might try to engage him in a conversation about Irish literary icons – such as Wilde, Joyce and Beckett – and hopefully lead from that into a discussion about our patron saint, St Patrick.
This will be somewhat short of how I usually celebrate our national day. Any other year, wherever in the world I happen to be, a fair few pints would be sank, and some patriotic songs rendered. This time around, I’ll have to settle for humming a few Irish tunes to myself, over a cup of tea or coffee.
Wherever you go in Syria there lots of heavily armed men. But we’ve had no problems with the rebel forces in the areas where we work. They recognise that GOAL is only here to help the civilian population.
Having worked previously in Haiti, Pakistan and at a refugee camp in South Sudan, I’m well used to witnessing human misery. But the plight of many of the people here has shocked me.
Last week, I called at a house about 11 km from our base, to speak with a woman from Aleppo city. Soon after her husband was killed by a sniper, she made her way with their four children back to their home village. They are now living in a single room without heating, electricity or running water.
They had little food when we met them, and were entirely reliant on hand-outs from her extended family, who themselves are struggling to cope, and a local relief committee. She and the children are ill, but medicines are in short supply, and even the most basic medication costs way beyond what she can afford.
One of her boys, a six-year-old, is diabetic. He is as tiny as an average three-year-old, and needs insulin, but there is no way for his mother to help him. It was heartbreaking to listen to this woman explain her predicament, as she hugged her child to her breast – weeping both for him and because of her inability to help.
At a school, we met another family, a father and mother and their five children, who are sharing a classroom with 13 other people. They were in exactly the same predicament as so many other people, reduced to being completely reliant on charity to survive. I hear stories like theirs every day.
The total casualties of the Syrian conflict so far are staggering. Over the past two years, at least 70,000 people have been killed, 2 million displaced from their homes, and 4 million left in need of humanitarian aid. Another 700,000 have fled to neighbouring countries. So far, we have managed to distribute aid to around 60,000 people. But, self-evidently, this number represents only the tip of a very big iceberg.
It is amazing how welcoming and generous Syrians are. No matter where we go, the families insist on offering us tea and something to eat. These are people who have little or nothing themselves, but are prepared, if you allow them, to share tea and morsels with strangers. In this respect, they are not unlike the Irish.
Whatever I’m doing on St Patrick’s Day, my thoughts will definitely turn to my home on Inishmore, in the Aran islands; I’ll think of my friends, of course, but I’ll also reflect on how lucky I am, in comparison to the people I am engaging with.
Dave Terry is distribution manager for GOAL in Syria. For more information or to donate to GOAL’s work in Syria, click here.