Challenged by three years of civil war, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent has given the world a case study in the value of neutral, independent and impartial volunteer action.
Like many volunteers and staff members at the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), Feras Farras has grown used to the sound of exploding mortar shells and gunfire — near-constant and loud reminders that the work he and his colleagues do is among the most dangerous occupations on earth.
A water and sanitation coordinator for the SARC, Farras and his team bring critically needed water and sanitation supplies through front lines and checkpoints in order to reach populations cut off from basic services.
Each trip begins with negotiation. “Before starting a mission, we send a message to all parties on the ground to get their approval, to ensure we have an agreed ceasefire,” he says, adding that during each call, he explains the National Society’s mandate, the purpose of the mission and the specific places to be visited. “We do not enter any hot area without approvals from all parties on the ground. We have to ensure the safety of our volunteers and convoys.”
Even then, there are no guarantees. “In one of our missions to the eastern areas of Deir Ezzor, even after coordination and approval from all parties, we were detained by one of the parties because they didn’t receive information of our entry,” he recalls. “We explained ourselves to them many times, but no way. Fortunately, the group’s leader had previously heard about the Syrian Arab Red Crescent’s work, so he gave the order and we were released.”
An honour born of tragedy
Stories like this one are commonplace among volunteers, whose attempts to distribute food, aid the wounded or deliver water or fuel are often delayed or thwarted by fighting or armed groups active in the country’s three-year-old civil conflict.
In Aleppo, for example, volunteers have faced extreme dangers and ultimately had to stop first aid in some areas due to intense fighting. “First-aid teams were working around the clock to help people,” says Sana Tarabishi, the communications officer at the National Society’s Aleppo branch. “After a few months, while the conflict grew harsher, our teams were abducted and attacked many times, which in turn forced them to stop their work in areas where clashes were taking place.” They turned their attention instead to providing first-aid services to displaced people inside collective shelters.
Such stories give a glimpse of the challenges, fears and frustrations that the National Society’s volunteers and staff endure. They tell not only of individual courage — for which there is plenty of evidence — but also of the commitment, competence and solidarity that has come to define the Syrian Arab Red Crescent response.
This bloody civil war, which has turned once thriving communities into a maze of rubble-filled alleyways and crumbled buildings, could easily have torn this National Society apart. Instead, the SARC has scaled up and transformed itself from a relatively typical, peacetime auxiliary into an organization that is a flagship for the Movement, an essential partner for many external organizations hoping to help the people of Syria and an inspiration for humanitarians around the world.
This transformation is a badge of honour born from the tragedy of a war, a conflict that has claimed more than 120,000 lives — 36 of them Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers and staff killed during the course of their humanitarian duties. (Seven Palestinian Red Crescent workers have also been killed while delivering aid during the Syrian crisis). But the story of the Red Crescent response to this brutal conflict didn’t spring from nowhere: well before the first shots were fired during the 2011 protests, the Society Syrian Arab Red Crescent had laid the groundwork.
From early on, the strong network of local branches, the close relationship between management and staff, and years of training on disaster preparedness, community-led emergency response and the application of the Fundamental Principles began to pay off.
“Respecting the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement’s principles during our work was one of the main reasons that the SARC has been able to take a distinctive role and to position itself as a leading humanitarian organization during the conflict,” says Abdul Rahman Attar, president of the SARC. “The SARC confirmed its neutrality through its volunteers, too many of whom have paid with their lives in the line of duty.”
Helping all in need
Because the conflict has also polarized many communities, which are not as mixed as they were three or four years ago, there is often a strong feeling in some neighbourhoods that “if you are not with us, you are against us”, notes Åsa Erika Jansson, the IFRC country representative in Syria.
As a result, volunteers have had to strongly defend their neutrality, impartiality and independence in the face of people who want to know why volunteers “are helping the enemy”, remarks Jansson, who began her posting in Syria in 2009.
“Nothing is as difficult as an internal conflict,” she adds. “But there is a very strong sense among the volunteers of adherence to humanitarian principles. It’s really impressive the way SARC volunteers embody these principles.”
But it’s a delicate balance. The National Society needs a close connection to communities through its branches but it must also maintain a relationship with the government, in order to have access and get through checkpoints. When working in some areas, the National Society is accused of aiding the rebels; others have accused the SARC of being too close to the government.
On the ground, the volunteers are the ones whose lives lie in this balance. Zaki Malla Aref, a volunteer since 2003, is responsible for SARC warehouses in al-Raqqah in north-central Syria.
“We are committed to neutrality,” Malla Aref says. But he explains that it helped that people in his area “knew their faces, which convinced the community of our mandate and that we are only there to help them.”
Still, this has not protected all of the branch’s volunteers, two of whom were killed while on duty, while many others have been detained, including Malla Aref’s brother. “My brother was abducted for five days by an anonymous group and he suffered a lot during that time,” he says.
“We are facing huge risks in al-Raqqah,” he says, adding that most local charities in the area help one side or the other, so people are not used to the idea of neutral, independent humanitarian assistance. “When a group asks us, ‘Who are you?’, this is the big challenge. We have to tell them we are the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and we are not with this group or the other.”
The hard-won, but never guaranteed, acceptance of SARC’s neutrality has made them a key asset both to partners within the Movement and to external aid-givers. “The SARC’s presence in both government and opposition-controlled areas, its proximity to affected populations, the dedication of its staff and volunteers and their deep knowledge of the terrain allow the ICRC to deliver aid even in the most challenging environments,” says Daphnée Maret, deputy head of the ICRC’s Syria delegation.
Laying the foundation
Given these pressures, many say that the various forms of support and training provided by IFRC, the British Red Cross and the ICRC — as well as SARC’s experience assisting some 140,000 Iraqi refugees in 2004 — proved to be critical. “One thing that really mattered was the preparedness work in terms of disaster risk reduction and disaster management strategy and training,’’ says the IFRC’s Jansson. “The volunteers were well trained and when the needs arose, they knew how to involve communities.”
Baher Kayal, a volunteer with the branch in Homs, agrees. “Since 2000, SARC volunteers have participated in training for disaster management and first aid,” he says. “But at first we didn’t apply what we learned. The actual tests came during the Lebanon war in 2006 and when we received Iraqi refugees in 2004.
“At that time, these crises were not our crises, and the war in Lebanon continued only for one month. But with this current conflict, through more than three years of daily work, we have gained experience and applied the theoretical information we learned in training,” says Kayal. “With each mission, we learned a new lesson.”
The net result of all this preparedness, experience and support can now be measured in the number of people who have been helped. At the beginning of the crisis, the SARC was delivering food parcels to 850,000 people per month.
Today, SARC staff and volunteers distribute food and non-food items to 3.5 million people each month, provide support in water and sanitation, and offer emergency and primary health-care services through the SARC’s network of health facilities and ambulances.
In some sense, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society has become a de facto workforce for the entire international aid effort and is actively involved, by some estimates, in distributing as much as 80 per cent of the aid coming into Syria.
The SARC not only works closely with the ICRC (with support from the IFRC and its member National Societies), it partners with United Nations (UN) agencies such as the World Food Programme, the UN Refugee Agency, the UN Children’s Fund and some 30 international non-governmental organizations to reach otherwise unreachable pockets of vulnerability.
Given the subsequent demands and expectations, many SARC staff and volunteers say they are being overstretched. It is not possible, however, to simply to add more volunteers — despite the fact that there is a waiting list of people who want to join the volunteer ranks.
“Demand for volunteering is extremely high, but the challenge is that we are not finding enough time to properly train the new recruits and so they learn in the field,” says Muhammed Walid Sankari, SARC Aleppo branch president.
“Volunteers are risking their lives to help people in need,” he adds. “The least we should do is provide them with the proper training and the financial support to help them commute.”
But, as in most conflicts around the world, there is never sufficient support. Some financial appeals for food or other support both inside and outside Syria have fallen short and the National Society has often faced a shortage of supplies in its warehouses.
The tragic loss of so many volunteers has also forced the National Society and the Movement to find new ways to protect volunteers. This year, for the first time, the IFRC supported the National Society in the provision of bullet-proof vests. For some time, the Movement has resisted this move, believing that it might give volunteers a false sense of security and induce them to take greater risks. Given that many volunteers have been killed while in a vehicle, or performing other basic tasks, the policy was re-examined.
Volunteers and staff say that while they have changed tremendously in the last three years, they are at heart the same National Society. It’s just the scale of the work that has changed. Still, the tragic losses during the last three years have strengthened their solidarity with fellow volunteers and their will to keep going.
“We had to bear the impact, we lost our colleagues,” says Baher Kayal from the Homs branch. “The events were the reason that many people volunteered and they are the reason that the relationships among us have really strengthened. We became one family — we have lived with SARC volunteers more than the days we lived with our families.”
SARC’s director of operations, Khaled Erksoussi, puts it this way: “Our strength comes from the fact that our volunteers are from all over the country, from the towns and villages, and because of that they have a strong connection to the local community. They can negotiate and facilitate access and know-how to assess the needs and the situation.
“This, however, is also our weakness because that also makes our volunteers exposed to the same dangers as their communities. We are a volunteer-based organization; we cannot stay in five-star hotels and ride armoured vehicles all the time and leave our community exposed.”
By Viviane Tou’meh and Malcolm Lucard
Viviane Tou’meh is a communications officer for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
Malcolm Lucard is editor of Red Cross Red Crescent magazine.
The red crescent emblem, a flashing light and a flag representing their National Society is their only protection. Driving through the area known as New Clock Square, a team of Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers and medics support returning residents and those who trapped for months in war-torn city of Homs.
Photo: ©Laila Tawakkol/SARC, Homs branch
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See our full interview with
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In the old city of Homs, in the area known as Al-Hamidiyyeh, a team of Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers conduct a water and sanitation assessment to ensure safe drinking water for the residents.
Photo: ©Laila Tawakkol/SARC, Homs branch
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The disruptions in normal health services caused by the civil war led to an outbreak of polio. SARC volunteers were able to bring much-needed vaccinations to areas affected by the conflict. Here, two of the 20 SARC volunteers from the al-Hasakeh branch participate in a four-phase polio campaign that reached children in 49 villages. Photo: ©Tarek Elewi/SARC, al-Hasakeh branch
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