Hearing the stories of our partners on the ground has been heart-breaking. But I have the luxury of hearing them from the safety of London, far away from the terror of tremors and aftershocks, from the constant fear of the roof overhead caving in. It is not my family who have lost their lives, or are living in the street having been made homeless by the brutal earthquakes which hit the Turkey Syria border over the last few weeks.
It is in recognition of this distance that we at Hands Up structure our funding. We listen to our partners and respond first and foremost to their identification of the most essential needs on the ground. They are members of the communities they serve and see the requirements day in and day out. With their expertise and experience, we work collaboratively to channel funds to where they are most needed, meaning the impact of any donation is maximised.
Omar, the Grants and Partnerships Manager for our long-standing partner, Physicians Across Continents (PAC) drove this point home; he said “For us, one thousand unlocked funds are better than one million locked.” Hands Up supply the foremost, asking our partners what they need and how we can help, prior to drawing up the grant agreements that stipulate the terms of the grant. This means that essential needs are not overlooked or restricted by locked funding and left to proliferate.
Without you, our donors, none of this would be possible. There would be no funds to send to support our partners, and we would have no real way of helping them. We believe it is so important for you to understand the situation our partners and the communities they serve face and the reality to which your donations arrive. This post is a summary of a recent call we had with PAC.
“Any sound, any truck movement in the street causes terror and panic.”
Omar began our call by recounting the sheer magnitude of anxiety currently felt among the population. Despite being advised to return to their houses, people remain terrified of further aftershocks, and the very real possibility of their home collapsing. Many are taking to the streets, viewing them as the safest place to be. Although this, of course, presents further risks, such as hypothermia, as people are exposed to freezing temperatures overnight.
Following the most recent earthquake, Omar received over 20 calls from his colleagues in north-west Syria asking if he had any way of providing tents for their children. Desperate to provide shelter for their loved ones, before returning to work the next day to support the rest of the community, these parents had nowhere else to turn. Even with his links to the UN, however, Omar was still unable to provide these tents. Unfortunately, tents are not the only thing lacking.
For north-west Syria, severe shortages are nothing new. Throughout the conflict, due to the deeply divided political landscape, providing aid has been extremely challenging. Until just weeks ago, UN aid only had one route into the north-west. This comes within a wider context of woefully insignificant international support to Syria as a whole; in 2022, of the £3.7bn needed by the UN to meet increasing requirements, less than half was received1. People living there have been left to struggle for years, but with the earthquake a turning point was reached, and people like Omar’s colleagues are the ones to suffer this catastrophic blow.
This magnitude of humanitarian needs has not been seen anywhere in the world in over a decade, since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan2. However, Syria’s complex humanitarian and political landscape means that the lack of aid arriving, and the difficulties involved in delivering it, are only exacerbating the disaster2. With a lack of medication and sanitation, lives will be lost, and communicable diseases such as cholera, respiratory infections and tetanus, provided with a perfect playground.
Having funded prosthetics projects in Syria for the past eight years, Hands Up has first-hand experience of the vital need for prostheses. Even before the earthquake there were an estimated 50,000 amputees in Syria3, although in reality this number was likely far higher. With the destruction of the earthquake, tragically now many more people have lost limbs. For now, however, the number of new amputees from the earthquake remains unknown while the main focus is on emergency response; as Omar said, “right now, we are in the life-saving stage.”
With our UK based partner, Koalaa, and PAC, we will continue our prosthetics programme to respond to these needs. Unfortunately, this exemplifies the necessity of long-term support. Although Syria will once again be lost from the headlines, as people forget the catastrophe of the earthquake, those caught in its calamity will not have the same luxury. It is a burden they will bear for life. With your help, we will be there for them, providing the services necessary to bring stability to the community and recover from such terrible loss.
Lack of Vital Medical Equipment
Medical equipment in a disaster area is crucial, particularly when dwindling supplies are the status quo. After an earthquake, dialysis kits are vital in post-traumatic critical care. Acute renal failure is a serious complication, which often comes as a result of crush injuries, or due to a severe loss of blood/ fluids. As you can imagine, there are thousands who have faced these kinds of injuries during the earthquake, and the needs are high. This increased demand comes in the context of a collapse in the WHO’s dialysis kit supply chain. With your incredible generosity, we have managed to provide our partner SAMS with 4,627 dialysis kits.
Lack of Baby Milk
Under Hands Up’s funding, PAC has been able to purchase 3,050 units of baby milk, which are now being delivered across 8 locations in Idlib and Aleppo (NW Syria) for orphaned babies and women who are unable to breastfeed. This nutritional formula will give these babies a stable form of nutrition and a fighting chance at life.
It is so important that a comprehensive and coordinated approach is taken to the delivery of aid, particularly in areas where there are already widespread humanitarian issues. If hearts are followed over heads, and unplanned aid is provided without appropriate planning and risk management, random distribution can do more bad than good. For example, the preparation of baby milk, without proper instructions and information, if done in an area where cholera and other water-borne diseases are present, can pose a life-threatening risk to the baby and their family, causing an outbreak in an already highly vulnerable community. Given the recent cholera outbreak in Syria, this threat is real and urgent. To prevent this, PAC have been working hard with the health cluster and local health authorities (“Health Clusters collectively prepare for and respond to humanitarian and public health emergencies”) to ensure any cases of random distribution are reported, but stopping all forms of distribution is far from the aim – particularly when they have the ability to save lives. Instead, PAC have used Hands Up’s funding to trigger a programme of non-random distribution. After supporting SAMS’ cholera prevention programme for so long, we are so proud to be able to help PAC in this too. As Omar said, communicable diseases “can lead to a dark tunnel” – in a situation already unimaginably bleak, there is still worse which could come. This is why our on-going support will be so vital.
The emergency is not over, but with your support we can help our partners to steer their communities away from this dark tunnel to a place of stability. Omar told us that everything NGOs in Syria have worked so hard for over the last 10 years, was undone on February 6th by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake. “Everything we worked on, we lost it.” We aim to support our partners to build back from this catastrophic loss, providing funding and with it, much needed hope. It will be a long road to recovery (years rather than months), but working collaboratively, we will get there step by step.