As 2016 draws to a close, it is an important time to pause and reflect on the heroes around us who have done so much during the year. In our families, individuals who go the extra mile to pull us in together, to show us we are loved. Outside of our homes, policemen and women, nurses and carers who keep us safe and healthy, and are often the ones who look out for the more vulnerable in our communities. Further afield, in times of war, natural disaster or economic collapse, there are unsung heroes who help people survive through crisis and rebuild their lives.
In my line of work, I feel privileged to see some of these heroes working without pause to improve the lives of those around them in some of the most remote and difficult environments.
Hours before Christmas Eve, I returned home from Mercy Corps’ office in Gaziantep, Turkey. From our offices there, we plan and coordinate our aid operations across the border into north Syria. As one of the largest aid responses in Syria, each month we reach around 470,000 Syrians with our support. At our Gaziantep warehouses, trucks are loaded-up with vital supplies such as flour and food kits which are delivered to families in Syria. Many of the people we help now say that we are their only source of food.
Statistics do little to represent the tough day-to-day work of individuals on frontlines. While Mercy Corps has worked for many years in Syria, in the past weeks we have seen some of the most severe crisis the country has witnessed in nearly six years of war – but equally some of the most inspiring stories of commitment as well. Our team members shared with me some of their experiences of meeting evacuees as they left East Aleppo.
“There were volunteers, private associations, waiting for them, even people who are not humanitarian workers are doing their best to help” one of our team members on the ground told me. “We’ll feel tired after everything is completed. They are expecting a lot from us; we must do more” he added.
At our welcome centre in north Syria, our all-Syrian team welcomed almost 5,800 of the evacuees from East Aleppo in conditions that were ruthless. People were not allowed to bring many of their personal items because space was limited on the buses; the temperatures were freezing and the progress halting. Hearing these stories of Aleppans leaving during the evacuation spurred them on to respond with greater energy and conviction. They heard how families waited in the open air with nothing to eat or drink and how people, who desperately wanted rid of violence which had punctuated their lives for the last years, struggled to get on the buses as they were promised some respite.
“It was overcrowded, I waited for 24 hours and during this period more than 30 buses were filled with children, women and wounded but they didn’t move even one metre,” one evacuee told our team. “[The families] stayed in their places for 20 hours, they were not allowed to get out of the buses - imagine 20 hours in bus in very cold weather without food or bathrooms, it was unbearable for the children.”
Thankfully, the tough days of the evacuation from East Aleppo have now wound down and news reports estimate that nearly 40,000 individuals made it out. Mercy Corps has several hundred team members in Syria who work in coordination with local agencies providing food, shelter and support, and who will continue to help some of these displaced people, and others, retain their dignity in the most trying of circumstances.
Even though over the last few days Aleppo has disappeared from the news headlines, the Syria war continues and Mercy Corps will work there for as long as we are needed. There are other contested areas, such as Foua, Kefraya, East Ghouta and Idlib where civilians need aid and protection and we must see a respect for international humanitarian law by all warring parties.
From our European headquarters in Edinburgh, Mercy Corps will continue to help people in need, especially when violence displaces them from their homes and threatens their lives. In 2016, we helped 30 million people in more than 40 countries around the world.
As a non-profit organisation our courageous colleagues on the frontlines can only carry out their work thanks to those working behind the scenes in our offices and, importantly, the generosity of the public. So while we give thanks to those in far-flung destinations, we would like to celebrate those closer to home too: the individuals in Scotland and beyond who donate to our work.
Alongside Cash for Kids, Mercy Corps is the recipient of funds raised by keen cyclists at the annual Tour de Forth bike race when individuals circle 97.3km of the Firth of Forth in the name of two charities spreading compassion in Scotland and far beyond. We are also honoured to be the international charity partner of the Edinburgh Disaster Response Committee, working with other city organisations and the Edinburgh Council to help people respond to emergencies. As we look back on a difficult year and prepare for a new chapter ahead, let’s celebrate those striving to improve the world around them. The team member handing out water at a welcome centre in northern Syria, or the charity cyclist pedalling around the Firth of Forth – we can all play our part in the year to come and spread goodwill and compassion to those who need it.
Christy Delafield is senior global communications officer at Mercy Corps. You can donate to Mercy Corps at www.mercycorps.org.uk