Othman Moqbel: In ten years Syria Relief has gone from a tiny group of volunteers to become the largest Syria-focused UK charity

31 Mar 2021 Voices

Othman Moqbel from Syria Relief reflects on the charity's first ten years

This month marks 10 years since the start of the Syrian Civil War – a conflict that’s repercussions have been felt across the globe, not least here in the UK. We are also marking 10 years since the formation of my organisation, Syria Relief. 

In a decade, Syria Relief has gone from a tiny group of well-meaning volunteers delivering aid, to the largest Syria-focused charity in the UK, having delivered aid to 10 million people – a number which represents over 55% of the current population of Syria. 

We were originally set up in 2011 by four Syrian expats in the UK, three doctors and a finance manager with virtually no experience of running an NGO, who saw the unfolding humanitarian crisis, and travelled to Syria to deliver non-perishable food aid and tents to people who had been displaced by the fighting. A decade later we operate 306 schools inside Syria and 14 hospitals and healthcare centres and are the implementing partner of choice for many UN organisations and other globally renowned NGOs. What has enabled us to grow so dramatically?

Local knowledge

The first answer is localisation. Our HQ might be in Manchester, but we’re a charity run for Syrians, by Syrians. Community involvement is key to our project design and it is local knowledge and networks which has enabled us to deliver aid in besieged areas, where the need is greatest, but access is most difficult. 

Sadly, through this conflict, hundreds of thousands of civilians and aid workers, many of whom were Syria Relief beneficiaries or staff, have been killed. Often deliberately. We have had 7 of our schools and 2 of our health facilities hit by airstrikes or shelling. Children who attend our school have been killed at their desks, doctors and nurses have lost their lives whilst trying to save lives. Syria still is one of the most dangerous places on Earth. Too often we have found that working in Syria without local knowledge endangers the individual and those around them.  

The Syrian conflict has been a series of brutal, bloody, inhumane battles and sieges. There has been regular, and still are in areas like Idlib, instances of desperate humanitarian need, trapped inside a conflict zone. The people trapped within the conflict lines desperately need humanitarian aid and medical assistance and it is only through local knowledge and local networks that this can be best achieved. This is how Syria Relief has had such a positive impact in hell-on-earth conditions. 

Shared passion

The second answer is drive. Every single member of the Syria Relief team, whether they are managing our accounts in Manchester or teaching a class in Idlib have a shared passion – to right the wrongs faced by the Syrian people – victims of 10 years of brutal conflict. We work very long hours, we work very long days, but only because our determination and belief in the difference we are making is unshakeable. Sadly, the growth of Syria Relief has correlated with the brutality and intensity of the conflict. This isn’t just because the need is greater, but because our drive grows with every injustice an innocent civilian has to endure. Throughout sieges and surges in violence our trustees, most of whom are doctors in the NHS, have travelled into Syria to perform emergency surgery, sometimes accompanied by passionate volunteers such as Dr David Nott, as detailed in his excellent book War Doctor. 

Sadly, however, at Syria Relief we fear that 10 years will not be the last anniversary we will be commemorating this brutal war. It is important for charities involved in the conflict to use advocacy to pressure political actors, both inside Syria and those who have influence over actors in the conflict, like the UK government, if we want to achieve a sustainable peace.

Syria Relief, and charities working inside Syria, are treating the symptoms of a political disease – we can only relieve the suffering, not cure it. The humanitarian needs in Syria are worse than ever; over 80% live below the poverty line, 13 million are in need of some form of humanitarian assistance, including food and access to clean water, 2.5 million children are out of education, 6 million are displaced internally and 5 million are refugees.

Yet, political will to achieve a lasting and sustainable political solution is almost non-existent. A YouGov poll Syria Relief commissioned three weeks ago found that two in five people in the UK didn’t know the Syrian conflict was still happening. If people don’t know, then people don’t care. And how can there be the political will to solve an issue, that not enough people care about?

This is what will make our advocacy efforts just as important as Syria Relief’s life-saving and life-sustaining humanitarian aid projects, in the years to come. This is the only way we can be an organisation that doesn’t just alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people, but work towards to stopping it. 

Othman Moqbel is chief executive of Syria Relief

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