Disclaimer: this blog is deferred due to lack of wifi while in Syria. Also, it is extremely difficult to fit in every single detail that occurred during this journey so I sincerely apologize in advance for anything I have unintentionally left out.
Rise and shine! I awake to the sounds of bombs, just the same as the ones I fell asleep to. No shower and no change of clothes (actually, I slept and stayed in the same clothes my entire time in Syria). Splash some water on my face and brush my teeth. A lovely breakfast is prepared, the men enter the room and we eat. Then Ziad asks me: “what is your purpose here?” And so I explain: “I’m not here to give money. I’m here to find the needs and see if I can fill them. I would like to purchase food for everyone and toys for the kids”. Nesrin mentions visiting the hospital to see what it is they may need in hopes that we can help there as well. So we begin our day by visiting the local hospital….
They don’t have much and most of the medicine they do have is outdated and/or expired. The man managing the hospital states: “a majority of the supplies we receive are either expired or already opened”. How frustrating! I walk around looking at everything… Blood stains on the floors and dirty beddings but I’m surprised to see how well organized they are.
They show me 5 different rooms:
1) emergency room (when the injured first arrive)
2) surgery room
3) respiratory/cardiac room
4) medication room (pharmacy)
5) office + additional medical supplies
The surgery room had two donations from the Hand and Hand Organization: a large light and operating chair/bed which helps a great deal AND they keep record of their incoming patients in a handwritten book. I was told by Nesrin via translation they have seen 5,000 patients to date and in this current month, they have seen 1,300 patients so far. The manager shares: “At first the sick wouldn’t come here. They would hide in their homes with severe injuries in fear of the military… But now it is a little better”.
Before leaving the hospital, I go to the trunk and pull out two coloring books and coloring pencils from my backpack for the two children I saw standing around the hospital and handed it to them. Their blank stares turned into weary smiles…
Off we go to the market to purchase the goods in bulk and prepare the food bags by hand. After going to two different markets, we still can’t find one that has everything we need for our food bags. Thankfully the third market has everything so we create a hand written list of what we need and put in the order.
While the food is getting gathered and set aside for us, we go to exchange our money. Nesrin and I mistakenly exchanged our US dollars for Turkish Lira in Gaziantep, Turkey but fortunately that isn’t a problem. Phew! I ask Ahmad beforehand the value of one pound in exchange for a Turkish Lira and calculated the amount to know exactly how many Syrian pounds we should receive before arriving. Preparation is key. Knowledge is everything. We walk in, I sit and the man in the brown leather jacket begins counting the money.
If you can imagine being in a country not speaking a word of the native language, try it. Once you have tried it, I will tell you from first hand experience you have NO IDEA how it is unless you have experienced it firsthand. It is very difficult to deal with and requires a lot of trust between yourself and the translator. All I have: INSTINCTS. Nothing else. This other man shows up and sits across from me in a black robe holding prayer beads in his hand. It seems he is the one who finalizes the transaction. I take note. The Syrian pounds come out in bulk wrapped in rubber bands and I, without hesitation, begin counting the money (acting like I know what I’m doing). Fortunately, Ziad joins in on helping me count a few minutes later allowing me to stop. Thank goodness because I had lost count anyway. I keep my eye on everyone, especially the money and notice that they are discussing something else, something new other than the amount of money so I turn to Nesrin and say, “what’s going on?” And she says, “They are giving us six hundred…” I cut her off and say sternly so that the others around me notice, “if they won’t exchange it at the rate I have, then we aren’t doing the exchange here”. This is the part where I have no choice but to trust my instincts….
I come to find out that my calculation is for yesterdays currency exchange rate and today is different. I don’t care. I shrug my shoulders and say, “I’m here to help the Syrian refugees so if you aren’t going to help me then I can leave” and after Nesrin translates, the man in the black robe agrees or at least that’s what I assume because he signals to me with his hand to sit back down. I win.
And we are off, back to the market only to see that they aren’t done with our food order so Ziad asks if I’d like to go see some Syrian antiques and I say “sure, if there is enough free time” so back in the car we go…..
We arrive at a home and I see a handful of big Arab men. Yes big. Nesrin tells me that we are visiting members of “Jabhat al-Nusra”, I look utterly confused and say, “English??” And she giggles then says: “Jabhat al-Nusra are men that help protect Syria, the Syrian people and are apart of the Free Syrian Army”. Now this is going to be very interesting. Lucky me.
All the men I am with: Ziad, Ahmad, Aiman and Manar greet the Jabel Nasri shaking hands and making jokes. The Jabel Nasri are dressed in mostly black cargo looking pants and shirts with black scarfs tied around their heads. They are all loaded with guns and at first glance look extremely intimidating. Of course I walk up with my back straight, say “Salam” and continue following Ziad into a room. I begin to get excited noticing all the beautiful carpets inside as I quickly remove my boots before entering the room. By the time I take a seat on the floor, I see a few heads peaking into the room and realize they are children. Immediately I get up signaling to Manar that I need the car keys. He gets up, we both slip on our shoes and go to the trunk of the car. I grab a few coloring books, two boxes of coloring pencils and two tubes of Play-doh. I walk back in, sit down, spread out the coloring books, open one and start coloring. They kids start coming in, sit around and are quickly enamored by me.
One of the Jabhat al-Nusra bends down beside a boy who I assume is his son and speaks to him in Arabic holding a large bullet. Most of the men are laughing as they watch the older man urge the boy but this boy hardly notices his father or the bullet. He stares at me smiling, continues coloring though his dad keeps nagging him to take the bullet. In this moment, I feel as though we are in our own private bubble, completely unaware of our obnoxious war ridden environment. He never does take the bullet and I am grateful.
The Jabhat al-Nusra seem to be very proud of their boys knowing how to operate a gun. I suppose for them it’s a symbol of strength and endurance that their boys are trained to fight and defend. A older boy, probably around 9 or 10 years old is handed what looks like an assault rifle and begins to disengage it, pulling out the cartridge of bullets, etc etc.. I’m the only one in the room uninterested in this and hardly give the boy my attention. I’m certain the Jabhat al-Nusra are surprised by my lack of interest. Rather, I hand a new boy a few colored pencils and get his focus on the coloring book… on something other than the repulsive side effects of the civil war.
My stomach is sick at this point knowing that these men aren’t necessarily wrong for familiarizing their boys on the mechanics of a weapon which is technically considered as a form of protection for them. My heart aches. These poor children and their innocent spirits being dramatically altered by their current environment. A bomb drops in the distance and all the men get up to go see. I remain with the children.
Then Ziad and Ahmad peek their head in telling me to come out to see something. Of course I don’t understand as they are speaking in Arabic and Nesrin is already out so I slip on my boots and follow to see a large missile on the ground. Again I think to myself I don’t want to see any of this but realize it would be rude to not acknowledge it so I take one photo and continue walking behind on of the large Arab men who is now showing the back part of his home that was recently hit by a missile. I make a frown and sympathize. Again, I want to return to the children but I hold on tight out of respect. Suddenly I notice there are 4 teenage boys standing around staring at me. Oh goodness.
I casually and kindly make my way back to the children. I want to spend as much time with them as possible. I want to create a positive, happy and colorful memory for them. The more time the better.
The 4 teenage boys come in, start speaking to me in broken English extremely excited. I engage and they are smiling. They keep saying “American!” And “California!!!” While speaking to each other in Arabic. They ask to take a photo with me and we do. I feel slightly frustrated because communication is at a bare minimum since Nesrin isn’t in the room.
We leave and head back to the market. The food is being loaded into a truck. I become excited. It is happening! We are giving aid. Yes!!!! We take a few photos and decide to go grab the toys.
We arrive at a shop that is quite small, approximately 12″ x 6″ feet and I examine the toys. Then start pointing at what I want to purchase which happens to be the entire top row of toys. A trunk full of toys later, we are off to purchase medical supplies but realize we are running out of time. Ziad offers to give the money to the man who manages the hospital. I am hesitant of course. I have Nesrin translate verbatim how uncomfortable I feel and question this mans loyalty and integrity. Ziad affirms he is trustworthy and will provide a receipt. I agree on one condition – once he purchases the supplies, to come directly to Ziad’s home so I may view them personally. Done.
During our last stop before going back to the village, the men go into a market so Nesrin and I go into a small clothing shop. Minutes later, as we walk out, there are over a dozen of people surrounding us. We are in utter shock! It seems the word has gotten around of us “Americans” being in town and I am certain the amount of money that we’ve spent is known. At first, I feel honored by the attention but as the people begin to grow, I feel overwhelmed and think of the celebrities in the US who deal with worse crowds on a daily basis and think how thankful I am to not have to deal with it.
When we arrive home, the men go to take a break meaning sit around, smoke cigarettes and drink tea. Nesrin and I decide to say some prayers in the fields.
We both feel incredible for the work we have begun and what will come in the next 24 hours. Next thing you know most of the children from the village are running towards us and what happens in the next hour will be a memory forever embedded in my heart.