Last month, our Senior Consultant, Adil Aslam, made the journey from the UK to the Turkey/Syria border to support SKT Welfare’s winter emergency response. With our charity sabbatical in place, we were only too happy to provide Adil with the time off he needed to provide in-person support to a cause that means a great deal to him and so many others.
Here, Adil shares his story in his own words, and he’d like to start that story by offering a message of support to the people of Ukraine. Having witnessed first-hand the devastation and disastrous consequences of war, he hopes for a peaceful resolution to this conflict as soon as possible.
Throughout my life, I have always tried to be as charitable as possible. One of the five pillars of Islam – my religion – is ‘Zakat’, a mandatory process for Muslims that involves donating 2.5% of total savings and wealth to the less fortunate, once a year. To me, this seemed the bare minimum I could do, and I always felt the need to do more.
Inspired by a family member who travelled to the Turkey/Syria border earlier this year, her stories and videos made me want to travel out myself and hand-deliver aid – so, I signed myself up for SKT’s February Winter Warmth Deployment and started fundraising!
On Sunday 20th February, I flew into Turkey with a team of volunteers and, from there, we caught a connecting flight to our home for the week: Hatay Reyhanli. Hatay is normally off-limits to UK travellers, but we were granted an exception by the UK Foreign Office because of our intention to deliver humanitarian support.
On our first full day in Hatay, we met the SKT Turkish team who would be working and looking after us: four Turkish citizens and three Syrian refugees who had fled Syria themselves when the conflict began. They explained how their own families are still living in Syria and cannot leave because of the ongoing conflict. It was heart breaking to hear how they have been separated from their children, wives and parents with no clear way of reuniting. You can see the work the team are doing here is very close to heart and, despite their own troubles, they work day and night to support the families that have made it across the border.
After introductions, we were given the itinerary for the week and a rundown of the rules. While the city we stayed in was largely peaceful, it’s close to the border, so there’s always a contact threat of attack, and airstrikes in Syria can often be felt from our hotel.
Once we were briefed, we made a start on our first task, travelling to a nearby warehouse to pack some 1,200 food parcels for delivery to the Syrian refugees throughout the week. We had to be meticulous to ensure all the items fit into the boxes provided. Each box contained a bottle of olive oil and another of vegetable oil; tins of tomatoes and green peas; red and green lentils; chickpeas, bulgur wheat, rice and pasta; flour and sugar; tea; and finally, some sweets – which we packed last so it could be the first thing the children saw when they opened their box.
On average, a box will feed a family of five for a whole month. As we stood looking at the boxes, it was very humbling to think back home in the UK, this would probably last us barely a week, but here it had to stretch to a month.
The second day started with some aches and pains from the heavy lifting the day before. On the plus side, it was our first chance to meet the Syrian refugees in person, so all that discomfort faded away very quickly.
After loading around 700 food parcels onto trucks, we travelled down to a stadium close by for refugees to collect their parcels. I’d been wondering how the charity decide who gets a food parcel, and took the chance to speak to the SKT operations director, who talked me through the process.
Their system identifies different categories of people in need, and ensures parcels are shared equally amongst them, using sequence numbers to ensure everyone receives a parcel at the same frequency. When someone is selected to receive a parcel, they’re sent a text message and given a card with a QR code that holds all their information, using that and their ID to collect their parcel.
By the time we arrived at the stadium, the queues for the food parcels were already stretching back beyond the stadium doors. With the help of a translator, I got to speak to the refugees who had been waiting, many of whom had successful careers before the conflict began – engineers, nurses, programmers… One man spoke of how grateful he was for the parcel, yet how worried he was about how long it would last.
While parents waited in line, we took the opportunity to play with the children. For me, that wasn’t easy – it was all so unfair on them, and I found it hard to be cheerful, but our group leader explained how, despite everything, they still have the biggest smiles. We shouldn’t take that away from them and stand there and be glum when we live such privileged lives. That certainly changed my outlook.
Mid-way through our mission, we travelled to the village of Bukulmez, a stone’s throw away from the border, with another truck loaded with food parcels.
There, we followed the same structure as the day before, checking documents, handing out parcels and entertaining the kids. We met many extremely intelligent children – they had memorised the whole Quran off by heart. For context, the Quran has 6,236 verses and 114 chapters and it usually takes many years of practice to achieve this. It was an honour to be able to meet these children and hear their beautiful recitation of the Quran.
Later that day, we went to visit one of the camps where the refugees had been staying, and I could feel my stomach aching as it hit me that the tarpaulin covers masquerading as tents was where the refugees were living. As we parked up, I was preparing myself to smile, as the children there were before we even got out of the van.
Talking and playing with the children, I wished we could communicate better so I could ask about their hobbies and interests. We handed out gloves, socks, and jackets to the children in the camp, and to see how happy they were with this small gesture made me realise how ungrateful I can be in my own life. As I have grown, my ambitions have also grown; it’s easy to want a new house, a new car, a promotion at work, but in this moment, I realised none of that really matters. My house and car are literally a dream for the people in this camp.
On our final couple of days, we visited more families who had been displaced from their homes due to the conflict. We met a lady whose building was hit by a mortar strike; on her way out of the building with her kids, she saw two children who had just lost their parents due to the strike. From that moment on, she took those children with her and acted as if they were her own.
In such difficult times, it would be very easy for people to be selfish and only look out for themselves but this story – and many others like it – shows that even in these dark times, the people of Syria have opened their arms to look after each other and I hope we can continue to do our best to help them, too.
As our visit drew to a close, we made one final visit: the Springs of Hope Orphan Centre. They provide shelter, food and safety to refugee families, helping them transition from the camps into family centres where they have their own rooms, a communal eating area and access to education. Visiting the orphanage made me believe that, despite everything that’s on going, there is an opportunity for these families to be together again and try to return to some form of normality.
What I witnessed on my visit to the border was a very small percentage of the crisis. The work the SKT team are doing is amazing and it was an honour to be able to join them, and to meet and talk with Syrian refugees – a shining light and a reminder to us all of how grateful we should be for all we have. Thank you to each and every person that helped us raise £15,000 for this fantastic cause.