London, UK – Most people heading out of London before daybreak on the last weekend before Christmas had nothing more ambitious planned than beating the traffic in the annual rush home to festive family reunions.
But Deniz Solak had a longer journey ahead as he sat behind the wheel of a 4×4 vehicle soon after dawn prayers at an East London mosque.
From the English south coast port of Dover, Solak and dozens of other volunteers from towns and cities across the United Kingdom – spread out in 40 vehicles – were to take a ferry to France.
Their planned week-long journey covering close to 5,000kms would take them across mainland Europe, before entering Turkey and continuing onwards to the southern city of Antakya, close to the Syrian border.
Their mission is to deliver tens of thousands of dollars worth of medical and humanitarian supplies, as well as their vehicles, to aid workers and refugees in Turkey and those inside Syria caught up in the country’s conflict.
“It’s my calling,” said Solak, who usually splits his time between working in his Turkish family’s supermarket and his Islamic and Arabic studies. “As soon as I heard about the convoy I knew I had to go. You’re leaving your comfort zone and your family, but how could I say no?”
The convoy has been funded by donations largely raised at mosques and by small charities based in Muslim communities around the UK, organiser Mohamed Elhaddad, of the UK Arabic Society, told Al Jazeera.
While some had experience in delivering aid to Gaza, Iraq and Somalia, Elhaddad said more than half of those involved were first-time volunteers. “This is the biggest convoy ever from the UK to Syria. We’ve got people coming from Turkey, people from Tunisia, from Libya, from America. It’s an international movement.”
Solak’s vehicle is among five contributed to the expedition by Aid Convoy, a London-based charity that started raising funds in February with the specific purpose of helping Syrians in need.
“To be honest, we really didn’t know what we were doing,” said Usman Ali, founder of Aid Convoy, who led an initial expedition overland to Antakya in March.
“It’s like a mini operating theatre on their backs. In one 4×4 you can have three or four medics on standby, and it can drop them off wherever they are needed.”
–Usman Ali, Aid Convoy charity founder
“All we had in mind was that we’d take some vehicles and leave some of them there, and we’d put in them whatever we could take, from blankets to nappies.”
Yet, without the tacit support of a sympathetic Turkish border guard prepared to turn a blind eye to some irregular paperwork over the vehicle’s registration, that convoy might never have made it beyond Greece.
“Because it was the first time, they kind of let us off,” said Ali. “The guy at the border said technically I should not allow you into Turkey, but because you’re doing it for charity – and they have this thing where they pat themselves on the heart – he said don’t worry. And we said, ‘Let’s go!'”
This time, Aid Convoy’s volunteers will be better prepared. In addition to donating the five vehicles, which include a former police minivan, the charity has paid $65,000 for medical supplies it will pick up en route in Ankara, and about $22,500 for 2,000 blankets.
In Antakya, the convoy will hand over some of the supplies to the IHH, a Turkish humanitarian charity, and the Turkish Red Crescent for distribution, while the vehicles will be passed on to Syrian drivers to be taken across the border.
Medical supplies will also be sent on to the Free Syrian Doctors, an underground group of medical workers committed to treating wounded opposition fighters and civilians, with whom Aid Convoy has established contact in Idlib province.
Ali said the vehicles would be used to evacuate trapped families and the wounded from danger zones, or to transport mobile doctors and surgeons to where they are needed.
“You have rapid response units,” he explained. “Each medic has a backpack costing about $1,200, it’s like a mini operating theatre on their backs. In one 4×4 you can have three or four medics on standby, and it can drop them off wherever they are needed.”
The deteriorating situation in Syria has prompted a massive effort by major charities to raise funds in support of humanitarian efforts to alleviate the crisis, particularly with the onset of winter and freezing temperatures.
Last week, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees launched an appeal to raise $1bn, with more than half a million Syrians already registered as refugees or receiving assistance in Turkey and other neighbouring countries, a seven-fold increase since May.
But Ali said smaller charities could still perform vital work alongside larger and better resourced organisations.
“What they’re doing is going with the items that are needed on the ground. Nothing complicated, they go in and distribute it – simple as that.“
–Sharar Mahyub, Islamic Relief
“We specialise in mobile charity work,” he said. “We might get a call from a doctor saying we’ve had an emergency and we need these kits. We can get our guys to stop in Ankara and pick up whatever is needed.”
“We collect thousands of pounds, not millions, and as soon as we get the money we spend it in the right way. We don’t want to be like these other charities that hold onto millions and do nothing with it, because then it’s not a charity, it’s a business.”
Sharar Mahyub, the Middle East regional desk co-ordinator for Islamic Relief, said all contributions to the aid effort would be welcomed by those on the receiving end.
“The way I see it is the more the better. We operate on a bigger scale, but at the end of the day there is a major need there,” she told Al Jazeera. “What they’re doing is going with the items that are needed on the ground. Nothing complicated, they go in and distribute it – simple as that.”
Elhaddad said efforts such as the convoy also served to forge a direct link between donors in the UK and the desperate plight of those affected by the war in Syria.
“The most important thing is we wanted to witness what’s going on there, and to make sure that the donations we collect are sent in the right direction,” he said. “We are representing small communities. These people are going to report back and tell them what they have seen and where their money has been spent.”
Ali said everything had been done to ensure that as much aid as possible reached those in need, with volunteers instructed to sleep in their cars, or in tents in service stations, and to only take with them what they intended to leave behind.
“What I’ve told my guys is to buy with the intention of leaving everything there. So buy a decent backpack, a decent sleeping bag, a camping cooker with extra gas, and you leave everything there. Buy some good boots and leave them there. You come back with your passport in your pocket and your dirty underwear.”