By Loubna Aljoura in Syria
“During seven years as a Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteer I have never experienced anything like this before.” Waseem Atassi, a soft-spoken young first aider from Homs sighs and looks down at the floor. “We have responded to emergencies earlier, helping refugees from Lebanon in 2006 and from Iraq, but it was not like this.”
Homs Branch of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) is a hive of activity as it responds to the unrest across the country. First aid teams arrive to be briefed in the operations room; the latest emergency response needs are evaluated; and next door, 20 new volunteers are taking part in first aid training. The presence of the Homs branch in the streets has led to a surge in new volunteers. 60 have already been trained in basic first aid and disaster management, and how to work in accordance with the Red Cross Red Crescent fundamental principles, and many more are lining up. Advanced first aid training is now also offered by the branch.
When the civil unrest in Syria reached Homs, current and former SARC volunteers flocked to the branch. 70 people trained in advanced first aid organized themselves in teams, and started refreshing their knowledge in preparation for their mission.
Since then the response has been more thoroughly organized. The SARC in Homs has responded by mobilizing first aid teams in the city and in the surrounding countryside. The teams provide first aid on the spot, evacuate the wounded and transport them for medical care.
The volunteers – many of them medical students – have been working in shifts to provide services around the clock. The branch also launched a hotline service for people to easily reach the first aid teams. Despite their dedication, it is still a challenge to reach everyone who needs help; volunteers sometimes get five calls at the same time, but the branch has only three ambulances with which to respond.
The situation in Syria can be stressful for volunteers. “It has not been easy,” says Waseem, who has been part of the response since the very beginning. “The principles of the Red Cross Red Crescent movement both protect us and serve us. Because of our neutrality and impartiality we are protected and we can reach out to all people who need our help.”
Reem Alnablsi, disaster management coordinator in Homs branch, says SARC has the trust of the communities in Syria and this means it can work where others cannot go. “In Tel Kalakh, a charity clinic was closed because of the situation on the ground. Homs branch agreed with the local community to open it as a SARC clinic, and send SARC doctors to provide medical care to the population affected by the unrest.”
The Red Cross Red Crescent principles, especially neutrality and impartiality, are also adhered to during the relief response, Alnablsi says: “Homs branch has so far distributed food and hygiene parcels, cans of baby milk, mattresses, and blankets to the most vulnerable among the internally displaced.
“The volunteers in Homs understood from the outset that action is the only way to uphold the principles and to be perceived as neutral among all sides,” says Åsa Erika Jansson, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) country representative in Syria. “Despite the very difficult situation, Homs branch has responded in a terrific way.”
In support of SARC, the IFRC included Syria in its regional appeal Middle East and North Africa: Civil unrest MDR82001 in mid-May, which will be used primarily to provide ambulances and food assistance. Recently, IFRC has undertaken joint field visits with SARC to Dara’a, Jisr al Shughur and neighboring villages; to Homs governorate including Tel Kalakh; and to one of the most affected areas inside Homs city.
Since the beginning of the unrest, SARC headquarters has distributed through its branches 22,925 food parcels, 10,000 hygiene parcels, 6,194 kilos of baby milk, 3,260 mattresses, 3,884 blankets as well as jerry cans, kitchen sets, medicine, children diapers, first aid consumables, and stretchers.