Our involvement with Tewkesbury Refugee Support Group is spearheaded largely by Richard Sear.
At a recent PPC meeting it was agreed that a special collection for Refugee Support would be taken in every month where there was a fifth Sunday.
Please see below for a recent update of the situation as reported from Samara which graphically describes life for those trying to life among the devastation.
This evening I am writing from Syria, and it has been such a busy few days since I arrived on Thursday. I almost didn’t make it into the country after being refused entry at the border in the middle of the night, but that is another story for another time!
We had a busy time on Thursday afternoon distributing aid in Aleppo to 100 displaced families living in extremely difficult situations. These were some of the most vulnerable people being served by other aid organisations for food and baby milk, and some of them were struggling with physical disabilities and learning difficulties, and one old man couldn’t even see us standing there with the bags when he walked in, we had to approach him and put the bag of clothes in his arms.
Yesterday I learnt through my own personal experience and saw with my own eyes the toll that this brutal war has had on the children of Syria, and the heavy burdens they are forced to carry now. I encountered four children in Aleppo yesterday who made a very stark and heart breaking contrast to our own children back home in the UK. Only one of these four experiences was linked with our aid work. The rest were simply through the very limited time we spent just doing normal day to day activities in the city.
The beautiful boy above was alone on the streets of Aleppo selling biscuits. Both adorable and endearing yet persistent and focused, this boy who couldn’t be more than 9 yet is already an experienced professional and has learned how to make his quota for the day. We didn’t know who he was working for, whether his parents or someone else using him child to make a profit for themselves.
As we queued at the felafel store above a different boy wearing dirty old clothing who was very thin told us he was hungry. He said he was from a displaced family, and the strain of life was so evident on his face. We bought him some lunch and invited him to come along to one of our distribution centres to get some warmer clothes as he looked so cold standing there in a thin top and dirty old trousers. It was cold yesterday in the rain in Aleppo and I couldn’t feel much difference between our UK climate and theirs.
Later we went to distribute clothes and hygiene items in an old sports institute that is housing 41 displaced families. They are living in extremely poor conditions and some of the people showed us a boy (middle right) who was very shy. When we visited the settlement during daylight hours he had been at work, but we returned in the evening with Aid we had collected and it was dark there, so much harder to take photos. His father was killed a few years ago and his mother has no way of supporting them. Someone asked him to hold out his hands, and he showed us the evidence of the hard work that he has no choice but to do each day. This 12 year old boy does not go to school like our children, but instead goes to work every day in a plastic recycling and production plant.
He works from 9am to 7pm every day, just to survive and support his mother and siblings. He does not have anything even close to an acceptable standard of living as a result. His mother and siblings have returned to their original home, but in that area there is no opportunity to earn any money. So this poor boy has been living with his aunt and her three children in one room and is now the breadwinner for all of them. Wow.
This little boy and his story truly broke my heart. He is no longer a boy. He is a man. Years ahead of his time. He is not just any man though. He is a noble gentleman who is living with a true sense of honour and commitment and already understands his responsibility in life. This innocent child is paying the price of the stupidity and evil of adults who should have learnt the simple lessons that this boy has already had to learn in his short life. He is not alone. There are so many other little ones who should have enough food, clothes, and should have an education, but has instead they have been robbed of all these opportunities. I was so moved and humbled by his shy but beautiful eyes and smile. He is a living example of sacrifice, and I keep asking myself what he could teach our children about honour, duty and life in a parallel galaxy that exists in the same world that we share with him.
In the evening I was treated to my favourite Middle Eastern dish for our dinner, molokhair. My step grandfather, a Lebanese/Egyptian, used to make it for us and it is now a celebrated and sought after family classic that draws members of my family from every corner of the UK to come and share it whenever one of us announces that we are making. We sat outside to eat in the cold as I’m recovering from a cough that would have been exacerbated by the smokey interior of the cafe filled with people smoking shisha pipes. I felt a little frustrated as we had ordered way too much molokhiar for our group to eat, and as we sat commenting on the excess of food that was left a little girl appeared by our table.
Just as the boy we had met earlier, she was selling biscuits. And just as the boy we had met earlier, she demonstrated a disarming confidence and determination that comes from having spent her early years in an unprotected and dangerous environment that doesn’t allow for the luxury of complacency or living for pleasure. This girl has learnt already that life for her is about survival.
When I asked, I was shocked to find out that she is just eight years old. The same age as my oldest son. I struggled to imagine the dangers an eight year old girl, alone on the streets on a dark night would be faced with. It was unsettling to see it from that perspective, as a mother with a child the same age who doesn’t even walk alone to the end of our street in a safe and protected area in broad daylight. I couldn’t begin to list the comparisons between these two children, separated not just by distance but by injustice, imbalance and a completely different reality of existence.
She asked about the leftovers still sitting on our table, and my frustration was immediately replaced by gratitude that we had ordered so much food. I even wished we had more to give her as no doubt there would be many hungry tummies in her family in need of something nutritious to eat.
As we sat crunching her biscuits I couldn’t help but reflect on the amount of need I had seen in such a short space of time. In the places that we visit we expect that we will find people there with great needs, and we find that. But the reality of the life stories we are told there never fails to take me further both in what I expected to hear and see but also in understanding both the harsh contrast and the tough reality of living a disadvantaged life in a place like Syria.
But three of the four children I have described here were not in the places that we set out to visit. They are children we encountered just being on the streets of Aleppo for a very short time.
These are the children that motivate and inspire our orphans and widows project, which has been one of the hardest and most complicated projects to make a start with in Syria. Reaching out to children and families like these in such a socially, economically and culturally complex war environment is a difficult task if we want to achieve something more meaningful than just a simple food handout. The needs go so much deeper that the stomachs of these people, and my plans are to focus more on our orphans and widows project during my time here in Syria.
I feel so strongly that we, as humanity, living a comfortable life in the West should be learning from these children. Having seen the persistence of these young biscuit sellers and their fight for survival, we should learn some of their qualities of focus and determination and pushing, and we should employ these qualities to fight for the rights and needs of children like these. To be a voice for the voiceless, to bring relief to the poor, to bring hope to the hopeless.
The challenge is that we have the disadvantage of being distracted by our culture of pleasure seeking and complacency. But I ask myself this question: at the end of my life when I account for my actions and omissions, because I believe we will all have to do this, how will I justify the life I have lived in the UK while this injustice exists around us? When I breathe my last breath, what will my answer be to the question “are you satisfied with what you achieved in your life with the things you were given, for the people around you who didn’t have the same opportunities and resources as you did?”