This was originally posted in September 2013 on the Shelterbox USA site. http://www.shelterboxusa.org/news.php?id=1328
I thought I would share it here as well.
The Syria that I knew and loved
Hunter Tanous (US) has just returned from his first deployment as a ShelterBox Response Team volunteer, having completed his training in March. He was assisting Syrian refugee families fleeing conflict in Iraqi Kurdistan:
The Syrian crisis has dragged millions through years of pain and suffering. It has torn apart families, communities and people. It has left a psychological impact so deep that we will be seeing the consequences for generations to come.
In college I spent about a half year living in Damascus. I had received a Cultural Ambassadorial Scholarship from Rotary International to study in Amman, Jordan and after seven months there, moved to Damascus, Syria. I studied Arabic at the University of Damascus and spent afternoons hanging out in a shop on al Qamariah street in the old town, talking with shop owners and workers who had become good friends. Damascus was a city full of beauty, history and some of the friendliest people I’d ever met. Its architecture went from Soviet style concrete slabs on the outskirts, to beautifully intricate Ottoman era mosques and markets. I always loved entering the old city through the great Souk al Hamidiyeh (where you could get delicious fresh ice cream rolled in pistachios at Bakdash) and ending beneath the pillars of an ancient Roman ruin that was once a temple to Jupiter with the great Umayyad Mosque shimmering gold and white in front of you.
This is the Syria that I knew and loved. That Syria is no more and it will take a long, long time before it is back.
I was worried when I first showed up in Kurdistan. I was worried what it would be like to be confronted face to face with the consequences of the Syrian crisis. I was worried I would see friends, people I had known, now in such a dire situation that I could never imagine. I had left Syria in 2010 and hadn’t been back since.
Symbol of hope
What I found was something I could have never expected. I learned about the suffering of the Syrian refugees, about their stories and their journeys. Many had been persecuted for their ethnicity (Kurdish), were unable to find jobs, and living on the edge of starvation. Yet still there was a pride and willingness to fight to improve their situation. Many saw Kurdistan as a symbol of hope. It was a place they could call home. There were job opportunities, the economy was growing, the political situation was stable and on top of it all, their language was spoken.
Beside all the hope and optimism, there was also a simple dangerous fact; shelter was needed. The Kurdish Regional Government had done an immense amount to assist the refugees, but no government is immediately able to take care of the massive amounts of people that were all together crossing the border. An average day was 45 degrees Celsius and in the winter it could drop below freezing, snowing in the areas near the mountains. ShelterBox tents were needed to provide shelter and dignity and in the winter, warmth. The situation was dire and would only get worse as time went on. Many of the refugees were middle class, and even after years of war, to be homeless was an entirely new situation.
Single men vulnerable
I am proud that ShelterBox was able to provide tents to a number of vulnerable groups. One that I believe is very important is the group of single men at the Qushtapa camp outside Erbil. Contrary to popular belief single men can be a vulnerable group. Many had left their families behind, looking to earn enough money to support them and bring them to Kurdistan. Imagine sending your 17 year old son to a foreign country to find a job in the midst of a war, imagine the responsibility. Organisations often see young men as a problem, which they will become if they are not given opportunities.
Whilst on the ground we worked with many great young men that were more than eager to work, they just need that chance, that opportunity. They worked as translators as well as part of the teams to set up the tents. They were hardworking, kind and always grateful. For these refugees that have been through so much, there is a small gap between optimism and hopelessness. I am happy to say that ShelterBox is providing the necessary shelter to allow these men to go out and improve their as well as their families’ lives. Keeping them off the street and giving them a place to temporarily call home will make their future as well as that of the community, brighter.