Eight years ago, I was living in Damascus. Before arriving in 2010, I had only visited the Middle East once and had little knowledge of Syria’s people, pace and politics. My overriding impression was people’s kindness. Food was made to be shared and doors were open to strangers. By February 2011, I had spent five months trying to learn Arabic at Damascus University.
Just one month later, change was in the air. On Fridays the streets switched from being filled with backgammon players and mint-tea drinkers to a place for protests; both pro and anti-Government. In May 2011 British nationals were advised by the UK Foreign Office to leave, and with that most went, including me.
Eight years have gone since I lived in Damascus. In that time the lives of millions of Syrians have been shattered, families have been torn apart and, in some cases, wiped out. The international community has wrestled unsuccessfully with a political process to piece Syria back together, wavering between condemnation and acceptance of the Assad regime. More than half of Syria’s population have had to flee their home. Many have been internally displaced to areas like Idlib. 5.6 million people have left as refugees. 400,000 people have been killed. Syrian children under 8 have only ever known a country in conflict. Some do not know their country at all, never mind what a classroom looks like.*
Yet in these eight years there has also been a phenomenal show of solidarity and support, even when the challenges of getting aid to those who need it are extreme. Civil Society Organisations, charities and NGOs have sprung up amongst a Syrian diaspora determined not to ignore those in need. The Hands Up Foundation is one of the international organisations that is focused on providing hope in the face of one of the worst humanitarian crises our world has seen.
Having returned to London that May in 2011, I watched with growing sadness and a sense of helplessness as the news and footage from Syria got increasingly worse. This beautiful country which had been my home for a short time was being torn apart. I felt powerless to help and devastated for my Syrian friends until, in 2012, three friends and I decided to do something. We started holding Syrian Supper Clubs to raise funds for Syrians who had been bombed out of their homes, and in 2014 having raised £60,000, we registered Hands Up as a charity.
In the last eight years we have raised over £4 million through fundraising campaigns designed to give people a positive way of doing something to help: Syrian Supper Club, Singing for Syrians and Marmalaid. We have rolled a whole heap of falafel and sung our hearts out. The money raised is concentrated on salaries for doctors and teachers, the idea being to encourage professionals to stay in Syria and deliver vital health and education services. In the last year alone we helped over 58,000 Syrians, funding the salaries of 22 medical staff, 17 teachers, schooling for 1,000 children, Prosthetic Limbs for over 300 amputees and 57,000 medical consultations.
While I am extraordinarily proud of the support we give to thousands of Syrians, the reason Hands Up continues to exist is sobering. Even now, the number of Syrians in need of humanitarian aid is estimated to be 13.1 million. While that number is hard to visualise, it is real, as are the people behind it. Mothers, sons, doctors, teachers, engineers, artists, cleaners, nurses, shop owners… They are people like you and me and they are relying on us not to forget, even when the headlines focus elsewhere, the challenges of reaching the right people are multiple and the numbers involved are too big and too awful to face. I believe that we all have the power to do something. As we reach the eight-year mark of this bitter conflict, I am asking you to raise your hand to do something positive to help. Donate. Host your own event. Attend one of ours. Or simply spread the word, you can follow us on the handles below.
Over the next six weeks we are running a campaign online with the hashtag #8yearsgone to remind people not to forget Syria and that there are simple ways to help. We want and need as many people as possible to be involved. There are Syrian Supper Clubs taking place in London and Bristol, there’ll be Singing for Syrians events coming up and lots more. Please follow us and share #8yearsgone.
*Statistics from the UNHCR