‘It is our duty’: The Syrian aid organisations rushing to Gaza

Syrian aid workers say that Palestinians were often the first to respond when victims of war in Syria needed their help.

A woman shows a placard as Syrians gather during a pro-Palestinian protest to express solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, in Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, near Damascus, Syria
Syrians protest to express solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, in Yarmouk refugee camp, near Damascus, Syria [Firas Makdesi/Reuters]

When Asmaa al-Daher, a pharmacist and aid worker based in Turkey, went home to Gaza for a visit just over two weeks ago, she had little idea that one of the most brutal military campaigns her besieged home had ever faced was about to begin.

Although she was already experienced in providing humanitarian relief to victims of war through her work in Syria with Al-Ameen for Humanitarian Support, al-Daher was not prepared for what was to come in Gaza.

“I’ve witnessed many wars during my life, but I never anything like this,” the 27-year-old said in a voice message she sent to a colleague in Turkey by WhatsApp.

After being displaced five times inside Gaza within a couple of weeks, al-Daher is now in Rafah on the border with Egypt. In her five-minute WhatsApp recording, she tried to explain to Yasser al-Tarraf the reality she is living.

In a trembling, rushed voice as she tried to finish recording before the internet failed, she said: “These are the worst days for the Palestinian people – genocide and massacres in all neighbourhoods.”

Al-Tarraf told Al Jazeera that al-Daher has been working around the clock to coordinate with authorities on the ground to get resources and aid where they are needed most.

“We’ve witnessed displacement and killing in Syria, so our sympathy with Gaza is great.”

Al-Ameen, a Syrian organisation, has been working in the Gaza Strip for the past two years, providing humanitarian support and vocational training. Since the bombing began two weeks ago, it has focused on helping to distribute food and resources.

A matter of life or death for the besieged

There are a number of relief organisations that sprang up during Syria’s civil war, to deal with the damage left by years of bombing campaigns, displacements and repeated sieges that different parts of Syria have undergone.

After a few years, some became strong enough to provide relief to victims of disasters in other countries and, recently, some of them began operating in Gaza.

The Emergency Response Team is a humanitarian organisation in northwestern Syria, outside the Syrian regime’s control and as such has been able to operate overseas, including in Lebanon, Libya and Morocco, and Palestine since 2021.

“We’re trying to provide assistance to any country that needs it,” head of operations Dulama Ali told Al Jazeera.

Despite the skills and experience that humanitarian workers from Syria have, the situation they found in Gaza presents daunting challenges, al-Tarraf said.

Until Friday, the Gaza Strip had languished under a total blockade for nearly two weeks – no food, water or medical resources were allowed in by Israel.

On Saturday, a very small convoy of medical aid and food was allowed to cross into Gaza via the Rafah crossing on the Egypt border – 20 out of the about 200 relief trucks that were waiting at the Rafah crossing.

“Closing the crossings was a turning point in the response because it means life or death for the besieged,” said al-Tarraf.

Because relief organisations could not bring aid into the Gaza Strip during the siege, they had to buy supplies that were already in Gaza and redistribute them to those in need.

Intense bombing has also destroyed many warehouses and aid workers say they have only about half what they had before the siege. In addition, the continuous displacement of people within Gaza has made it extremely difficult to bring supplies to those in need as aid workers simply cannot reach them.

Some aid workers have died.

Muhammad Qahwaji, a photographer who worked with Al-Ameen, was killed during the first days of the Israeli bombing. Another Al-Ameen photographer, Hassan al-Aswad, was injured after his family’s home was destroyed by a rocket.

‘Pray for us before we go’

Before relief workers in Gaza head off for a day of work, they message their colleagues outside the Gaza Strip and ask them to pray for them.

The Molham Volunteer Team is another Syrian organisation now trying to provide aid in Gaza.

“There isn’t a safe place within Gaza. We are cooperating with four organisations inside. All of them are in danger. And when they go out to work, they don’t know if they will come back,” Abdullah al-Khatib, head of media and fundraising, told Al Jazeera.

At least 4,651 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip during the ongoing Israeli military campaign, according to the latest statistics from the Palestinian Ministry of Health, nearly 70 percent of these victims were minors, women and the elderly. More than 14,000 people have also been injured.

Many aid organisations have diverted resources from their operations in Syria, despite low funding and humanitarian needs being at their highest levels in years.

Like other Syrian aid operations, the Molham Team relies on private donations and has established a separate fund-raising arm for providing relief in Gaza.

“We have made our donation platforms available to everyone who wants to support Palestine – that is our duty,” said al-Khatib.

“Since the beginning of our work [in Syria] in 2012, the Palestinians were among the first donors to Syria,” said al-Khatib. “There are entire housing projects funded by Palestinians in northwestern Syria.”

Source: Al Jazeera