Some people are confused as to why I have taken over parts of our family home and our lives to help people I will never meet. How do I cope with people at the door from 7am to 10pm, dropping off donations, picking up items they have bought, asking how they can help? How can I turn our quiet suburban villa into a hub of activity, a central meeting place? Not for one second does it bother us, you see, everyone is here to help, everyone has something to offer and what I have created is an outlet to these people whilst not getting in the way of the work that the agencies are doing.
I used to think that there was nothing worse than sitting by and watching suffering going on and doing nothing about it. However, that needs to be qualified – how you help is just as, if not more, important. In disaster situations, the last thing the experts need is someone stumbling in ‘to help distribute’ as if it is a line of orderly automons quietly queuing to receive food and offering gratitude to those who hand the items out. No! Ever experienced the near panic of people wanting to get a seat on a budget airline– the queues, raised blood pressure, the underlying stress – and these are well fed people with shelter and clothes. Well, magnify that sensation with trauma, grief, hunger, uncertainty, responsibility of looking after loved ones, and you can get a riot or a deathly crush within seconds. Therefore, I believe that the way to help most effectively is to help the experts, not to become a liability for them.
Volunteers initially can visit refugee centres, sort donations, buy essential supplies, and visit refugee families. This is when we filter out the serious volunteers from the casual. Then we can take their commitment and channel it into different teams depending on skills and time frame. We have teams of children’s entertainers, library assistants, nurses training field workers, art therapists, and crafts people making activities for the kids as well as those who help in Amman.
In November 2011, my employment with Mercy Corps Iraq was ending, and the Syrian refugees were arriving here, albeit unreported locally and unrecognised internationally. Jordan and the international stage buried their heads in the sand wishing the small skirmishes over the boarder to go away, hoping it would be resolved quickly and diplomatically before full-scale war ensued. Those hopes are forgotten and now the world is watching but, in 2011, no one was watching much. However, local charities were feeling the strain.
I asked Mercy Corps Jordan how I could help and if I could supply essentials to the refugees somehow. They introduced me to a wonderful charity in Mafraq and would I like to go along. I raised $750 and brought a truck of toys and some second hand donations people had given me. It was during that visit I realised that they needed a lot more than toys.
It was then I started spreading the word that I was accepting second hand items. if people gave me cash, I gave it to the local charity. Now, more than 18 months later, I have the backing of Mercy Corps Jordan which provides me with trucks and they have put me in contact with 6 difference distribution centres including 2 camps. It is hard to estimate how many items I have provided but my stuff can easily have reached many tens of thousands of people.
In 2013 alone, I have received JOD 100,000 (US$140,000) in cash and in-kind donations, sent 30 large trucks of supplies and about the same number of cars. To be honest this feels good in a way, but it is also scary. It just takes one jealous person to say something mean about me, or my 100 volunteers and things could turn nasty. I am not a legal NGO, I cannot solicit for funds. We strongly recommend donors go shopping with our buyers with the money they have raised. Not only does this keeps transparency, it keeps me safer by handling as little money as possible. Accounts are done through Mercy Corps as my auditors, but still, it is risky in this country. However, this is money that has gone straight into the local economy. Mercy Corps have helped by giving me a fund raising page on their website.
Going down town, I have been accosted by the wives of shop keepers, drunk too many teas and coffees with managers of factories and import companies. Pumping this cash into a struggling economy is well received here, but interestingly, we are liked because of the honesty and integrity of our group – people volunteer because they feel they make a difference and we do not take advantage of the refugee situation by ripping off donors like some others are doing, and the vendors really appreciate that. 100% of every JOD, $ or Euro received is spent on essentials for the refugees – all other costs are met by us and Mercy Corps provide my trucks and packing materials.
Being British, we are not good at accepting praise, and I get a lot of it – from people donating, to volunteers, to local and international charities and the Syrians themselves. I always say that I could not do it without my team, and I do my best to avoid the spotlight, although I do give talks at schools, churches, other groups to raise awareness of our group and how people can help
But my personal life, my family, I try to keep away from this, partly because I don’t feel I can live up to people’s expectations of me and partly because their image of me is not me, I am determined, I am hard working but I am not a show-off. Security is another issue. There are some people here who are very anti-West and quiet words have been said to my husband that the work I am doing is fine, but I must be careful not to become a target. My motivations are not for self-aggrandisement, or praise, or attention, but I feel a burning need to do this.
After almost 2 years of visiting Syrian families, I don’t go to the field very often any more. It is draining and exhausting to hear their stories, to see people cry.
Some children have the blank stare of the traumatised, some don’t speak, others are in diapers as they can no longer control their bladders after the fear. There are so many injured, with gunshot wounds, fathers who have to live with the fact that their child is paralysed because they dropped them – whist running from snipers. I can’t personally take that daily exposure to suffering, I never have been, (I even cry in movies), but I totally admire the people who do this with compassion and dignity, day in, day out. These are the people I want to support, the dedicated field workers, because they are giving something I am not strong enough to give. I show my love for the Syrians one-step back.
Being one step back helps me make decisions which involve moral dilemmas; local charities calling to say they need children’s wheelchairs, others to say they need milk powder, baby clothes, someone needs an operation. My funds are limited and the demands are made kindly, but are endless. It does no good to worry about the decisions I make but there are several nights a week I cannot sleep – a person I have met, stories I have heard, pain I have witnessed, 3am is when it starts to run in my mind. Ironically it is a youth I have never met that always makes me cry. He was tortured at aged 13 and now can’t speak. Because of my daughter’s special needs, I have links to therapists and I have got him free physiotherapy and already is voice is coming back. I also have a 13 year old boy and people think that just because they grow large, they are men, but they are not, I know how vulnerable they are, just boys. This always gets me. Oh, and I never look at the mobile phone images or the internet images refugees want to show me.
How many times do you need to see a child blown apart or the results of a sniper. I try not to watch the news, too many places I know are being bombed, too many people we know are still there. I am no good to anyone; refugee, volunteer or family if I am a blubbering wreck. It does however motivate me beyond words. The way I cope is to say “Ok I can’t change what has happened to them but I can try to make things better”.
Then I get ideas – specific campaigns for e.g. schools lost-and-found cupboards, gift certificates for people to ‘buy’ a kitchen set for example – a bit like git-aid on the internet, getting people to make things or do things such as children’s days, finding locations for charity bins, getting new volunteers as old ones leave Jordan to go home.
Sometimes there just is not enough hours in the day…
Sometimes, despite the number of people who drop things at my house I am actually quite lonely. I am not in the lunch, coffee morning circuit and we don’t entertain enough probably. On my birthday, even though I have lots of lovely facebook and email messages, I actually did nothing at all. I guess people think they have seen me when dropping things off, although it is always work.
Every parent has the work/home dilemma and, I have to leave enough of me, for my family. I have a special needs child that needs regular therapy, there is still dinner to be cooked and homework to be done, stories to be read. And I sometimes let my work get in the way of being a mother. I can’t leave work behind as it is in my home, in my garage, in my basement. Distraction about a report to write or taking donations to the garage, are there in the back of my mind; sometimes I am up at 5am just to prepare for the day ahead.
I have an adoring husband – sounds strange that – but he has been amazing. So many people at the door, my office piled with stuff to sell (wetsuits and coffee machines have been donated) craft activities, boxes everywhere. In the evening, when I need to work, I have to learn to switch off and sit with him for dinner to chat, because, without him I would not be able to do this. His calm advice and our laughter helps to balance the day’s stresses. If some of you out there think I am sounding weak, I think you underestimate the value of team work. He too works for refugees, Palestinian refugees in 5 countries, including Syria, and he too needs to talk about his day, sometimes about his staff in Syria whom we both grew very fond of – who is doing what, who is missing, who has died, how they are magnificently trying to keep schools, clinics and shelters open. They do such an amazing job in such awful situations. My Mum says that my husband is very proud of me, but he doesn’t say that to me directly. He just quietly supports, although I sense he gets a bit fed up with opening the garage doors in the evenings. We lived in Syria for 3 years and despite its challenges it was an alluring place with amazing people. Genuine friendships, genuine people and old Damascus was beautiful, living history. It was the safest place I have ever lived. At 2am I could walk on my own anywhere and there would be no problem ever.
My Mum left her bag in a shop and the keeper got the boy to run around looking for us so they could tell us. My youngest son was born there and we had 90 people from friends, family and UN colleagues came to his Christening – Sunni, Shia, Aliwat, Catholic, Church of England, Hindu and Buddhist – the tiny 2000 year old church was over flowing and full of love. That is what Syria was all about, not the sectarian violence you see now.
One aspect I had not considered when starting this was my volunteers. So many have said that I have changed their lives. They have developed skills and understanding about the humanitarian world and about themselves they never would have had before. I now write references for CVs and offer visits and training. Many however have seen our work as a positive thing in their turbulent lives, my house is some sort of chaotic refuge from their own lives – from the children, from an acrimonious divorce, from other issues – for me, with my work I am trying to outweigh the guilt I carry around of having a special-needs child that, despite what I am told by others, deep down I am responsible in part for her problems. I work hard to make her better but she has an effect on her siblings and on my husband and I as her parents.
Some of my volunteers are Syrians. The work they do with me keeps them motivated, it keeps them busy and it keeps them in Jordan. I don’t ask too many questions, but they sometime talk. I see exhausted sleep-starved men snooze on the sacks of donations as we wait for a truck to arrive. My house is a safe place, with children, and toys and people all here to help. With me, their minds often feel peace, I offer acceptance with no chains attached. I am probably a mother figure to them which is great in one way but my vanity is a bit upset as I look 10 years younger than my 46 and can’t possibly look old enough to be their mother – but I do feel protective of them, silly as it sounds, and they probably sense it. I can’t fail to see the weight of their stories on their faces; hair receding, puffy eyes, chain smoking, up all night talking to others about family, friends, neighbours, news, also trying to persuade people not to go back to fight.
In March one of our volunteers moved to England with his British wife. This broke a bond and some of the young volunteers left us to go back to fight, 2 were not married, one was. None of them spoke much English and all were not committed here, they were… distracted. Young men who had never held a gun in their lives went into hell because they thought they could make a difference. In early June, all 3 of them died. I don’t know how, or where, but these are three young men who will never have any future. The Syrians are lovely people, they are almost innocent in a way that the world no longer is, and that innocence has been destroyed. They will never be the same again. Their 3 deaths was devastating to all of us. The next day my other Syrian men loaded a truck with 1000 children’s parcels for 1000 families and I said them ”You have just made 4 or 5 thousand children happy with these parcels.” You did this. That made them smile, that made them think that perhaps being here was better than going there, well…maybe.