Com­ing face to face with the vic­tims of the war in Syria fills one with an­guish, writes

The Star Early Edition - - FRONT PAGE -

WE READ about the plight of thou­sands of Syr­ian refugees. We see dis­tress­ing pho­tos and footage on news­pa­pers, so­cial me­dia and on tele­vi­sion.

But when one comes face to face with the vic­tims of the dev­as­tat­ing war, it is re­ally heart­break­ing.

I have been in Turkey this week start­ing to get an idea of the scale of suf­fer­ing that is be­ing ex­pe­ri­enced.

I am with Qari Ziyaad Pa­tel, Aye­sha Pa­tel and Moulanas Ab­dulla Cho­han and Mo­hammed Mo­tala, as vol­un­teers with the Al-Im­daad Foun­da­tion, which in turn is the main south­ern African part­ner of the Turk­ish-based IHH Hu­man­i­tar­ian Relief Foun­da­tion.

We flew into Is­tan­bul from Jo­han­nes­burg and then moved by air and then road to Rey­hanli, which is on the Turk­ishSyr­ian border.

The be­sieged city of Aleppo is about 60km away. Idlib is not too far from the border, and re­newed vi­o­lence north of the town claimed 20 lives this week.

As we vis­ited a hos­pi­tal where Syr­ian vic­tims were be­ing treated on Tues­day evening, we sud­denly heard rocket fire on a nearby moun­tain on the Syr­ian side.

The IHH runs a mas­sive pro­gramme in this re­gion. I counted about 100 trucks loaded with food, blan­kets, mat­tresses and other es­sen­tial ready to go to the var­i­ous camps. Most left the fol­low­ing morn­ing for Aleppo.

The ware­houses are filled to ca­pac­ity, and as more sup­plies ar­rive from donors across the world, truck­loads con­tinue leav­ing for refugee camps in Syria. The fig­ures make stark read­ing: There are about 3 mil­lion Syr­ian refugees on the border with Turkey. In Rey­hanli alone there are 120 000 refugees.

A third of the refugees are young and should be at school, but only about half of them are.

There are 1 500 or­phans (aged one to 12) in Rey­hanli alone and just more than 30 000 or­phans along the border area.

There are 250 refugees in Rey­hanli who are paral­ysed. Many are chil­dren. Some of them were shot and oth­ers were in­jured by bombs.

The IHH runs 40 bak­eries, and 2 mil­lion loaves of bread are dis­trib­uted to refugees daily. Their staff tell me that thou­sands of “block houses” are ur­gently needed at a cost of $8 000 (R110 000) each to house the refugees in Syria, just 5km from the Turk­ish border.

There is also a press­ing need for blan­kets and warm cloth­ing. It’s freez­ing here and it’s about to snow.

The IHH says baby food is also crit­i­cally needed, along with cloth­ing, medicine and nap­pies.

Con­struc­tion is un­der way on the Tiny Hearts Vil­lage, which will be the big­gest or­phan­age in the world.

My heart broke when I vis­ited an or­phan­age and women’s trauma cen­tre in the area.

Some kids draw their houses which were bombed. Oth­ers draw their dads and moms who were killed.

Lit­tle Ahmed posed with such a lovely smile as we took self­ies. The two-year-old held onto my hand with his tiny fin­gers and re­fused to let go. He showed me his small “tent”, which he said in Ara­bic was his home.

Out­side we met a nine-year-old girl in a wheel­chair. Paral­ysed from the waist down, she told us how a bomb went off in her home.

“Give my love to the peo­ple of South Africa,” she whis­pered with a gen­tle smile as we left.

Not far away was a cen­tre for Syr­ian women. Many had been raped in front of their chil­dren. Most of them are now wid­ows. The coun­selling con­tin­ues.

A hos­pi­tal and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tre brought home the real ef­fects of the war.

Se­vere burns. Miss­ing legs. Hands blown off. Some paral­ysed.

One man told us: “I’m an­gry. This is what war does… God must help us.” One of his legs was blown off by a mine.

Two teenagers lay on nearby beds, paral­ysed. “I was at home and heard a very loud bang. It was a rocket. My leg was gone,” says one of them.

An el­derly man at the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tre told how he ar­rived from Aleppo a few days ago.

“There is noth­ing left in Aleppo,” he said. This is the sad re­al­ity of war. Back on the streets of Rey­hanli, some chil­dren brave the cold and rain, beg­ging for food on the streets.

As we are about to go for sup­per, we are told of a Syr­ian wi­dow in ur­gent need of an eye op­er­a­tion.

We are taken to an apart­ment, and a doc­tor shows us the med­i­cal re­ports. The 31-year-old mother-of-two has only 1 per­cent eyesight. If noth­ing is done, she stands the risk of go­ing com­pletely blind. $8 000 is needed for the op­er­a­tion. We record a video mes­sage and hope some­one back home will as­sist. It takes 10 min­utes to raise the money.

The wo­man, to­gether with two other Syr­ian wid­ows, im­me­di­ately start pray­ing. “You brought us re­newed hope on life,” the one tells us.

It’s an im­me­di­ate af­fir­ma­tion of the work that has al­ready been done back home in South Africa to raise an un­prece­dented R15 mil­lion to #SAveSyria in a day­long telethon. Al­ready two-thirds of those pledges have been paid into Oper­a­tionSA’s trust ac­counts.

The scale of suf­fer­ing is epic. We were warned that what we were go­ing to see is de­press­ing. Many vol­un­teers who have been here from across the world leave trau­ma­tised, the images con­tin­u­ing to haunt them.

I feel the pain of the Syr­ian refugees. The world needs to feel their pain. We are one!

#Oper­a­tionSA has re­ceived sev­eral re­quests from peo­ple back home who want to come and vol­un­teer with hu­man­i­tar­ian work. We are ex­plor­ing op­tions. There is a par­tic­u­lar need for doc­tors, psy­chol­o­gists and teach­ers.

We have also re­ceived scores of enquiries about peo­ple who want to adopt or­phans. Ex­perts here say this is not an op­tion for now be­cause tak­ing chil­dren out of this en­vi­ron­ment can be detri­men­tal, to say noth­ing of the le­gal is­sues in­volved. Yusuf Abram­jee is a so­cial ac­tivist and founder of the NGO #Oper­a­tionSA. If you would like to make a do­na­tion to the #SAveSyria #Oper­a­tionSA ini­tia­tive, SMS 072 3 99 99 99 or go to www.oper­a­, or you can fol­low @abram­jee on Twit­ter

DIS­PLACED: There are 1 500 or­phans (aged one to 12) in the Syr­ian city of Rey­hanli and just more than 30 000 or­phans along the border area.

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