I Started a Charity in a Syrian War Zone
Jan 3 2013
Kilis, like most border towns, feels like a bastardised, slightly less racist Wild West; gossip spreads, people pass through, supplies (legal and otherwise) are bought and sold. In this particular border town, however, it feels like that sense of transit is more tangible than in most. Kilis, in southern Turkey, is the gateway to Aleppo, a key battleground in the ongoing conflict in Syria and one of the oldest cities in the world. Unfortunately, with fighting normally including stuff like shells, explosions and carnage, a good deal of old Aleppo is being devastated – in fact, the fight for control of Taftanaz military airport was raging so close that we had shelling soundtrack our afternoon tea-drinking.
This border town is also the home of Wijbe Abma, a 21-year-old "freelance" aid worker. He runs Don't Forget Syria – an idea that started small and has snowballed to a size the founder is not quite comfortable with. It’s one man’s plan to bring aid directly to civilians within war torn Aleppo. On his first run, he gave out 100 blankets, but his idea was picked up by the press, donations flooded in and he now has £10,600 burning a hole in his PayPal account, a logistical clusterfuck to untangle and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) trying to sell him flour.
A few months ago Wijbe was a regular student, travelling home from a gap year teaching, drinking shochu and banging out karaoke in South Korea, when he found himself in Antakya in southern Turkey, now home to thousands of Syrians. Here a Syrian man from Aleppo told him about his son who’d been killed by regime shelling. They talked about his troubles and what was left of his city. Like many Syrians, confused and angered by the lack of International assistance, he asked: “Why won't anyone help?” Wijbe decided to stop partying and do something.
Wijbe selecting blankets.
"It started very small," he says.“I decided to do myself what all of the NGOs had talked about, but none actually seemed to be doing.” The idea was simple; he would walk across the border at Kilis to the makeshift camps in Syria with a couple of blankets in a rucksack, give them out to those in need and go on travelling.
On arrival, he realised the problem was larger than he'd initially thought. The camp were dismissive and Wijbe began to feel powerless when it became apparent that no one would allow him to choose who to help. That autonomy is something Wijbe takes seriously; "More important than aid that helps is aid that doesn't harm. The only way you know someone isn't taking it all and selling it for weapons is to do it yourself," he said.
Motivated, he left and founded his own aid project, committing £570 of his savings for the first 100 blankets. A Syrian friend tells me he originally bought one and slept under it for a night to test it. He caught a cold for a week, threw it out and found thicker, warmer blankets. With the help of Syrian civilians he took the blankets to Aleppo and went door to door. Each blanket came with a letter, in Arabic, explaining that it came from an individual with a desire to help and show that someone cared. On the way back their car had a dozen rounds fired at it from an army base as they passed, which is a novel way of saying thank you.
Buoyed by a successful trip, Wijbe headed to the Netherlands to raise funds. Family Christmas was interspersed with TV interviews and the publicity turned into cash. The night he returned to Kilis, he made the tough decision to stop donations after they reached £10,600. Asked why, he said, "The budget now is about 20-times as much as I had, which actually makes me a bit nervous. I want to be sure the money is going to the right people."
He appears burdened by this sum. One man wrote to him saying he didn’t have much, but the promise to deliver the aid directly had prompted his donation. "How many others feel like that but didn't write to me?" he asks. "They saw somebody they trust so they donated. People have lost trust in big organisations, but they still have it with small ones. So I want to get it right."
Faced with distributing £10,600 of aid – enough to bury Aleppo in blankets – he is expanding the project and is exploring the idea of providing flour. When he arrives in town, some of the leaders of an Aleppo FSA brigade visit Kilis and want to meet to talk about buying flour. "The problem with having a lot of money is everyone knows I have a lot of money and want a share of it," he muses.
Some of the carnage after an air strike on Syrian civilians.
Bread is a problem in Syria. Flour has risen in price and the lines outside bakeries are long, making civilians easy targets while they queue. Two air strikes in the week before Christmas that killed hundreds of people are fresh in Wijbe's mind – he has a photo of the aftermath of one stored on his phone.
A friend meets the FSA leaders where we have lunch and we try to avoid them – Wijbe's not anti-FSA, nor is he pro. In a conflict where everyone has picked sides, he refuses to. However, it’s not long before we are summoned; "What do you want to drink? Colonel's orders." Wijbe argues, but we end up joining them for shisha and tea, and the conversation turns to flour.
We’re told there’s a factory inside where flour is being sold at a good price. Wijbe turns to me; "What's a good price for flour? If I buy it inside, it might help the people who have the factory. But if I don't buy it they might be forced to sell it cheaper to the people who need it." I plead ignorance on the price of flour and we laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation as he avoids being pushed further for now.
At 21, with no formal training or experience, some veterans of conflict say Wijbe is young and reckless, that he doesn't understand the dangers. Watching him work, it's obvious he's aware of the implications of what he's doing. Each decision is considered – he thinks aloud: "If I get flour, do they have salt and water to make bread? Can they cook it?” He's aware of the risks but they’re a non-issue: “I'm not afraid of bombs, mortars and shelling,” he states – not because he's impervious, but because he wouldn't be going back if he was truly unprepared or frightened.
In the three days I spent with him, every conversation centred around what to do with the money. Kilis is overrun with aid workers and all of them have an opinion: bring food regularly, but don’t let it perish. Shoes are needed. Doctors need headlamps and medicines in the field hospitals. Support local organisations. Children need toys and books. Build a school.
Often Wijbe looks troubled as the mulls the options, reminding himself that he can't solve it all; "Keep it simple and focused." You can see how easily NGOs get caught up in stunting layers of administration by how quickly a simple idea – drive some blankets to Aleppo – can become problematic, even prompting a total standstill if the situation isn't managed right. Wijbe is determined that this won't happen: “My story won't end with me giving the money to some bureaucracy.”
The only thing everyone in Kilis agrees on is that civilians in Syria need help, and lots of it. As for the rest, Wijbe says: "I'm just a random guy from a random country who is delivering some help. I just want to give the impression that the world hasn't forgotten about them."
Follow Emma on Twitter: @ejbeals
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