It is three years since I started my first appeal to collect life-saving winter aid to support people fleeing ISIS in the Middle East. In this time we have sent 39 lorries of aid to Iraq, 35 containers of aid to Syria, 11ambulances to Syria and a container of aid to Jordan, and we have a couple more to go in the next few weeks. We have two hospitals in Syria which we started from scratch with our expert teams on the ground, and we now have a big vision to build a critical care hospital in Syria providing specialist intensive care services which are so desperately needed now. Thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone who has helped. I could never ever have imagined when I first started asking friends to donate clothes where this journey would lead me.
Three years ago I was so moved by the plight of ordinary people who had fled their homes in Iraq and Syria. Their neighbours and family members had been killed, kidnapped, girls were taken and sold as slaves, then sexually and physically abused. Many of the acts that people fled from are simply unspeakable. Yet we do need to speak about it as they are still taking place in the Middle East and around the world: the world we are living in. Our world. Our global community. These people are our neighbours. Whatever the colour of their skin or the language that they speak, they are our brothers and sisters. They are our families.
Empires rise and fall, nations are formed and then divided, and rulers and governments come and go. But there is one thing that remains the same through all of these changes: change only happens when someone takes responsibility for making it happen, when someone takes a stand against injustice, and when someone takes on a journey to change something that breaks their heart. That someone could be you.
It is easy to close our eyes when we see suffering. It is easy to turn off the TV if the images are disturbing, and it is easy to scroll past if the message is challenging. But in the words of a wise man, Edward Burke
"The only thing that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."
Millions of ordinary people including innocent children are still suffering the consequences of the kind of depravity that violent groups like this have and continue to inflict on people.
In Syria there are many groups carrying out the same atrocities against humanity. They have different names, but they are all different covers of the same book. The devastation they create is the same wherever they go and there are still enormous numbers of innocent people trapped in areas that these groups have taken by force. One of the differences between ISIS and some of the other groups with similar ideologies is their method of achieving their goals, and the way they produce and publicise their propaganda.
There have been so many articles demonstrating how sophisticated ISIS were in producing their propaganda and videos. The aim of their propaganda was clear: they wanted to demonstrate their ability to carry out the most hideous crimes against humanity, in graphic detail, to create fear. They took full responsibility for their acts. The other jehadist groups in Syria who go under different names have the same level of sophistication and ability when it comes to making their propaganda. But one of the big differences is the aim and the nature of their propaganda. Their propaganda aims to deceive, to influence opinions, and to achieve their goals through means that they wouldn't otherwise have the ability or resources to achieve on their own.
When these jehadist groups take areas, most of the people who are able to, flee. Many have no opportunity to pack, they are lucky if they manage to leave with all of their family members. Time and time again, the displaced families I visited in Syria told me how these groups arrived in their neighbourhoods where they had lived all their lives. They began beheading and killing people, forcing others into slavery. They destroyed simply for the sake of destroying, created fear and suffering simply for the sake of trying to take power and control. These fighters forced ordinary families from their homes, killing many of them, so that they could live in their homes instead.
But there were also many people that these jehadist groups did not allow to leave. The simple yet heart breaking fact is that these ordinary people: families, young children and babies, are more useful to them as human shields. The presence of these innocents among their fighters makes it so much harder to remove these jehadist groups from the homes of the Syrian people which were taken unlawfully and by force. This is one of the many, many reasons that we see such long, bloody and devastating battles in Syria. The situation there is so incredibly complicated.
I remember one older man in his seventies that I took aid to while I was in Syria (video below). He was living in an abandoned school with his wife, his son, and 28 other displaced families who had fled Aleppo six years before. He had lived in East Aleppo all his life and had married late. He had a successful business with a number of shops and a small factory making shoes.
Fighters came to their neighbourhood then started killing people. They took his business and assets, and took their homes by force, kidnapping people and taking young girls for their fighters to abuse. They took ordinary people and turned them into slaves for their families. These fighters kidnapped this man, his wife and son and kept them imprisoned in one room for three months. When opposing forces launched a counter attack to free these people, they found an opportunity to escape. His son was just 6 years old at the time.
I was so moved by this ordinary man and his story. He was so open as I asked questions about his life and experiences of the war. Since our meeting, I have wondered so many times how he explained these events to his son, and whether his little boy has nightmares now after such an ordeal. Many of the families I talked with in that school broke down in tears as they recounted their stories.
After we finished talking I asked if it was appropriate for me to hug him, as he is Muslim and in Syrian culture men and women do not hug unless they are family. But I felt so moved by this poor man and his experiences. He told me I was like his daughter as we hugged and he showered my head with kisses.
Later, after we had visited all the displaced families in this abandoned school, he came to me as we were about to get into the car to leave. I will never forget his parting words to me.
"Before the war we were happy. We had everything we needed. Life was good. Now everything is bad and we have nothing."
"I like you, and I think the people in the UK are good people. But will you please, tell your people to stop supporting the terrorists?"
These were such hard-hitting words to hear from an old man who has lost everything. Seeing the reality of his life and his situation, and even worse knowing that many Syrian people believe that our Western governments are responsible for a significant amount of the suffering they are going through. This was a truly humbling encounter and it was hard to find an appropriate response. Sadly, this old man's story is one of so many with huge similarities in Syria.
These human shields are also tragically and horrifically abused in the making of sickening propaganda videos that these groups and their supporters produce to provoke pressure on their opposition. These groups have no respect for human life at all, at any level. The old and the young are all useful and their lives are disposable in their eyes.
It is so hard to acknowledge and accept that we are living in parallel worlds, that exist in the same world. While we are living in comfort, freedom, safety, and security, children in Syria can be abused, with the specific purpose of provoking an emotional response that will put pressure on their opposition.
The Syrian people have been living with this reality for years and are still living with it. What they have become accustomed to seeing with their own eyes, taking place around them is different from what we are presented with through images and videos in our media. Our mainstream media are either scarily unaware of the nature of what they receive and produce in relation to the Syrian conflict, or complicit in giving a platform to the propaganda campaigns of groups which are a far cry from the so called freedom fighters that we have been told about so many times. Both are so dangerous with a significant cost to human life.
The one message from our mainstream media that I agree with about Syria is that the people are suffering. Senselessly, and unnecessarily. There is no justifiable reason or excuse for this prolonged and intense suffering. None at all.
This man is one of the 6.3 million internally displaced people inside Syria. He is a refugee in his own country with no home or life to return to, and he is one of the many, many people in desperate need of support. We distributed winter clothes to all of the displaced families living in this abandoned school earlier this year, just before it snowed there. They had little or no ability to heat their rooms, and they had had a hepatitis A
outbreak resulting from lack of sanitation and clean water. When our team went to distribute, there were rats running across the floor.
We plan to help many more families like this in the Middle East this winter, but to do so we need your help. Our appeals work through ordinary people like you and me, collecting aid in our communities. Clothes make a great start, but we also ask people to collect other essential items. However, we have very specific processes that we ask all our collectors to adhere to, so please request an information pack and ensure that you have registered with us first. All the details of how to do this are in our information pack which you can request here www.samarasaidappeal.org/collectors
We also need people to help us raise funds for the new critical care hospital we are building in Syria. This is a huge project and we need as much support as we can find. www.samarasaidappeal.org/jerusalem-hospital
If you have collected for us before, you will need to read our new information pack and register again as our processes have changed to ensure that we are serving these people to the best of our ability and means.
Thanks so much to everyone who has helped so far to make this work what it is. It is only you that makes it possible.