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.
ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS/AFP/Getty Images