By Iliana Mourad
AMMAN, December 2012 - In Syria, life can be schizophrenic at times. I was travelling with colleagues outside Damascus one day. We were riding in office vehicles, and on one side of the road we could see people shooting while on the opposite side others were going about their normal business as if nothing was happening. It was like a sci-fi movie.
Every morning on the way to work I would see new buildings that have been hit by bombs – and I live in a relatively quiet neighbourhood where you only hear scattered shelling and shooting in the distance.
The conflict doesn’t stop us from working, but we are under constant stress because we always hear about bombings and shelling, and we know that, way too often, colleagues’ families are in areas where heavy fighting is taking place.
I have been working in emergencies for the past 12 years, in locations as diverse as Sierra Leone, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Syria is my 14th emergency country and the UNICEF team we have there is the best I have ever worked with.
A Syrian colleague asked me the other day: ‘Why do you stay here when many in Syria are trying to leave?” I guess watching the news about a country is one thing, being in that country is quite another. It’s not that I don’t feel fear - I just calculate the risks. There’s a lot of work to be done, and we are committed enough to do it.
I also feel safer than some of my other international colleagues because I speak the language. I think understanding the environment gives me an extra edge. I would probably feel more threatened if I didn’t know what was going on around me.
I was on a field mission to Tartous early November to monitor a distribution of children’s winter clothes, blankets and hygiene kits. We worked with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) to distribute these supplies which went out to displaced persons from Homs and Aleppo.
Tartous, a city on Syria’s coast, is still quite safe compared to Damascus. But on the way back one of the UNICEF cars was shot at. No-one was hurt, but of course it was very stressful.
The people I really feel for are our national colleagues. Their world has gone upside down and they are watching their country descend into chaos. Some of them have suffered tragedy in their extended families, and many have had to move houses various times to escape the violence.
Despite the dangers, UNICEF is still getting a lot done in Syria – distributing winter clothes and blankets, helping children to stay in school, giving basic vaccinations, providing safe water and much more.
We have also been able to strengthen partnerships with SARC and with the Ministries we work with, as well as increase the amount of vital goods distributed. We’re scaling up our response, and although things are moving slower than we would like, they are still going in the right direction. This is a huge emergency and any success in these conditions is quite encouraging.
I am now in Amman following the UN decision to temporarily draw down some of its staff from Syria, and I can tell you this much: I can’t wait to go back!
Iliana has been on post to Syria since September 2012. Her work entails coordinating field operations and emergency distributions, as well as working with partners to monitor activities. We spoke to her during a recent visit to Amman.