After Aleppo – Aid chief says, ‘People have escaped one hell only to be caught in another.’

Syrian baby wrapped in blankets

©ReliefAid

ShelterBox and its partners are helping displaced families cope with the grim realities of life under canvas, in the cold and mud, with only basic amenities. These battle-weary people, formerly residents of a thriving city, now need every kind of aid imaginable – even lighting, children’s clothes, and sewing kits.

We all breathed a sigh when we saw families being bused out of Aleppo just before Christmas. For them, at least, the fear of daily thirst, starvation and bombings was over. But now aid workers are finding that displacement is bringing other severe hardships.

Syrian refugee children

©ReliefAid

Farid, a Syrian staff member with ShelterBox partner ReliefAid, says, ‘I am deeply shocked by the living conditions of the camps where Aleppo families are now living. Even coming from East Aleppo where the destruction was huge and the humanitarian situation dire, the situation in the camps is worse. I have not seen anything like this before. No toilets, no water, mud everywhere.’

It takes a lot to shock aid workers in Syria, particularly former residents of Aleppo. Farid and his ReliefAid colleagues had seen their office bombed, and one of their team gunned down as he worked on a rooftop. But now, having quit their home city, razed to the ground by years of warfare, they have followed their neighbours into dozens of makeshift displacement camps dotted across the desert.

True, they are now out of the line of fire. But in every other way conditions could hardly be more harsh. Mike Seawright, Founder and Executive Director of ReliefAid, has worked in partnership with UK-based ShelterBox throughout the Syrian civil war, distributing its aid in some of the most dangerous territory on earth. Mike says, ‘People forced from their homes in Aleppo City are now having to live in freezing conditions surrounded by mud and water.’

‘They are joining families who have been living under the intense heat of summer and freezing winter conditions, including snow and ice, for five seasons. People have escaped one hell only to be caught in another.’

‘Families are now living in tents, having lost loved ones, with no idea how they will keep themselves warm at night. Without our collective support people will literally not survive.’

image of displacement camp in Syria

©ReliefAid

The ReliefAid team and ShelterBox are now gearing up to provide more aid to Syria’s displacement camps throughout March. They are concentrating on settlements in Idlib Governorate, particularly fifteen informal camps. The families here have been displaced from Aleppo over months, including in December’s exodus, and from areas in the south of the country.

Mike adds, ‘As you can see from our photos living conditions are very difficult. These smaller informal camps have been largely ignored as aid organisations look to provide assistance to sites that are easier to access and allow faster distribution. Families in these informal camps have significant needs which our next distribution is looking to address.’

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©ReliefAid

ShelterBox is providing 5,000 blankets and mattresses to help combat the cold, 4,000 sets of children’s clothing, and 4,000 pairs of jeans and jumpers. 1,000 tarpaulins are included for waterproofing tents and buildings, and 4,000 20 litre water carriers. Then there are the less expected items – solar lamps for safety in the dark desert nights, hammers and fixings, duct tape and rope.   

Without the financial means to purchase new clothing and tents, repairing them is an essential task in camp life. So the inclusion of 1,000 sewing kits means that families can make their precious materials last as long as possible.

ShelterBox’s Sam Hewett says, ‘Wherever you look in this region displaced families are living threadbare existences in uncomfortable conditions. These aid items bring some relief, particularly to the vulnerable, the young, the elderly. We will continue to source partnerships and aid routes that can find them, whether they have settled in large camps or small ad hoc encampments.’

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At last, heartwarming photos of Aleppo’s children receiving ShelterBox aid

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They have been on the most terrifying of journeys unaware that the world was watching. Now thousands of the children of Aleppo have reached relative safety, been given warm clothing, their families receiving aid from disaster relief charity ShelterBox and its partners

At one point these are the photos we thought we’d never see. Thousands of Aleppo families bussed out of the world’s most war-ravaged city to be greeted at displacement camps, and given clothing and other aid that has waited at a tantalising distance for months.

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These images just received at ShelterBox’s Cornwall HQ show aid workers from in-country partner, London-based Hand in Hand for Syria, greeting the most vulnerable of the exodus from Aleppo. The aid shown is hats and scarves –  essential as it has started to snow in the region – and other non-food items supplied by ShelterBox. It is part of an ongoing programme to help families displaced by the Syrian civil war.

ShelterBox Operations Co-ordinator Sam Hewett says, ‘The fighting in and around Aleppo that has been broadcast in recent weeks is indicative of the intolerable position that people throughout Syria are forced to endure.’ 

Due to the support of our generous donors, ShelterBox has been able to support people as they are evacuated from the city with items such as clothing and bedding, to shelter them from the cold winter conditions. This would not be possible without the presence of our partner organisations, whose staff share the same fatal risks as the people they are trying to help.’ 

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Hand in Hand for Syria’s team are reported to have all escaped Aleppo over the weekend, and the last of New Zealand-based ReliefAid’s team of 40 Aleppo residents has just been reported safely evacuated.

The actual locations of this latest aid distribution are being withheld for security reasons.

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Which way to run from war-torn Mosul? How desperate do you have to be to flee across the border into Syria?!

Syria seems the very opposite of safety or sanctuary. But as aid agencies in Iraq steel themselves for a possible outpouring from Mosul, ShelterBox and its partners find that even Syrian camps are now becoming boltholes for families on the run. 


Shelterbox aid being distributed to Iraqi IDPs

Mosul in Iraq, home to over a million civilians, now trapped by an intense battle to reclaim the last ISIS stronghold in the country. At any point, in any numbers, in any direction, hundreds of thousands could suddenly be on the run from warfare.

Some 80,000 civilians have fled Mosul and nearby areas so far, and the United Nations is preparing for a worst-case scenario in which more than a million people are made homeless as winter descends. ‘Children and their families in Mosul are facing a horrific situation. Not only are they in danger of getting killed or injured in the cross-fire, now potentially more than half a million people do not have safe water to drink,’ said UNICEF’s Iraq representative Peter Hawkins.

Iraqi children wearing red ShelterBox hats, scarves and gloves

Now reports from a partner organisation distributing ShelterBox aid in Hasake Governorate point to significant numbers fleeing east from Mosul into Syria. New Zealand based ReliefAid is one of ShelterBox’s long-standing distribution partners in Syria. Likewise London-based Hand in Hand for Syria, delivering ShelterBox tents and warm clothing to Syrian displacement camps (see photo), also finds some beneficiaries are from Mosul.

ReliefAid Executive Director Mike Seawright says, ‘We recently completed our ShelterBox distribution in Syria’s North Eastern Hasake Governorate, bordering Iraq. We were supporting a refugee camp in which 80% of the families were from Mosul or surrounding areas.’

This is a constantly changing situation, but ReliefAid reports that thousands of families from Mosul have recently found crossing the border into Syria preferable to taking their chances in Iraq. This is counter-intuitive, a turning of the human tide, which is forcing families from one dire situation into another.

And now the military offensive on Raqqa in Syria is creating another dynamic. Mike Seawright adds, ‘The offensive against ISIS in Raqqa is displacing more civilians into Hasake Governorate. Initial reports are that displaced families have been arriving into camps in the North of Syria over the last few days. These numbers are expected to increase as the military action gains momentum. Combined with the Mosul offensive unmet humanitarian needs, including shelter, are expected to continue to increase dramatically within the Governorate.‘

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All ShelterBox partners in Syria and Iraq – ReliefAid, Hand in Hand for Syria, ACTED and new associates Czech-based People in Need – deliver life-saving aid to communities under fire, working in some of the most dangerous places on earth, security issues dictating discretion and a low profile. 

Alongside ongoing work inside Syria, ShelterBox has been preparing for whatever Mosul will create in terms of humanitarian need. Via ACTED households in Northern Iraq have already received basic shelter-related kits from ShelterBox, and tents and aid are prepositioned ready to deploy as families are displaced from the fighting. 1,000 beneficiary households in Ninewa and Erbil Governorates will receive first line shelter support. Thousands of lightweight tents are also on standby, for use in agreement with Shelter Cluster leads.

ShelterBox’s Rachel Harvey has just ended a deployment to Iraq, including a field visit to locations in Ninewa province where aid convoys have to pass through several military checkpoints. Rachel said of this journey, ‘The close proximity of the fighting is really striking. One minute you are drinking coffee in a hotel, an hour and a half later you are driving through an obliterated village on your way to deliver aid to people displaced by a conflict you can hear being waged on the horizon. The distance between peace and relative prosperity, and the devastation of war is frighteningly short.’ 

Response Team volunteer, Jack Bailey is still in Iraq training partners in use of the charity’s aid. Jack says, ‘Our preparedness is the result of months of planning, and of course the generosity of our donors. But, however much notice we have had of a Mosul displacement, there are still many unknowns. We will have to respond as events unfold, and look to our supporters to help us meet the demand.’   

ReliefAid has had to make the difficult decision to move its current winter aid distribution to the Idlib countryside as a result of the terrible situation in Aleppo City. Continued attacks against civilians, extreme medical shortages, zero access to humanitarian assistance and severe food shortages are causing the already dire living situation to deteriorate rapidly.

Aleppo, Mosul, now Raqqa. ShelterBox and its international partners stand ready to help families on the run from war wherever it is safe to do so. But this region will soon be in the grip of an icy winter, with storms and freezing overnight temperatures a real threat to families trapped in ruined cities,  fleeing across desert or up into the mountains.

Aleppo residents have ‘no food, no water, and no hope’

Aleppo - child with destroyed cityscape background

Aleppo – child with destroyed cityscape background

Aleppo residents have ‘no food, no water, and no hope’. ShelterBox aid partner – ‘How could the world stand by as our people are killed?’

As the UN warns that east Aleppo may become a ‘giant graveyard’, local aid workers from ShelterBox’s partner organisation have spoken of their fears from within the war-ravaged city to ReliefAid’s Mike Seawright.    

 

ShelterBox aid partner ReliefAid has a team in Aleppo, trapped with their families in the bombarded city. In recent months ReliefAid had its offices destroyed by bombing, and they lost one team member to a sniper’s bullet.

Despite this being arguably the most dangerous place on earth to be an aid worker, the ReliefAid team has given up chances to leave East Aleppo, deciding to remain, providing humanitarian assistance to their neighbours and the most vulnerable. Their brave efforts have seen life-saving ShelterBox support provided to over 36,000 people this year, as well as winter clothing for children. But now their Executive Director says, ‘Their future and their lives are hanging by a thread.’

On Wednesday top UN envoy Stephen O’Brien warned that Aleppo risks becoming ‘one giant graveyard’ and pleaded with UN Security Council members to protect civilians ‘for the sake of humanity’. An estimated 25,000 people have been displaced, he added, while in some areas people are so hungry they are reduced to scavenging.

After this sudden escalation ReliefAid’s Mike Seawright managed to contact his team in the city. He says that their greatest feeling is one of ‘Fear of being killed, or injured with no medical care.’

Aleppo Relief Aid warehouse

Aleppo Relief Aid warehouse

East Aleppo has as estimated 275,000 people living in it. Needs are immense for families in cold winter conditions. Medical services are all but defunct following sustained attacks against hospitals and healthcare workers, and families have been forced onto the streets by the fighting.

People in some areas are now huddling in public buildings and former schools. Mike adds, ‘Our team reports a desperate situation with families having no security, no food, no water, and no hope. For civilians caught in the extended siege, having experienced intensive daily air strikes, the escalation in ground fighting is becoming too much to bear.’

In a telling part of the conversation, Mike asked his aid colleagues what messages they would like to give to the international community. The reply was, ‘Forgive me, but we have no messages. How could the world stand by as our people are killed?’

Mike says of one of his Aleppo-based aid workers, ‘He has not slept for two days, has already lost significant weight as a result of the ongoing siege and now is wondering what, if any, future lies ahead. When talking to him about the situation I am often rendered speechless as I try to provide some level of practical or emotional support. What do you say to someone who thinks his future contains only death or imprisonment?’

Mike adda that Aleppo citizens have lost faith in the international community, seeing themselves as pawns in a regional and international game. He adds, ‘The Syrian Government appears to be pushing to finish the game. Having already had one staff member killed by a sniper we are deeply worried about our team in Aleppo.’

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ShelterBox aid arrives in Erbil ahead of anticipated exodus from Mosul

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ShelterBox has now established a pipeline of aid that will see thousands of tents waiting to help families fleeing war in Mosul. Now the anxious wait begins, for the trickle of escapees that may turn into a flood.

International disaster relief agency, ShelterBox has today seen its first consignment of emergency tents arrive in the city of Erbil, just 50 miles from Mosul. Thousands of family relief tents will be pre-positioned close to expected distribution points, anticipating the needs of those escaping the city as fighting intensifies.

ShelterBox’s Rachel Harvey says, ‘The first 500 ShelterBox tents have arrived, another 1,500 are expected in coming days, with more to follow. We are expecting this military offensive to last several weeks, if not months. But we don’t know how many civilians will be able to escape Mosul City or when. So we are working with partners preparing aid in order to react quickly as events unfold.’  

Pallets fo ShelterBox relief tents arrive in Erbil

Pallets fo ShelterBox relief tents arrive in Erbil

In addition to thousands of tents – up to 6,000 are currently committed – ShelterBox has also been working with in-country partner, Paris-based ACTED, to prepare 600 basic kits of essential items such as water carriers, blankets, cooking pots and solar lights for use in camps. In a later phase 1,000 households displaced to Ninewa and Erbil Governates will receive similar kits along with robust tarpaulins and fixings to build emergency shelters. These kits will be for families on the move, expected to be outside the already over-subscribed displacement camps.

ACTED has secure warehouses where their logistics teams can store thousands of tents and kits. The ShelterBox tents arriving now are intended for use in ‘emergency camp’ settings – when the main camps are full or while they wait for those camps to be ready.

In whichever directions people flee Mosul, they will face exhausting journeys by foot across a hostile desert landscape. The longer fighting continues over coming weeks, the greater the chances of stormy weather and sub-zero night temperatures. Portable aid to shelter families on the move will be essential.

Rachel adds, ‘Some people have been displaced in the last couple of days as territory is reclaimed by coalition forces. But the majority of people in Mosul city remain trapped.’ No-one knows the actual number of civilians who have lived here under ISIL rule for the last two years, but it is estimated to be over a million, meaning hundreds of thousands may move suddenly into the desert if escape routes open up as a result of military action.   

Camps established by the United Nations are likely to be used first, and others are still being prepared. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that intensive efforts are being made to create much needed shelter capacity and to get infrastructure in place for emergency food distribution, water, sanitation, hygiene needs and healthcare.

But it is expected that camps will not be able to meet the need if and when very large numbers begin fleeing the conflict.

ShelterBox has planned ahead over months with ACTED, and has partners at work on the Syrian side of the border, including New Zealand based ReliefAid. Rachel says, ‘Good coordination will be key to the success of the humanitarian effort.’ 

Relief Aid Worker Killed By Sniper In Aleppo

ReliefAid chief speaks after one of his Aleppo aid colleagues was killed by a sniper. ShelterBox’s partner charity welcomes ceasefire for Syrian families living in ‘hell on earth’

The Al Zubdia neighbourhood of southern Aleppo, near the ReliefAid offices where Karam died

The Al Zubdia neighbourhood of southern Aleppo, near the ReliefAid offices where Karam died

A little over a week ago aid worker Karam died from a sniper’s bullet after working on the roof of his charity’s office in southern Aleppo. Now, with a tense and fragile ceasefire underway, his colleagues are calling on ‘all parties to take up this unique opportunity for peace.’

Executive Director of ReliefAid, Mike Seawright, describes the circumstances of the death of one of his aid team in Aleppo on Sunday 4 September. 

‘It was at our ReliefAid office in Al Zubdia neighbourhood. Karam was part of our team for the last year, conducting our neighbourhood aid distributions. After our previous office had been wrecked during an air strike he was fixing the water tank on the roof of the new office when he was shot by a sniper. Karam was rushed to the local hospital where he underwent six hours of surgery, unfortunately succumbing to his injuries. His family and our team buried him the next day in a local neighbourhood garden.’

Karam (name changed for security reasons) leaves a wife and three daughters in East Aleppo (2, 7 and 10 years old), two sons in Lebanon (20 and 18 years old). He also had family in West Aleppo, and was a citizen of Aleppo city.

Mike Seawright adds, ‘The local neighbourhood gardens used to be places where children play. Now they are graveyards, filled by the very community to whom they used to bring solace and tranquillity.’

Mike Seawright, Executive Director of ReliefAid.

Mike Seawright, Executive Director of ReliefAid.

‘Delivering aid in war zones presents many challenges, and while we accept the risks associated with this work it is a complete shock to us when we lose one of our own. Karam’s humanitarian ethos and efforts supported the delivery of life-saving support to over 24,000 people living in East Aleppo, the most war torn city in the world. He represented the very best of Syria, where communities help communities, families help families, and Syrians irrespective of background help one another.’

‘Inspiringly while the death of our friend and work mate has saddened us, and our teams are aware of the risks they face, unanimously and without pause they are continuing our life-saving work. While we face many challenges delivering war zone aid, I am constantly motivated by a team that, even in the face of personal danger and loss, continue to support their communities. Families experience acute needs within the city, and our teams stand ready to assist those in dire need.’

A nationwide ceasefire in Syria, brokered by the United States and Russia, came into effect on Monday evening, with aid agencies preparing to send food and medical supplies to besieged Aleppo. Turkish sources said over thirty aid trucks, under UN supervision, were ready to deliver humanitarian supplies to the city.

‘In a war which is targeting civilians and humanitarian workers on a daily basis we welcome the recent cessation of hostilities. If held, the ‘cease-fire’ will have a positive impact on over one million people living in Aleppo City. On behalf of Syrian families living in what can only be described as ‘hell on earth’ we call on all parties to take up this unique opportunity for peace.’

Moving tributes were also paid by Karam’s work colleagues. They said:

‘He was so kind to me, he would take me to his house to eat cooked food as I am single and don’t know how to cook.’

‘We lose friends every day. This is not the first time but we are feeling so bad. There is no escape, this is our life.’

‘I want only one thing, I want to die in dignity on my ground. I can’t see any more children die in bad ways as the world sits idly by watching.’

ShelterBox has worked with New Zealand-based ReliefAid over a long period, and most recently provided 4,000 aid packages to families in Aleppo. The kits provided are a mix of essentials including water purification equipment, jerry cans, mats, solar lamps, tarpaulins, mosquito nets and kitchen sets.

‘We are waiting to die.’ Aleppo aid workers heartfelt plea, ahead of World Humanitarian Day – 19th August

In the week when the UN calls for a more humane world, ShelterBox partner, ReliefAid hears a graphic description of the fear and suffering inside war-shattered Aleppo. With 150 air strikes in a day, and aid workers, their families and buildings in constant peril, they warn ‘nowhere is safe

A Syrian mother and her child carry a shelter kit in the streets of Aleppo

The United Nations’ World Humanitarian Day is held every year on 19 August to pay tribute to aid workers who risk their lives in humanitarian service, and to mobilise people to advocate for a more humane world.

It falls as the Syrian city of Aleppo is still crumbling under continuous bombing, its people barely coping with a lack of electricity, clean water, fuel or affordable food.

New Zealand-based ReliefAid has a team based in Aleppo, many of them with their families. Like two million others who remain in Aleppo, they are now trapped in a besieged city amid escalating fighting. Only days ago they were distributing the last of a consignment of aid from international disaster relief agency ShelterBox, a total of 4,000 kits over the last six months, able to help over 24,500 people. The last 1,500 – a mix of life-saving essentials including water purification equipment, jerry cans, mats, solar lamps, tarpaulins, mosquito nets and kitchen sets – were delivered to families shortly after the closure of the arterial Castello Road cut Aleppo off from aid and from the outside world.

Executive Director of ReliefAid, Mike Seawright is in Turkey, and in constant touch with his team in Aleppo. Today he told Larry Williams of New Zealand’s ‘Newstalk ZB’ radio station, Yesterday alone my team reported 150 air strikes. I talk to my team on a daily basis, and they are part of the community. Their homes are getting hit, their markets are getting attacked. Last week our office was hit in a strike that was targeting the building next door.’ 

They hit the building beside us, and the effect of that is that we’ve had to move to a new location in the city. And literally two days later there was a gas attack on that neighbourhood. So nowhere is safe.’

‘And in some cases first responders, for example the ‘white helmets’ who go and get people out of buildings after they’ve been attacked and destroyed, appear to have been deliberately targeted in follow-up attacks. There is no respect for the humanitarian space inside Aleppo city.

Mike reports a conversation with one of the ReliefAid team that paints a bleak picture. ‘My team have families within the city. There has been a complete loss of faith in the international community to react to what has been a systematic campaign to destroy east Aleppo. I was talking to one of my team and his view, which is very pessimistic, is that we are waiting to die. Waiting for our tomb, for when the air strike hits us.’           

World Humanitarian Day is marked every year with events held around the world. Under the banner of ‘One Humanity’ the UN and its partners hope to inspire greater global action for the 130 million people affected by conflict and disaster.   

In New York a special event will be held at the General Assembly tomorrow from 6:30 to 9:00 pm. Hala Kalim and her four children, whose arduous journey from Aleppo to Germany was featured in the documentary ‘Children of Syria’, will attend. They will tell the world their story of the impossible choices they faced living in, and fleeing, Syria. A wreath-laying ceremony will also be held at the UN Headquarters to honour aid workers who lost their lives in humanitarian service.

ShelterBox/Relief Aid shelter kit being distributed in Aleppo

A truck left ShelterBox HQ in Cornwall, UK this morning loaded with aid for Syria – kitchen sets and 980 tarpaulins. It will meet up with another consignment containing 2,000 shelter kits. Another ShelterBox truckload is already en route across Europe with 4,860 tarpaulins.

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