Saturday, 22 February 2014

The Weekend Read: International Aid does make a difference and I have seen how

In January 2011 the conflict that is now known as the Syrian civil war began to take shape, as the aftershocks from the Arab Spring erupted in Syria. Ever since 2011 this beautiful country has been a war zone, with Assad’s regime, backed by Russia and Iran, fighting both the moderate Free Syrian Army and the extremists. On any interpretation, the conflict has spiralled out of control.
During these last 3 years I have met with concerned local groups in Tynedale and listened to the efforts of the churches here as they both pray and give support to the oppressed in Syria. I was particularly touched by the efforts of the Methodist Church in Hexham; when I visited the Methodist Church last year, I was struck by their campaign to highlight the conflict and the people who are so affected; I still have one of their plastic wristbands, created in the shape of barbed wire.

And the numbers of people affected and displaced in Syria is truly horrifying. Aside from the 125,000 people killed in the conflict, there are now over 2 million Syrian refugees, primarily housed in camps on the Syrian borders with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Patiently these people are waiting for the world to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict so that they can go home. In the meantime, they live a difficult existence, deprived of their homeland and unsure of their future. Into this chaos the British people have provided great assistance. It is something that I am very proud of.

We should be proud of the fact that Britain has provided over £600 million of support; this makes us the second largest humanitarian donor, behind only the USA. We have provided food for 188,000 people, clean water for almost a million and medical consultations for almost a quarter of a million.

But it is equally important for local residents to be sure that this money and assistance is going to the right people. For too long international aid was synonymous with corruption and misappropriated funds. To find out how this money is being spent I travelled, with colleagues and the wonderful team behind Project Maja, to the Nizip 2 refugee camp on the Syrian Turkish border last month. This camp is one of the places where British food and support has been given. I was really impressed at the way aid was distributed and satisfied it was going to people who really deserved and needed it.

I listened as one female refugee told me how pro-Assad militiamen tortured her husband to death in the mosque, having turned on the muezzin’s speakers so that the entire village should hear his screams. Others described how they had left family members behind, some dead, some wounded, with many having family members who had simply disappeared. The horrors of Syria are literally unthinkable. Every one of the three days I spent in the camps I was struck by the enormity and ferocity of the conflict. The experience was humbling. But amidst all of this the refugees I met were determined to be strong and retain their lives. They welcomed the support the UK had given.

However, the camps lack many things. At the Nizip 2 camp over 50% of the refugees were children. The schools lack books and teachers. When we arrived there was no play area in any way for any of
the thousands of adults or children. Along with other colleagues we set about changing that. Aside from distributing toys and clothes to young and old our biggest contribution was the building of an Astroturf football pitch, which we finished in time to have an inaugural game (the Syrian refugees beat the European helpers 5-4). Pictures of us building the pitch, and then celebrating the refugees win are set out below. We lost even though we had the former Captain of the Turkish Football Team playing on our team!

What was very clear was the power of sport to change lives, both in the short term and the longer term. The arrival of the football pitch – paid for in part by UK money – was the biggest thing to have happened in the camp for months; the chance to play was beyond excitement for the children. We, in the west, take for granted the chance to have a kick about after school, or the public space where two teams can line up for a game. I am really proud that over the 3 days we were there we created a place
for the camp to come together to play, to forget their troubles, and allow the power of sport to work its magic. Indeed, for many of the kids in the camp they believed that football was the only way out. Although they were traumatized by the past all were grateful for their present, their security, and hopeful of their future.

I am convinced that helping the Syrians both with aid in their country, and to the camps on the borders, is the biggest help we can give. In addition we have accepted over 3,000 refugees on an asylum basis over the last 3 years, and have now extended the refugee programme. Last month the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced that the UK had agreed with the United Nations to set up a "vulnerable person relocation scheme", which will run in parallel to the agency's own refugee scheme, with the aim of resettling those at the "greatest risk" in the UK. The programme will focus on individual cases "where evacuation from the region is the only option", said the home secretary,
and will "prioritise help for survivors of torture and women and children in need of medical care".

I will never forget the experience of the refugee camp I visited. I am eternally grateful to the taxpayers, local people and churches of Tynedale who have played their part in alleviating the suffering of these people.