When war first broke out in Syria, the city of Deir Attieh was still safe. Refugees from Damascus and Homs came to Deir Attieh looking for safety, says Rahaf Abdo who grew up there. But then in November 2013 her city got swept up into the conflict too. Abdo remembers hiding in her parents’ basement, along with the neighbours, to keep safe from the bombing. They lived in the basement for a month. “After the first big explosion, I told my parents, ‘I can’t live here. I think I will die from fright,’” she says.
Deir Attieh is no longer under siege, but in a country still at war Abdo lives with the fear of violence returning to her city. Nevertheless she chooses to stay in her community; her work with an MCC food distribution project helps give her the motivation to stay.
After the invasion, Abdo started volunteering with the Islamic Charity of Deir Attieh, which is one of the local partners implementing the monthly food distributions. Her job was to go door-to-door and survey families about their needs. Since the invasion, stores closed and buildings were damaged, so prices went up and the available work went down. There are lots of people in need, and Abdo says it can be hard to decide which families are part of the project.
She volunteered with the organization for a year before giving up her job as a professor of IT engineering at the Qalamoun University and joining the charity staff two and a half years ago. She says the work providing food to people gives her motivation to stay. “Sometimes I think I can’t live here anymore. I get panic attacks because of what I’ve seen,” she says. “But then I think I’m helping people.”
It’s only because of local volunteers and staff like Abdo that MCC has been able to provide relief inside Syria throughout the conflict. Working in a country still at war is difficult; it requires local knowledge of the locations, customs and the conflict to be successful. We’re thankful to have been working in Syria for more than 25 years, and those strong local partnerships have been essential in carrying out relief work.
The food distribution project provides monthly packages of food to 6,000 families in the Qalamoun area, Homs and rural villages around Hama. In Syria the program is coordinated by MCC partner, Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue and carried out by various local groups like the Islamic Charity Abdo works for. Through these partners, MCC is the only international organization providing relief in some locations in the Qalamoun region.**
“We couldn’t be doing any of this work without our local partners on the ground. They are the hands and feet of MCC’s work in Syria," says Kate Mayhew, MCC representative for Lebanon and Syria. “Our partners work directly with those in need and they understand the complicated web of needs better than we ever could. They understand first-hand who the Syrian people are, what they need, and how to best to respond.”
In Damascus, the same food distribution project is implemented by another local partner Charitable Society for Sustainable Development. They have dozens of young local volunteers doing surveys to determine need, distributing food and collecting stories from displaced families.
The young volunteers have often been displaced themselves, so they can identify with the people they’re serving. And in turn those people feel more comfortable sharing with someone who’s been through the same experience. Jana*, one of the volunteers is also an internally displaced person (IDP), an experience that inspires her work. “Most of us are IDPs, we are volunteers who have suffered the way these people have suffered,” she says. “And this is motivating us to do what we are doing.”
Farid, like many of the volunteers, is a university student, studying mechanical engineering. When asked what motivates him to do this work he said, “We thought for a second we could be in their place. And we think one day our children might ask what we did during this crisis and we want to have a good answer.”
These are just two examples of the local partners that make MCC’s work in Syria possible, we’re thankful for the long-term relationships that have given MCC a strong foundation for our disaster response.
“When we come alongside our partners, supporting, assisting and learning with them, we become a part of a much greater story than any of us ever were on our own,” says Mayhew.
The conflict in Syria continues, please continue to give to MCC’s Syria and Iraq response to help us keep providing emergency relief to people in need.
**This project is funded through MCC's account at Canadian Foodgrains Bank which includes support from the Government of Canada.
* Real name withheld for security.