Irish aid workers strive to help million trapped by Syrian war
Goal aims to open six further offices to assist farmers being exploited and suffering children
Digging in for the long haul in Turkey: Irish Goal staff Maggie Gallagher, Aileen Wynne and Derek O’Rourke
In the hamlet of Kirikhan, 10 kilometres from the Syrian border, mother of seven Um Mohammad sits on a bare mattress in a damp room. Her husband is missing somewhere in Syria.
She has no job, no way to support her family. A month ago, she fled to Turkey from Idlib, a province on the opposite side of the border where she picked vegetables, earning her the equivalent of nine cent an hour.
Her family lived under the rule of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. Reinvigorated by Russian air strikes, the Syrian army closed in on her village last winter, making it impossible to stay. Desperate to flee, she paid smugglers $1,400 (€1,230) to reach Turkey.
“We slept out in the open, among the trees, with no tents for seven nights, because the border was guarded by Turkish soldiers,” she says. “It was cold. The children were freezing and hungry.”
It is Syrians such as Um Mohammad, facing live-or-die situations amid the worst humanitarian crisis since the second World War, that Irish aid agency Goal is striving to help.
Each day, Um Mohammad receives five pieces of bread; she also gets $120 in food vouchers each month. Today, an Arabic-speaking local mayor has helped find her family a home in Kirikhan. The pain of five years of loss and trauma is deeply etched on her face.
Aileen Wynne (25), from Raheen in Limerick, who studied human nutrition at University College Cork, became an aid worker after travelling to India. She has spent 16 months working with Syrian refugees.
“In Syria, there’s a high rate of chronic malnutrition among children. One of our main focus points is something called the first thousand days, from pregnancy [and] birth through to the first two years of the child’s life,” she says. “You can’t guarantee access to clean water inside, you can’t guarantee safe preparation or storage of infant formula because people are moving constantly.”
Goal plans to open six more offices and hire 250 local staff across Turkey, particularly to help Syrians who are now being exploited as they work on farms. Nearly €2 million is to be deployed on this.
Having worked in Haiti, Malawi and South Sudan, Maggie Gallagher, from Rathfarnham in Dublin, has seen the worst humanity can do. However, Syria is difficult for different reasons, particularly because details of life on the ground in Syria are hard to sketch.
“You don’t know what’s happening in people’s daily lives,” she says. “You have to keep in mind that there’s a whole crisis going on around the people working with us.”
Goal has lost three Syrian workers in separate incidents since January 2015. Though the agency has been operating in Syria since late 2012, foreign staff are unable to cross the border due to the threat of kidnapping and execution by radical groups.
“Our staff getting killed was the most difficult thing I’ve had to deal with,” says Derek O’Rourke, from Kells, Co Meath, who has been working for Goal in Antakya for a year and a half as security adviser for its 400 staff in Syria. “I’m extremely close to some of the guys working in Syria. They’ve all had the opportunity to go off to Europe, but they’re not leaving – that’s a motivating factor for me.”