Saving Syrians, One Blanket at a Time

How I became a one-man aid worker in the world's deadliest war zone.

KILIS, Turkey — I am a 21-year-old, independent aid worker. I don't work for any country or NGO, but for Syrian civilians.

The project I started isn't just about bringing help, it's about bringing hope. The idea started small and simple: I wanted to take blankets to refugees. Before I knew what I was getting into, it had grown big and complex: I've just come back from Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, where I delivered my second batch of aid -- 500 blankets.

It all started when I finished a university exchange in South Korea and decided to travel back home to the Netherlands overland. After crossing Russia from east to west and north to south, in early October I ended up in Antakya, a Turkish city near the Syrian border that is teeming with refugees.

It was here that I met Ali, a refugee from Aleppo. Ali was very excited when I told him I came from the Netherlands -- some years ago, his son made a Dutch friend in Aleppo. When this Dutch guy heard that his friend's family had escaped the war-torn city, he decided to come down to Antakya to meet his Syrian friend once more. He met the family, except for the person he was looking for. Ali's son had died while fleeing due to regime shelling.

I listened to his story, horrified. I had no idea what to say. Ali kept the conversation going by explaining how difficult life was now for innocent civilians caught up in a deadly mix of violence, cold, hunger, and uncertainty. I tried to keep travelling, but his story haunted me. I wanted to do something to help.

Reading up about the humanitarian situation in Syria, I was struck by how much aid was needed. It seemed that hardly any of the big NGOs were bringing aid inside the country. So far, countries have given less than 4 percent of the funds that the United Nations said is necessary to implement its aid program in Syria.

I decided to visit Bab al-Salam, a makeshift camp situated just a few hundred feet into Syria, across the Turkish border. The camp hosted perhaps 4,000 Syrians, living in miserable conditions.

I was greeted at the border by a teenager in a camouflage outfit. He held a gun -- the first time I'd seen such a weapon, aside from computer games. I was given a Free Syria entry stamp in my passport and told: "Welcome to Free Syria." Before I knew it, I was speaking with the management of the camp.

We drank sweet tea and they asked me what I came for. I explained that I wanted to help, and offered them 100 blankets bought from my own savings. My only requirement was to hand out the blankets myself -- there were stories floating around about aid disappearing or being sold for weapons. 

The manager and his friends burst out laughing. "We need 4,000 blankets", he said, "100 is pointless!"

I was disappointed, but I quickly regained my confidence upon returning to Kilis, the Turkish border village where I now live. I decided to buy the blankets; I knew I could find a way to get them to people in need.

In early November, after a few weeks of trying to get in to Syria, magic happened. Hassan Kwaja, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo, came to me with the biggest smile I'd ever seen and told me that his friends could take me to his hometown. They had a friend with a truck, they had done relief work in Aleppo before, and they could help me find people suffering in the cold.

The next evening I was in a place I had never thought to go to and never wanted to be. We were in Aleppo, with my 100 blankets. 

I'd never been to a conflict zone before, and I was scared to death. The cloudy sky was illuminated every 30 seconds from shelling. We had to run for cover when artillery shells came whistling over our heads, smashing down dangerously close. My heart was pounding: Had I made a stupid -- and potentially fatal -- choice by coming to Aleppo just to hand out blankets?

That night, I understood the reality of daily life for the 2 million residents of Aleppo. The conflict is inescapable and the fear is constant: fear of sending your kids to schools that are often targeted by fighter jets and shelling. Fear of illness, since the only medical help is offered at field hospitals staffed by activists with neither proper training nor proper materials. Fear of cold and darkness, driven by near constant electricity blackouts. But also fear of fragmentation and lawlessness -- fear of what comes next.

In the morning, I found a renewed sense of purpose as we loaded the blankets into a small truck and went to a neighborhood filled with displaced people. Syrians wanted the blankets badly -- they knew winter was coming. They had left everything behind and were now sharing unfurnished apartments with other families, without heating or stoves to cook on.

Syrian nights are incredibly cold. On the first trip, they were still bearable. When I returned a few days ago, even three jackets couldn't stop me shivering as temperatures hovered around freezing. Of course, most Syrians don't have such comforts: With skyrocketing prices for gas and diesel and a shortage of wood, we found a number of families burning rubber, plastic bags, and even woolen blankets to stay warm -- children were coughing from the thick black smoke of the fires.

What I saw in Aleppo made me realize more help was needed. I flew back to the Netherlands and sought publicity for my project -- after a Dutch TV station picked up the story, donations came flooding in. I bought the second batch, 500 blankets this time, and took them to those in need.

Aleppo is quieter now than a few months ago -- the shelling has decreased, and I hardly saw any fighter jets above the city on my recent trip. Most of my time was spent in a relatively peaceful neighborhood where many displaced people had found refuge. Local FSA brigades told me the area got shelled every other week with one or two shells. "No problem" they said.

But my last night, when no less than five shells came down within 20 minutes, proved just how volatile the situation is. The closest one was about 150 feet away from where I was sleeping, and left a mother dead and her two kids permanently injured. In total, four people died, and many more were wounded.

Sourcing and delivering aid involves a lot of waiting: for people, promises, cars, petrol, security. It's now the end of January -- if I were to begin the process of organizing another blanket drive, they would only be used for a short time, before the end of winter.

Syrians' needs have changed, and I am changing my shipments accordingly. After enduring six months of a brutal civil war -- which has included the shelling of bakery bread lines -- the residents of Aleppo now need food. For that reason, I decided that my next shipment of aid would be food boxes.

But what supplies should go in each box? I looked at the food boxes of some NGOs but wasn't satisfied. Aid experts all had different opinions and motives for including different products. Some experts spoke about nutrition bars. I saw boxes that were almost entirely filled with bread, while some others lacked basic ingredients I knew were used in Syrian kitchens. I figured that if I wanted to make a food box, I shouldn't look at what NGOs were doing -- what better way to discover local needs than to ask Syrian women what they would use in a regular week?

So I did. As a result, my food box will contain the ingredients normally used in a Syrian household, except for perishable goods such as yogurt and fruit. Having decided what to include, I placed the food orders yesterday. Now, all that remains is preparing the boxes and distributing them in Syria.

Working in Syria contains inherent risks -- but that doesn't make me reckless. The only images that make it to television are of the front line: tanks, MIGs, gun battles, and victims. Behind the front line, the only risk is from the bombs, shells, and missiles that fall from the sky. That's a risk you choose to take, knowing the chance is there, but that there is little you can do to avoid it -- even the most experienced war photographer or soldier cannot predict where a shell will fall. It has nothing to do with recklessness, and everything to do with eagerness to bring some help to civilians that are otherwise forgotten and ignored.

At its heart, my project is meant as a statement to the Syrian people: You have not been forgotten. A statement condemning the international community for sitting on its hands while those in Syria are left to suffer. A statement that, if a 21-year-old without experience can bring help to Syria, then the big international aid organizations should be able to do so too.

I know that I'm just bringing my blankets and my food boxes -- and far from enough. But with each small shipment, I'm also bringing hope: Hope for a better future; hope that the plight of Syrian refugees will not feel forgotten. It might be small, but at least I'm doing something.



Broken Tooth and New Macau

How China crushed the triad gangs and created the world's new gambling Mecca.

MACAU — One of Macau's most infamous gangsters must be feeling like Rip Van Winkle.

When Wan Kuok-koi, 57, better known as Broken Tooth, was released from prison on Dec. 1, nearly 14 years after he went behind bars, he emerged to a city utterly transformed. Instead of cars burning in the streets, Bentleys with dual Macau-China license plates prowl newly built highways. Gone is the sleepy, rough-around-the-edges colonial backwater, supplanted by a city that has become the gaming capital of the world, with more than five times the annual gambling revenue of Las Vegas. In a little more than a decade, Macau has calmed down, cleaned up, and gotten immensely rich. And now, nearly two months after being freed, the former leader of 14K, Macau's biggest and most-feared criminal triad, has barely made a ripple. After vowing there was "absolutely no way" he would disturb the peace in Macau, Broken Tooth seems to have gone into hiding, with local media reporting a rumor that he exiled himself to Thailand or Hong Kong for several months as part of an agreement with Chinese authorities.

One month before he was arrested in 1998, Wan said that "anyone who's done something bad to me will never escape. I won't kill him. I'll make him take a voyage to another world." Now he says he simply wants to become a law-abiding citizen, and that revenge is a thing of the past. "I don't want to affect the stability of Macau. There's absolutely no way I want to do that. I want to be left alone," a bashful-sounding Wan said to the Hong Kong-based English-language newspaper the South China Morning Post.

It's a far cry from the swaggering Broken Tooth of old, but one that fits the times. In 1998, Wan was the irrepressible criminal king of Macau, then a Portuguese colony in its tumultuous last days. Like Bugsy Siegel in 1940s Las Vegas, he had a reputation for violence, ruthlessness, and ambition that approached megalomania. Wan earned his nickname as a young man after crashing his car and damaging his teeth. (He later had them capped.) As he rose through the triad ranks, he was shot twice and survived an attack from a meat cleaver that rendered two fingers permanently immobile. In the 1990s, he drove a purple Lamborghini and bragged about losing more than $1 million at a single gambling session. In an interview with Newsweek in 1998, he claimed to have 10,000 triad followers. And at the time of his arrest for loan sharking and money laundering, he was said to be watching the 1998 movie Casino, an autobiographical film he commissioned to dramatize his criminal exploits (not, it seems, connected to the Robert De Niro film of the same name).

In the years leading up to Macau's handover to China, triad violence surged as gangs vied for a bigger share of the pie that would be left after Portuguese power receded. The high point was 1999, the year of the handover, when 42 people died in gang-related attacks. Broken Tooth's triad torched cars and was believed to have killed a Portuguese gambling official near the Casino Lisboa. At Wan's disco, Heavy Club, a mannequin dressed in a police uniform reportedly dangled from a noose tied to the ceiling.

Under Portugal, a somewhat reluctant colonial power, the city had a sleepy air and a sluggish economy to match: a combination of triad violence and the Asian financial crisis caused Macau's gross domestic product to contract by 6.8 percent in 1998. Portugal repeatedly tried to return Macau to China as part of its 1970s decolonization push, but Beijing refused to retake sovereignty until 1999. At the time of the handover, textile manufacturing dominated Macau's economy, and the relatively small casino industry was controlled entirely by Stanley Ho. Seen in Macau as a sort of roguish, eccentric patriarch -- part Howard Hughes, part Donald Trump -- Ho allegedly earned the money to start his first business as a reward for single-handedly defeating pirates who attacked an employer's ship during World War II.

Nowhere is the contrast between then and now more apparent than in the Lisboa, Ho's landmark property and one of the city's oldest and most iconic casinos. It was also Broken Tooth's old haunt. Wan allegedly had a $50 million stake in a VIP room at the Casino Lisboa and was arrested in a suite at its hotel back in 1998. Then, the casino -- a tacky structure resembling a multicolored onion -- was guarded by a battalion of cops wielding automatic weapons. Today, the automatic weapons are gone, the casino has expanded with an enormous, glitzy addition shaped like a golden lotus flower, and the lobby is filled with tourists elbowing each other to pose in front of a life-sized gingerbread house. (The seamier side remains: A basement hallway below the Lisboa has a parade of prostitutes perpetually cat-walking between a restaurant and a fruit stand.)

In 2002, the Macau government broke Ho's monopoly on gaming and opened it up to international players. It granted six casino licenses to foreign operators, including Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn and GOP-bankroller and Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson. (Ho remains a powerhouse; he owns 17 of Macau's 34 casinos.) Beijing also loosened restrictions on mainland tourists coming to visit Macau, in an effort to boost the economy after the SARS epidemic struck China in 2003. And yet Macau's success was far from a sure bet.

The outlook for the city at the time was still murky enough that Gary Loveman, CEO of the world's largest gaming company, Caesars Entertainment Corporation, gave Macau a pass -- a decision he has since called his worst mistake. In 1998, 800,000 mainlanders visited Macau. In 2011, it was 16 million. As the only Chinese territory where casino gambling is legal, Macau has an irresistible allure to the newly rich and the middle class alike. In 2012, gambling revenues reached $38 billion. But one of the most striking changes after the handover was an end to the violence that had plagued the territory. Immediately after regaining sovereignty, China set up a garrison of the People's Liberation Army in Macau. Within a year, violent crime had dropped 46 percent. This was due partly to the jailing of Broken Tooth and the presence of China's military. But much of it is because it's more profitable for triads to help keep the peace.

Triads get a piece of this new action by dominating the "junket" industry of Macau, which brings high-rolling gamblers to the territory and collects debts on behalf of the casinos. These businesses also allow VIPs to stake more than the $50,000 legal limit on how much money Chinese are permitted to take out of the country every year. (In essence, junkets collect their clients' money on the Chinese side of the border and give them loans to gamble on the Macau side.) This scheme makes a convenient vehicle for money laundering. Steve Vickers, Hong Kong's former chief of the Criminal Intelligence Bureau, has said that he knows of "no Chinese junket operator that doesn't have some association with triads."

Although Broken Tooth's conviction dealt his old triad, 14K, a heavy blow, the gang remains active in Macau, as do his former associates. In August, six men with alleged triad ties, wielding hammers and sticks, attacked Ng Man-sun, one of Broken Tooth's bitterest former rivals. And one week before his release, police arrested Broken Tooth's former right-hand man for attempted murder.

"Everyone realizes that triads are still active," says Ricardo Pinto, a Portuguese publisher who covered the triads as a journalist in the 1990s. "Now they are working in a kind of legal framework, which of course changes very much the perception of their activities.... Now they are behaving more like normal businessmen. They made peace with society and joined Macau by operating in a legal way."

That is not to say that triads have given up on crime, of course. Around the world, these crime syndicates continue to be major players in drug trafficking, prostitution, financial fraud, software piracy, loan sharking, and human smuggling, according to a Library of Congress report on Chinese criminal organizations.

"Junkets are allowed to operate because they are good for the business of casinos," says Bill Chou, professor of public administration at the University of Macau. "The casino license holder does not care how they go about attracting the high rollers, who are sometimes also the gangsters in other parts of the world." He says that junkets are seen as more or less mainstream businesses, though most "are still controlled by gangsters."

The junket trade can still lead to some occasionally violent attacks that take place out of the public eye. In July, two mainland gamblers were stabbed to death in a five-star hotel after failing to pay up on large gambling losses. That same month, a Chinese woman with a Japanese passport was found bludgeoned to death in a residential area. Macau police believe both crimes are tied to junket operators and triads. Both murders remain unsolved.

For locals, Macau's rapid changes have not all been positive. The flood of tourists and foreign money has driven up the price of real estate by more than 400 percent since 2004. Traffic and pollution have worsened. And residents say the government has all but ignored their concerns in the drive for breakneck economic growth.

"Like China, Macau has become one of the most money-making places in the world," says Hao Zhidong, a sociologist at the University of Macau. In fact, he says, many people have actually become nostalgic for Portuguese rule -- Broken Tooth and the years of violence notwithstanding. Many say the city has become too venal, too focused on gambling, and too indifferent to the political demands of its citizens.

Even though Broken Tooth's days as a kingpin may be over, whenever he returns from exile, he may find Macau almost as congenial a place to make money as in the 1990s. While he lost millions of dollars in property due to police confiscations after his arrest, he has emerged from prison with many connections intact, including his brother, Wan Kuok-hung, who built a profitable business supplying uniforms to the casinos. Local newspapers have even reported a rumor going around -- that Broken Tooth's old friends and rivals have decided to give him a welcome-back present: a share of the lucrative junket business in exchange for hanging up his gun. Defanged, perhaps, but not out of business.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images