Syrian NGOs working in collaboration in highly insecure environments to deliver aid when populations are threatened as cities change hands
Trained and experienced volunteers
Proximity of NGOs to local populations and close relations with them ensuring their trust Flexibility to respond quickly where evacuations are urgently required Strict maintenance of NGO neutrality in a conflict situation Effective direct fundraising, independent of the humanitarian system, that ensures NGO sustainability
Syria’s civil war has raged for 8 years, displacing millions and killing tens of thousands. In terms of security, this environment is hugely challenging for international humanitarian actors who need to respond to a fast-moving situation in an agile manner. As a result, local responses have been crucial in seeking to limit the impact of conflict on the Syrian people. As government forces have gained the upper hand in the conflict, they have launched attacks on areas traditionally held by opposition groups. Syrian organisations have worked to evacuate these areas, including the NGOs Violet, the Syrian Expatriate Medical Association (SEMA) and Masarrat, the Syria Establishment for Human Care and Enhancement.
The international humanitarian system has struggled to respond to the needs of Syrians in Syria. International NGOs have little field presence in opposition-controlled areas where evacuations occur and therefore needed two weeks to launch such an operation. They have also faced significant security threats that have limited their capacity to engage. Dr. Abdulhanan al Mohammad Aljouja of SEMA described how: “in Ghouta some INGOs withdrew their staff and stopped operating once risks increased and they started feeling insecure, in contrast to what local NGOs were doing. Without the local NGO response in emergency crises the losses, number of victims and presence of chronic diseases would be far more, because we provide the service until the last minute, even under bombing and airstrikes.”
Local NGOs feel that closer links to affected populations drive their capacity to respond better. Yasser Wafai of Masarrat reported that: “Local NGOs are more flexible and humane than INGOs because we share the same blood and culture, for example we used to cut our salaries to help Syrians when we didn’t have funds and most NGOs did the same. The disaster would be ten times worse and food, medicines and water wouldn’t be available without the local NGOs efforts and response.”
Violet, SEMA and Masarrat are Syrian NGOs that were founded after the war started in 2011. Their aim is to address the suffering of the Syrian people and the many humanitarian emergencies caused by the conflict. Violet, for example, started in 2016 with a team of 10 trained volunteers. Today they have 275 volunteers, including 40 women, distributed over 4 centres. More than 30 local CSOs have been involved in evacuation activities, with Violet’s team taking the lead in coordinating partners in northern Syria. Violet and its team of volunteers have led evacuations from Aleppo, Damascus, Homs and Idlib. Violet transfers those choosing to leave and ensures their safety as they welcome them to their new locations. The work includes deciding when and where to intervene, what kind of assistance to offer, coordinating buses and transportation. In addition they provide food baskets, first aid, psychosocial support, and medical assistance as well as searching for relatives.
The fast-moving nature of the crisis demonstrates the need for a local response. The evacuations in northern Homs and Idlib had to be planned and implemented in less than 48 hours. Ahmad Ktish, a volunteer with Violet, explains that: “The scale of response required is large: during the Ghouta evacuation, 40,000 people reached their destination at the same time and 45,000 during the Idlib evacuation. There were insufficient shelters, so we had to find families who would volunteer and offer their homes to displaced people,” demonstrating the added value of local communities leading the action.
As a local actor present on the ground, Violet has advantages over an international response driven by agencies based abroad, offering unmatchable timely emergency capacity. Local NGOs like Violet represent the most decentralised approach to emergency response. Most importantly, beneficiaries in highly insecure environments trust local organisations: “Beneficiaries trust local NGOs more and they share their secrets with us. After, they trust we keep their secrets and respect their dignity, and as proof of that, we had few beneficiaries when we first launched the protection and psychosocial support programs, but after a few months they became thousands.” (Dr. Abdulhanan, SEMA)
The trust of affected populations is at least partly founded on their neutrality, which remains a crucial principle to local NGOs. Local NGOs seek to support beneficiaries solely on the basis of their needs but are prevented by the Syrian authorities from working in areas under their control.
Whilst Violet has tried to work throughout the country, the NGO was targeted in regime-controlled areas, with many staff killed by airstrikes while providing humanitarian services. As such, they are restricted to opposition-held areas. The operational principle of neutrality has allowed them to work in relative safety in opposition-controlled regions (albeit with significant security challenges). However, areas controlled by ISIS, where security could not be guaranteed, were off limits. Violet's presence on the front lines is a challenge in itself leading to suspicion. Staff and volunteers use their close relations with all the actors concerned, including among combatants, to ensure access and security during intervention.
Despite being better managed by local actors, the security challenges have still been considerable. Volunteer Ahmad Ktish described these: “The challenges were mostly related to the fact that we need to intervene right after a shell or bomb or missile attack, at the exact place where the bomb hit, and this is a great danger that threatened our lives. […] During the first aid assistance and rescue, we had to follow where the missiles were hitting to help and to rescue people […] During one mission I lost one of my friends, he was targeted by combat aircraft and lost his life. You might think this incident would scare other volunteers or discourage them from accomplishing their duty. But the reality is totally different. Such incidents give us more motivation to run into dangerous situations, even staff who survived an attack or who were injured, go back to the field as soon as they recover from their injury.” Local agencies are frustrated by their inability to change the behaviour of combatants. “In Gaza or other conflict zones in the world, protection laws are applied for the most vulnerable people such as children, women, disabled and elderly, but in Syria we didn’t see this and that is what caused great damage.” (Dr. Abdulhanan, SEMA). The international community’s failure to limit the violations committed on the ground has further reduced the faith of Syrians in international agencies. Local agencies would like to see joint advocacy with INGOs on this issue.
Local agencies are aware that their capacity could be better. Dr. Abdulhanan, admits: “Maybe we have some weaknesses due, first, to the lack of our capacity because we don’t have prior experience; second, due to the difficulties of access and the fast-evolving situation in the field and third, financial limitations often due to donor restrictions such as working in a specific area.” Local agencies are frustrated that INGOs have provided support for capacity building: “INGOs have provided no capacity building or protective support for Violet staff and volunteers,” says Dr. Kutayba Sayid Issa of Violet. Violet has sought to independently build the capacity of its volunteers, organising emergency and ambulance training camps so that volunteers can provide assistance during aerial bombardment and other emergencies. Capacity building can however also work in the other direction, with INGOs, the UN and the Red Cross / Red Crescent movement learning from the way Violet works. Violet’s staff believe INGOs and donors must reconsider who is really delivering emergency response on the ground in Syria, and understand how local actors work to provide support in an impartial way.
The lack of financial or other support from international agencies for the volunteer programme is an additional challenge. Especially given the need to train volunteers and enhance capacity. Thousands of volunteers want to provide support, however Violet does not have sufficient funds to accept them. There are two main reasons why international NGOs do not support Violet. Firstly, emergency intervention is seen as the prerogative of the Red Cross / Red Crescent, even though they cannot operate in opposition-held areas. Secondly, because donors were not able to provide support quickly enough, even as communities faced extreme threats. Some donors also queried how such actions would be perceived, given that evacuation was driven by the arrival of government-supported armed forces. In the absence of external support, Violet sought to fund itself directly. Violet raised $500,000 through its website via an online fundraising campaign, mostly dedicated to emergency response, and from private donors in the USA, the Arab world and elsewhere. Initially, the inability to secure external funding was seen as a problem. However Violet turned this around by identifying novel and indigenous ways to fund their work. Such initiatives have maximised Violet’s responsiveness and sustainability, independent of any constraints from institutional donors. As an example of their success, in Ghouta Violet led an operation to move 90,000 internally displaced people into 1,000 rented buses. Violet's own fundraising covered the entire operation.
Partnership and coordination
In order to function, Violet relies on close relationships with a number of local NGOs. Violet has led coordination efforts between different agencies by assigning tasks on the basis of skills and capacity. For example, at the Madiq Castle reception site, Ihsan established sanitation facilities, Violet managed a medical tent, USSOM provided doctors and Syria Relief provided psychosocial support. “Violet’s coordination with other local NGOs in the first 24 hours of an emergency response was much faster than that of INGOs, because we are present where the emergency is unfolding, and we know well all the other agencies. Violet is perceived as an emergency response focal point for other local NGOs.”, says Dr. Issa. Local NGOs working in Syria do however want greater cooperation with INGOs, particularly in resisting the instrumentalization of humanitarian aid by parties to the conflict. Dr. Abdulhanan was more positive, saying: “Whilst INGO support with evacuation has generally been poor, some of our partners like IRC and UNFPA played a positive role and after we shared our needs assessment, they responded and provided a medical center and mobile clinics, but this was a very slow process.”
Impacts and challenges
The emergency response in Syria demonstrates that a localised approach is not only desirable, but the only way to respond quickly and effectively to protect civilian populations. Violet and other Syrian NGOs leading evacuations have achieved greatly in protecting and supporting populations in the challenging circumstances of a war with few limitations. As government forces prepare to attack Idlib Violet's biggest challenge may lie ahead. However it is clear that Violet's staff and volunteers have always managed well with limited support from the international humanitarian system. Violet continues to face formidable challenges in raising funds. In addition they need to protect themselves from being targeted by parties to conflict who seek to exploit humanitarian action for their own interest.
One of Violet’s founders has said: “Our dream is to have 5,000 volunteers and sufficient funds to train them and develop their skills and capacities, and in so doing to enhance the emergency response.” However, this can only be achieved if the international humanitarian system acknowledges that the Syrian response has been localised thanks to the leading role of local actors. Ultimately, INGOs need to engage more effectively and support local NGOs on their own terms.
Produced with the support of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation