Children play in winter clothes from Mercy USA in Bab Es Salaam.
A barrel packed with shrapnel and TNT has no specific target when itâ€™s dropped from a helicopter over one of the Aleppo neighborhoods of Al-Marjeh, Aqyul or Bab Al Naryrab; its purpose is indiscriminate death. If you live or work in one of these neighborhoods thereâ€™s no air raid siren telling you to run for cover; instead the thing just descends down on your head without warning. It may have your name written on it as youâ€™re stirring tonightâ€™s dinner on the stove with your children playing around your skirts; or it may have that boyâ€™s name on it; the one whoâ€™s fixing his scooter in the alley so he can deliver bread for his fatherâ€™s bakery.
One of them had Abirâ€™s name on it as she left a meeting with volunteers working for Mercy-USA for Aid and Development; she was killed by it.
Since December 2013, the situation in Syria has made these poor neighborhoods some of the most dangerous places on earth. The daily death toll from the bombings is estimated to be 30-40 people a dayâ€”these numbers include children.
In the last weeks, the Al-Marjeh neighborhood has all but emptied, as its inhabitants have fled. These familiesâ€”too poor to have escaped the danger earlier by traveling to another countryâ€”are stuck with few choices. They were disadvantaged even before the war began: widowed or abandoned women with children, families caring for disabled children, and the elderly. The commonality between these families is that they have all been rendered virtually helpless due to the fighting.
At this time, the fortunate ones are grateful to be sleeping on the floor of a relativeâ€™s apartment in a safer part of the city, sharing scant space but glad for a respite from the indiscriminate violence. Others may have walked out to their ancestral village sharing meager rations with family they left for more prosperous times in the city. Then there are those staying to the north in the mud-soaked camp of Bab El-Salaam near the Turkish border. The tents, made for one family but shared by two or more, have Syrians sleeping on the cold ground hoping against hope that a spot will open in the Turkish-run refugee camp across the border. Itâ€™s a short hope; the Turkish camp is already filled to capacity, and is no longer accepting more refugees.
While the families wait for something to change, their bodies still need food and warmth, and Mercy-USAâ€™s local aid workers continue to deliver food baskets and baby formula, warm clothing kits for children, floor mats and sleeping mattresses to the recipients wherever theyâ€™ve landed. Theyâ€™ve kept touch through various means and continue to do the work to which theyâ€™ve dedicated their lives despite the new logistical complications. The risk an aid worker takes in Aleppo is incredibly high now. The Mercy-USA field staff workers use pseudonyms; their supervisors know them by field names and their more closely held actual names. These workers are humanitariansâ€”not soldiers or activists, and theyâ€™re risking their lives to care for the most vulnerable people of Aleppo. A bloody tie that binds the field staff to the people theyâ€™re helping is the war trauma theyâ€™re all experiencing. Everyone has friends or relatives who have been killed, and each day brings the horror-filled prospect of more painful news.
â€œItâ€™s security chaos,â€ reports one of Mercy-USAâ€™s senior staff who wishes to remain anonymous for safety reasons. â€œIt doesnâ€™t matter whoâ€™s who, we base our assessments on pure need. We donâ€™t ask affiliations or religion, we only want to know if theyâ€™re hungry or destitute; and if they are, we give the aid.â€ This puts the workers in danger on a daily basis. There are now many sides to take, but when youâ€™re part of a humanitarian organization you donâ€™t own a side. Food given to one family can be seen by others in a neighborhood as taking the wrong side. Relief work has no agenda when aiding hunger and suffering, and thatâ€™s the grave risk field staff take daily.
Abir, newly hired by Mercy-USA just a month before her death, had spent her life helping her community, and had seen her new job as a way to broaden her reach of service to the most vulnerable families and children in Aleppo. Three days after her 37th birthday, on December 23, 2013, Abir had spent the morning visiting families and assessing their need for the aid that Mercy-USA distributes in Al-Marjeh. Later that afternoon, she was killed by a barrel bomb attack as she walked down the street toward her next workday task. The news stunned Mercy-USA staff around the world, leaving everyone worried for not only Abirâ€™s family, but also the remaining Aleppo field staff and the people of Syria.
During a field staff meeting earlier this month, Mercy-USAâ€™s senior leadership team expressed concern for the workerâ€™s safety now that the situation has become more dangerous. All of the field workers told their supervisors that even if the commodities Mercy-USA delivers were to dry up, theyâ€™d still stay and do what they could to help the thousands who are relying on them for help. â€œWeâ€™re staying. Itâ€™s our country, and these are our people. Who else will help them if we donâ€™t?â€ While most of their own families fled the country long ago for safer havens, these humanitarians refuse to leave those who have no other choice but to wait for the day when life in Syria becomes once again livable.
Kari Ansari is the Director of Communications and Public Affairs at Mercy-USA for Aid and Development. www.mercyusa.org