This past weekend, a quick trip to Istanbul meant light travelling – hand luggage would do. But with 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, and an approaching winter, I wanted to use my baggage allowance instead to take some donations and that if I had an overwhelming response, I’d ask Turkish airlines to transport it in kind (Turkish airlines has previously volunteered to fly cargo collected for refugees).
Working some years ago for UNICEF, I have a fairly good idea of how humanitarian missions work, and also where donations go. Usually an organization will make an administrative cut – between 10-25%. Then, they will purchase new supplies or pay staff to provide some degree of service. This is why a lot of organisations ask for money, while others are prepared to accept clothes, medicine, food and other supplies which they will distribute and use any financial donations to meet operational costs. That’s what I was looking for – a local group working directly with refugees, where supplies would get to whoever needed it, as quickly as possible.
There is an emotion beyond anything I’ve experienced when I walked into the room in Istanbul’s Fatih district of a small local organization. On the faces of the Syrians there – no sadness, no anger, no hope. Just faces of emptiness. There is nothing that prepares you for meeting the faces of those who are suffering. I don’t know how those working or volunteering there can find the reserve to work in a place with so many stories that may never have a happy ending, and to continue to do so day after day.
There was an elderly lady in a wheelchair, you could see her lifetime was limited. She could have been in Syria, enjoying her end of days, but instead she was alone in a grey, cold, rainy Istanbul, in a centre with makeshift medical facilities, surrounded by other strangers with that same expression of nothing. They are supposed to be the luckier ones.
When you sit in London, and you’re in the news, you know what’s going on. You know the facts. You know the numbers, you see the pictures and sometimes you hear personal stories, like this. Days earlier I erred on the side of caution to keep a jacket that I ‘might’ wear. That doesn’t matter anymore when huge injustices create so many without. To paraphrase a recent quote, whatever material things you may have, use it, share it, and by doing that you share yourself, you share your humanity that in our intermittent world of short attention spans, status updates and Instagram posts, is just as fleeting.