A warehouse built from scratch – and an unusual wedding day

Published: 14 October 2014 16:18 CET

By Basem Zghaibeh, Syrian Arab Red Crescent

“The early days were hectic. Our first warehouse opened on New Year’s Day 2013, and we had just 7 staff, including the guards. We were working long hours –18 hour days, one after another. In the first year we didn’t take days off. There were no weekends, not even Fridays, which are holy days on which everyone rests. For the first year it was mostly volunteers. In a way this was good, because the commitment needed to run this warehouse was beyond that of a job. Somehow this became our strength; the volunteers wanted to keep going.

For 14 years, I was a Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteer myself, working with the disaster management team, including through the Lebanon and Iraq crises. My staff position as a warehouse manager is more challenging in a way because I have responsibility for such a big team. I need to train and develop people whilst simultaneously running a large operation.

Our operation quadrupled in the first 8 months of the current Syria Crisis. Now, 18 months on, we have three times as many workers and over eight times as much warehouse space, with even more space for temporary warehouses.

The most rewarding moments are when we have access and are able to send goods to hard-to-reach areas. Also whenever there is a sudden influx of internally displaced people (IDPs) from one area or another, we can now respond within 24 hours, sometimes even within seven or eight hours. In Adra, we got an emergency request at midnight, gathered local volunteers, loaded trucks, and started delivering food parcels, hygiene kits, tarpaulins and blankets to people in Adra only eight hours later. Previously, we had not been able to access this area for eight months. This whole operation happened one night before New Year’s Eve. Despite the early start, everyone returned the following day to prepare aid for distributions in Homs and Idlib.

Now, the operation is running more smoothly: we are able to pay staff, since the warehouse overheads are covered by the German Red Cross; we have more capacity; and we can work more manageable hours. We can handle 40 trucks per day within normal working hours, which is a much better situation.

The warehouse is just one part of the logistics solution. We’d like to see this level of development for all the branches and warehouses, so we are all using the same system. Ideally, we would like to establish more hubs. This goal requires funding and support.

We started from scratch, with no existing warehouses. The crisis forced the national society to establish such a hub. Now we are constantly trying to increase our capacity. We would like to see the development expand to other branches to create a common logistics framework.

In contrast to the increasing smoothness of our warehouse operations, working here created two personal problems – with my family and my wife! During my first year, I didn’t see my parents at all. They live next door, but my hours were both too early and too late to visit. Sarah, my wife, was a volunteer as well but she worked in relief, a different area. When I was loading, she was distributing – we never saw each other! The timing wasn’t good for our relationship. Now Sarah works at the warehouse so we can be together.

Sarah is the admin and finance officer at Tartous officer, and is married to Basem. She explains the situation from her perspective:

“We were working in different places. We never saw each other. Now I see my husband, but we always talk about work! I oversee the processing of paperwork and reports for every shipment coming in and going out. The job is satisfying because I know everything we do is for our people – people in need.

Part of my role is ensuring good product quality. After transit, we have to make sure the aid items are fit for human consumption and arrive intact.

Basem and I actually got married during the crisis, just 2 years ago. Basem was already a volunteer with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, and so I joined too.

On our wedding day, we did a distribution, but told everyone, “we have to leave at 14.30 because we’re getting married.” We went to a hotel with family members in Mashta Helo for the ceremony, and returned to the warehouse that evening to prepare a relief distribution for that area. First thing the following morning, we got a phone call pleading, “we have a huge number of internally displaced people’, can you help?” We spent our first day together as a married couple distributing aid. People were congratulating us during the operation. Not what we were expecting!

We still have not had a honeymoon! But at least now Basem is not working 18 hour days, and we have our evenings together.

Basem Zghaibeh is the warehouse manager for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) warehouse hubs in Tartous.