Every now and then we see something that our minds have difficulty processing. No matter how much time passes, words do little to describe the events seen. These moments can be selfless acts of kindness or inhumane, unbearable acts of brutality. My time in Turkey working alongside Syrian refugees was a result of the latter, but sometimes a silver lining can be seen due to the former.
As a postgraduate in Humanitarianism, the horrors of war are not something that were alien to me and, having spent time in the Gaza Strip, I was not too concerned with how I would cope with being in the field. Yet, there was something so indescribable about my time spent with Syrian refugees that it has been difficult to shake off feelings of ‘first world guilt’.
The first thing to get my head around was that Syria is not your typical war-torn country. Its residents were not poor, uneducated or used to conflict. Yet, since 2011, the country has been ravaged by war, the consequence of which has been hundreds and thousands of refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries, including Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
My work with the Syrian refugees took the form of one week in Kilis, Turkey, working alongside a small and new organisation called Unite4Humanity (U4H). The charity itself has been working in Kilis for quite some time and one of their main successes is the creation and maintenance of a workshop that employs Syrian women, predominantly widows, who make jumpers which are distributed amongst the new daily influx of refugees.
The existence of the factory and the seamless way in which the women work day in day out, only taking Friday off, filled me with hope. Here was real enterprise and a way for women to contribute to their families and in a sense get on with life. Yet, all it takes is to open the factory door and see the queue of new refugees waiting outside for this temporary sense of happiness to dissipate.
The new refugees wait outside the factory because U4H’s head of operations in Turkey distributes aid amongst new refugees. Previous containers of aid and donations allowed the purchase of much needed heaters and blankets.
Even in February the cold nights were debilitating. The previous relief group visiting from the UK went in December and spoke about how it was the coldest they had ever been in their lives. This didn’t sink in until I got the chance to go and visit some poor refugee families. It is here I began to understand the scale of what war can do to people. Seeing whole families living outside with a sheet to cover their heads, a few blankets thrown on the floor and a makeshift stove to feed their children are the images that I can’t erase from memory. Hearing the cries of women whose children survived war torn Syria, but not the cold in Turkey, was truly heart breaking. While heaters and blankets are a norm for us, it is truly a life saving tool for those unfortunate enough to be living outside.
What I found difficult to get my head around was how the families we visited are dealing with all of this psychologically. We know from studies that one life event, such as divorce or the death of a partner, can have life altering consequences for an individual, but then what of the Syrian people? At no point during my one week in Kilis did I come across a Turk; everyone in the surrounding area was Syrian and each with a similar story: homes and businesses destroyed, family members either killed or missing and the desperate desire to return to their Syria.
My heart felt crushed from all these issues. Where to even begin helping the people? Thankfully, being with U4H gave me some direction and some hope. While one factory may be insignificant in the grand scheme of what is happening in Syria, for some it really is a lifeline. As the Syrians are given ‘guest’ status in Turkey, it prevents the men from being able to work; as such, it is the women who are employed at the factory that have become the breadwinners for their families.
At the moment, the project is run entirely on donations to pay wages and pay for the wool, which is bought inside Syria to allow business to continue there also and better still there are plans to find permanent buyers for the jumpers so that the factory, in the coming few months, can be self-sufficient. Even when this does happen, the factory will continue to distribute jumpers to refugees for free.
In a similar respect, being there to witness the distribution of the blankets and heaters again showed me the importance of collecting aid and donations due to the life saving impact they have had on the lives of countless families.
While there is much despair amongst the Syrian people, their resolve and their unconditional gratitude that we were there to help has really spurred me on. Organisations like U4H are so small that I feel it actually helps with the transparency of donations.
With a small group of volunteers who all have jobs back home and can fund their own travels, it ensures that the aid collected and distributed really goes to those who are in need most and into projects which are of paramount urgency.
More information about U4H can be found on their Facebook page: www.facebook.com/pages/UNITE-4-HUMANITY/343268602439477
or website: www.u4h.org.uk.
Sai Qureshi is a psychology teacher by profession, but also a postgraduate in Humanitarianism, which is where her heart lies. She has done voluntary work in Morocco, the US, Turkey and the Gaza Strip.