Last September, as news focused on the massive migration of refugees surging through Greece and Macedonia, a group of Edinburgh friends loaded nine vans with relief supplies and drove to the Serbian Croatian border.
“When we saw the pictures of those people in those horrible and horrific conditions for days and days stuck in a place with rain and no shelter and women and little children having to go through unbelievable conditions, we said to ourselves, we need to do something,” says Akeel Umar.
Now, six months later, Akeel and friend Shahid Aziz have turned over £100,000 worth of aid, and launched grassroots organisation Edinburgh Cares.
“We’ve made seven missions,” Akeel explains at his office on Leith Walk, sending everything from generators and incubators for premature babies to a hospital across the Turkish border in Atme, to hats, shoes and food, much of it delivered in person to refugees in Croatia, Serbia, Hungary, Slovenia, Macedonia, Greece and Lebanon.
The group has attracted a core of 25 active volunteers, including lawyers and doctors, teachers and media experts. It has incorporated active spin-off groups such as Livingston Cares and Fife Cares. All six Edinburgh mosques have signed up to help.
In December, the group launched “Step in My Shoes”, a campaign backed by the Scottish Government which has collected thousands of shoes for refugees. In January, it started “Full Plate”, a free food table on North Bridge for the homeless and needy, with large cauldrons of rice and dal also handed out to any hungry passers-by.
“The idea is to create an environment of compassion and caring,” Akeel says. The food is provided by The Mosque Kitchen up the road.
Edinburgh Cares has now launched a month-long series of grassroots events under the banner “March for Syria”, to fundraise and show solidarity for Syrian refugee orphans and children. It will include an evening of talks on the refugee crisis hosted at Edinburgh University, a sponsored walk up Arthur’s Seat, a football tournament at the Corn Exchange, a ladies’ night and children’s fun day at St Thomas of Aquins High School, a badminton tournament at Edinburgh Academy and a fundraising dinner at the Royal Highland Centre.
Meanwhile, the group is encouraging people to organise any small event they can. “The war in Syria has been going on six years,” Akeel says.
“The situation is getting worse day by day, with 70,000 displaced recently.
“It’s a horrific situation to be in, when you have to pack up and leave.
“You are being killed and you don’t want to leave but you have to run.
“And then you are going to a place where people don’t want you.”
The campaign is designed to show Edinburgh does care. “The idea is to encourage people from different walks of life to get involved. There is something for everyone to do, whether you are a senior citizen or a football player,” he said.
Akeel is a Pakistani who grew up in Saudi Arabia and then moved to Britain with his family in 1995.
Shahid, co-founder of the group, was born and raised in Edinburgh.
One hundred per cent of the donations to Edinburgh Cares go directly to refugees. Donations also comply with the Muslim tradition of zakaat, one of the five tenets of Islam which says you must give aid to the most needy.
But Akeel stresses it is not exclusively a Muslim group. “Our volunteers are people of all faiths and no faiths,” he says.
“We help everyone as well. The refugees we are helping are Muslim and Christian.”
-For more details on Edinburgh Cares and information on the “March for Syria” events, please see www.edinburghcares.org.