The United Nations says as many as 200,000 people have fled Aleppo, and thousands more are trapped inside Syria’s largest city, as air and ground forces of President Bashar al- Assad’s government pummel rebel targets. Our source, Abu Leila, purportedly is on the front lines of the crisis, where volunteers are pairing displaced families with temporary housing. Abu Leila is not our source’s real name. Read his testimony below.
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By Abu Leila in Aleppo, August 1, 2012
As the rest of the world watched the extravagant opening of the Olympic Games in London, a handful of local volunteer groups – many run by Aleppo’s young – opened dozens of local schools and several University of Aleppo dormitories to offer temporary housing to thousands of families fleeing the Syrian government tanks and helicopter gunships firing at rebel positions in many neighborhoods.Posts
While there are reports that many are escaping the city, the pace of the escalating violence is creating growing numbers of internally displaced people who are trying to find safe havens within Aleppo.
The number of Aleppo refugees cannot be verified because of the difficult circumstances related to the siege on certain neighborhoods and the chaos that has followed. In one small area north of the Aleppo Railway Station, more than 20,000 new refugees are expected in the coming days.
Many families fled as their homes were struck by shells. Some of the survivors ran to the homes of relatives and friends in neighborhoods that seemed relatively safer. Others grabbed whatever they could carry and sought shelter in one of more than 50 schools and in six University of Aleppo dormitories. During their summer recess, these teaching institutions have opened their doors to refugees from such targeted neighborhoods as Salahouddin, Mash’had, Ansari, Zebdiye, Succari, Kallaseh, Bustan Al Qasr, Firdus, Marjeh, Bab Al Nerab, Al Qaterji, Myassar, Sha’ar, Tariq Al Bab, Sakhour, Hanano, Ameriya, Bab Al Hadid and Qadi Askar.
Sanctuary in schools
Volunteers working for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent are running the vacant dormitory rooms. A family of five to each room, 1,000 refugees to each dormitory.
One family I know has been displaced five times. - Abu Leila in Aleppo, quoting a volunteer working named George
The schools are being run by networks of local volunteers. However, some of the schools have no electricity or running water. The volunteer network helps pay for water, building maintenance, sanitation, medical attention and activities for children.
“Yesterday we managed to provide care for 1,800 refugees,” said Abu Abdo, a volunteer for the Jesuit Refugee Service, expressing hope that the numbers will grow as the process is replicated all over the city.
It’s getting harder to live in Aleppo
The hardship is spreading. There is a bread shortage in the city. Only a few bakeries are working because flour deliveries can’t get through the roadblocks and the violence. Even in the relatively safe areas of the city, fuel is becoming scarce.
The biggest problem facing Aleppo today is the lack of baby milk. The needy are forced to move between the few working pharmacies in the safer neighborhoods to get a pack or two. – Abu Leila in Aleppo
Many nurses and doctors are trapped in their troubled neighborhoods and regions, while hospitals in the city are operating with less than a quarter of their staff. No public services are working, and there are no traffic police in the city. In the few neighborhoods where you can find fuel, it costs four times the price of a few weeks ago. A tank of gas costs 10 times more than when subsidized by the government.
The biggest problem facing Aleppo today is the lack of baby milk. The needy are forced to move between the few working pharmacies in the safer neighborhoods to get a pack or two, which is not enough for more than a week. And the biggest difficulty lies in providing this material for displaced families who need them in large quantities for larger babies less than one year old.
For homeless families in this war, things have suddenly gotten far worse, a volunteer named George told me.
“We are still continuing our previous mission serving thousands of refugees from Idlib, and another 6,000 we had on our books before,” he said. “But even many of those have now been displaced, yet again. One family I know has been displaced five times.”
Many of my friends are working day and night to help the refugees. Some haven’t had a good night’s sleep since Aleppo became a haven five months ago for Syrians fleeing their homes in other towns. Many risk their lives when they are checked by government soldiers or militiamen at the city’s many checkpoints. And now, the number of refugees is growing much larger.
The volunteer refugee network is negotiating larger amounts of relief through the U.N.’s World Food Program and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, but these two agencies offer only food. The local volunteer groups must cover the expenses of all other services.
Aleppo’s refugee crisis draws Syrians together
At one of the schools, a young refugee named Tamam told me that for so long, the city’s name always had a negative connotation, but “the people of Aleppo proved the opposite today.”
“Seeing all these young people – from my city, from different social, ethnic and religious backgrounds, working hand in hand, in one spirit – gives me hope in these miserable circumstances that we are living now,” he told me. “There are even no differences between government sympathizers and opposition activists in this work. They are all working together for the common good of their city and country.”
Local charities and many school directors signed a declaration forming a joint body to coordinate administration of these makeshift refugee centers, with signatures from several charities such as “Soul,” “Al Nama,” “Ihsan,” “Ahel Al Kheir,” and “Aleppo Youth Gathering for Aid.”
There are no differences between government sympathizers and opposition activists in this work. They are all working together for the common good of their city and country. - Abu Leila in Aleppo, quoting a refugee by the name of Tamam
Some of the agencies offer clothing, an occasional job and, at times, loans. Most offer food and milk for all age groups, nappies, ladies’ sanitary pads and basic medical support such as heart and blood pressure tests, antibiotics, allergy medication, delivery of newborns, dental work, physical therapy and psychiatric care in severe cases.
The world is focusing on the wrong problem in Syria – namely, figuring out who is to blame, what to call different people, or who is fighting what information wars – we here in Aleppo worry about how long our refugees are going to stay in these schools. For many, their homes were blown up. Who is going to continue taking care of them as the rush of donations falls as time passes? Where will the students go when classes are supposed to begin? These are some of the problems in Syria’s immediate future. It will take years for my country to get back on its feet.
David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.