Syria: Five Years On

Apologies, dear readers, that I am behind on my posts. This is because – as you well know if you read my last post – I am on holiday, and so have less aid-work worries than I usually do. Except yesterday, I took a boat trip. On this boat trip, we got into some choppy waters. The boat climbed up and crashed down like a poorly designed roller-coaster at a street funfair, and we cheered and whooped and clapped that it was so much fun to be crashing over the waves.

But it got me thinking about the thousands of people crossing the Mediterranean at the moment in search of safety or a better life, or both. Even though it was fun, the wave surfing was a little scary, uncomfortable and nauseating. I thought of having to spend not 10 minutes, but perhaps 10 hours in a boat less sturdy than mine and across waves much rougher than mine. The thought terrified me.

This month marks the fifth anniversary of the start of the Syrian crisis. I worked in Syria for the all too brief period of 9 months a few years back. When I first started, I was given a full security briefing. Our security advisor was warning us of Al Nusra front as being the main threat against foreign workers and generally causing mayhem, then, as if overnight, security warnings took a darker turn. Al Nusra were not the only bad guys any more, it was a group called ISIL. Where I was working, the area outside the camp was a battleground between ISIL and the Free Syrian Army. During my time there, one of our members of staff went missing for three days; when he returned to work, he explained that ISIL had come to his town, rounded up all the men and taken them for questioning about their faith at gun point. Another time, my team and I narrowly made it across the border into Turkey as a fire fight broke out around us for control of the border crossing. The camp where thousands of innocent, terrified Syrians sought shelter was targeted by suicide bombers twice; the week after I left my deployment, one was successful. A supposed safe haven full of innocent men, women and children escaping fear, violence and uncertainty. The bomber killed 40 of them.

One day, my team and I were assessing some water tanks installed for new arrivals. As we were doing so, the noise of a plane hummed in the distance. I have never seen a change in atmosphere happen so quickly; women screamed for their children to come back into the tents; men shouted the imminent arrival of the aircraft to each other, desperate to shelter and protect their families. I’m not sure I had truly understood the horror that people had lived through until that point.

Once on our drive out of the camp, my Syrian colleague told me, ‘It’s ok for you, you get to leave.’ It was possibly the first time I allowed him to see my distress. I was so focused on presenting detachment and professionalism, that my feelings spilled over from this small remark. I was invested, boots to head, with him, with them, with this camp and the dysfunctional little town it had become. But what made me fall apart was that he was right; if things became too much for me, I could request to leave. And in the end, that’s what I did; not because of the war, not because of ISIL, and not because emotionally I was spent, even though I was; because I no longer trusted my organisation to lead a well organised response.

I understand the concerns of Europeans being reticent (putting it nicely) to allow the wave of predominantly Syrian refugees into their countries. We went through something similar when the size of our humble little camp tripled within two weeks due to heavy bombardment in Aleppo. Yes it was chaos, but it was worth it to offer the smallest amount of hope to people so desperate to feel safe.

Last year I hoped we would not see another, and it saddens me to think that it is only since the crisis is knocking on Europe’s doorstep that it can no longer be ignored. Whilst it makes me sad to think it has come to this to force the world’s hand into some kind of concrete action, I hope it finally does. Imagine for a second that it was you and your family; imagine the noise of the planes; the shaking of your house when a bomb lands nearby; leaving your home, belongings, your history in order to keep your children safe; imagine that the only route you see open to you is a rough journey across a choppy sea with no assurance at the end. If you could imagine that, you would remember the Syrian anniversary and call for greater support of Syrian refugees. Let’s hope that there is not a 6th anniversary.

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On International Women’s Day… Where my boys at?

This week, many of my female friends have been marking International Women’s Day by sharing updates, badges and whatever else you do on social media these days to show your support for a cause. Covering your profile picture with the Suffragette flag or a giant vagina or something along those lines. One friend posted a thought that I have heard so many times, in so many countries; why is there an International Women’s Day? Why only one day to celebrate women and their achievements? Why is it a celebration when there is still not equality between women and men?

If you are a woman you are likely to receive a wage that is up to 30% lower than your male counterpart doing the same job. You are less likely to be represented in employment unions making it harder for you to ensure your rights in the workplace. You are likely to work more, for less pay, with less education and less political participation. The country in which you live may even have legal restrictions on the work that you can do. You are less likely to own your own land, even though you may take an equal (or higher share) in farming it. In natural disasters, you are more likely to die. You are almost certain to encounter some form of sexual violence (including verbal harassment) in public within your lifetime. Whilst there has been significant progress, you are still less likely to go to school, particularly secondary or tertiary education. All of this because you are a woman. International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women despite all of these imbalances and encourages us all to keep pushing for gender parity.

If you are a human being, and you think women should be treated equally to men, then congratulations, you are a feminist. The mention of the F-word makes some people come across a little strange; it makes them think that if you are one, you have to burn your bra or taste your own menstrual blood à la Greer. Apparently because I don’t want to do the last one, I have a long way to go before declaring myself a feminist, however, I trust my body to let me know the stuff it wants to keep on the inside, and the stuff it thinks I’m best off letting go. Is it a ritual rite of passage for men to scoff their own spunk to be manly? Not as far as I know, but then, I may move in some pretty sheltered circles. And as for burning bras, I’m guessing that for any woman in my situation with more than a C cup, bras are less symbols of oppression and more a safeguard against black eyes on unpaved roads. Some people think of feminism and think of a load of unwashed women, munching on tofu burgers and plaiting their unshaven armpit hair. When I think of feminism, I think of dedicated human beings that believe your genitalia shouldn’t dictate your treatment in this world.

Note that I say human beings; parity, equality, whatever you want to call it, can’t just come from women alone. If we could do it all ourselves, I reckon we probably would have managed it by now. No, we need men. That might upset some feminists to say that we need men, but we do; for there to be equality between the sexes, there needs to be at least two of them. That’s just common sense. Here, I defer to the wisdom of Caitlin Moran. In Moran’s best-selling book, ‘How to be a Woman’, she gives a great explanation of why a feminist should not be either ‘pro-women’ nor ‘anti-men’; ‘The idea that we are all at the end of the day, just a bunch of well-meaning schlumps, trying to get along… I’m just thumbs up for the six billion.’ It’s not men that feminists need to be fighting as Moran says, it’s The Man. The Man is the one responsible for perpetrating the never ending stream of images, words and influence that tells us women should be one way, and men should be another. Men suffer just as much from The Man as women do.

On my last deployment, I saw a film made by the Vogue Empower campaign called ‘Start with the Boys’. In it, boys are told over and over again, ‘stop crying, are you a girl?’

We forget sometimes that boys are also put under pressure to behave a certain way, and therefore treat women a certain way. If we want gender parity, we need to work together to allow humans to be who they are, rather than shoe-horning them into the neatly defined expectations we have of them based on their genitalia.  The strongest men see women as their equals and the strongest women don’t need to put men down to be empowered. So on International Women’s Day this year, big up to all the guys out there – women, men, and those who identify with neither – who are championing gender parity by being human and doing it well.

The Buffer Break

I’m writing this blog post a little late. And if truth be known, a little pissed. Because I am on HOLIDAY. Not just any holiday, oh no, I am on my first Buffer Break.

There comes a point in every deployment where you just want out. Maybe it’s when you’ve become tired of being the only person in your ‘hotel’ to clean the restaurant tables. Maybe it’s when you want a proper bed. Maybe it’s that if you hear/see one of more of those delightful cultural quirks such as lung-hacking pre- and post-dinner, or a long fifth fingernail for…. excavations, you may commandeer a gun from a local peacekeeper and go Columbine. Or maybe it’s just that you’re really, really tired. Humanitarian work seems to exhaust people like nothing else. It’s not just physical exhaustion bought about from long and active working days, poor diets and lack of sleep enduced by nonstop worries of earthquakes, or bombs, or mice that like to eat your clothes while you sleep or all-the-things-your-agency-could-be-doing-to-save-lives-but-are-not-in-the-donor-contract-and-the-CD-doesn’t-like-it, it’s also mental exhaustion. A friend and I recently discussed the longest we had worked on ‘maxed out mode’; it was an average of 17 hours per day, 7 days a week for 10 weeks straight. Her run was broken by being called to another emergency, mine by malaria. I imagine that the EU would have a field day slapping regulations on those kind of working hours.

Most aid workers know when it’s time to go; we all have our tell tale signs. Your patience reaches zero and you begin snapping with co-workers. Or you lose the ability to concentrate and lack motivation for your work despite there still being mountains to move. Or, like me, your level of casual swearing could qualify you for the navy, or at least Captain Jack’s skipper for sure. You can see it; your once bouncy colleague – known to brighten even the darkest of email induced bad moods – slumped over their coffee cup, calling everyone a twat.

So then go home! Take a break! See your family and friends! I hear you cry. Except herein lies the secondary dilemma; that adjusting back to ‘normal life’ can be just as tiring and painful. You are exhausted and possibly traumatised from what you have experienced, but your family and friends just see their old son/daughter/mate back again and assume you are still that bright-eyed, shiny, idealistic young thing they hugged at the airport, rather than a sleep deprived, worn out, probably hung over miscreant questioning the utility of your entire existence as an aid worker (or you know, on different points on that long sliding scale).  Many of your nearest and dearest won’t understand what life has been like for you and equally, you will not understand how your emotional crash landing back into their lives will affect them. When one aid worker posted on the Facebook group ’Fifty Shades of Aid’ that they found it hard to adjust to being back at home despite good relationships with their family, 33 others quickly identified with them and left 15 comments offering different advice. I can relate to this person’s dilemma. My inability to integrate seamlessly back into family life has resulted in me either hiding in my bedroom or shouting at my mother like a stroppy teenager on a crowded street in Llandudno; neither are options I want to see becoming the norm.

Tesco

The buffer break may result in you missing a browse around your local supermarche – Credit: Telegraph

And so I am taking my first buffer break. The buffer break as a concept is well acknowledged in the humanitarian field, but I like to think I have given it a trendy ‘instagram’ label now (I can imagine the selfies now, ‘me on the beach #bufferbreak #nofilter’ #fuckoff). It is when, instead of going straight home at the end of a deployment, you go somewhere else for a little while to ease gently back into life away from the very worst things that human beings can do to each other, and back into one of family lunches, cappuccinos and haircuts. A few friends of mine have dreamt of setting up a ‘half-way house’ for humanitarians to enjoy exactly this kind of decompression stop on their murky rise up to surface normality. One friend had an amazing idea to set up a resort in Spain, with a range of activities to satiate all manners of coping mechanisms: waterfall diving for those with spare adrenaline to burn? You got it. Massage and pedicure for those knotted from computer based hunching? No problem. Drowning your sorrows in excellently made cocktails for… erm, everyone? On tap! The idea being you can do whatever it takes to shake off those last vestiges of the deployment, helping you feel ready to leave work behind and head home ready for reintegration.

I spent my buffer break doing a mix of all three of the options above. I went trekking and spent some time getting uncomfortably close to a manner of animals that would happily eat me. I also had a massage which ironed out the tangle of knots that were keeping my shoulders hunched up like Quasimodo. I drank too much wine. Alone. And then wrote a blog post (winning). I met people who didn’t care at all what I had spent my last 6 months doing, and were more interested in finding out what my recommendations were for activities for the next day. It was refreshing. It also gave me time to finish off all the obligatory reporting, emails, last minute extra pieces of work that I usually end up having to do at home and keep me with one eye on work, rather than two eyes on my wonderful family and soaking up all my limited and precious time with them.

Tomorrow is the last day of my buffer break; it might be the wine talking, but taking this break in between my two worlds has made me feel more relaxed. Mostly, it has made me feel ready and excited to get back to my family, and back to ‘normal life’. Some people may be wondering how they would know when they were ready to leave the fast-pace of deployment behind and head home. Mine came like a eureka moment when catching up with a friend. I asked her what she was doing, and she said that she was in Tesco buying a sandwich. The first thing that came to my mind wasn’t, ‘oh how dull!’, or ‘hmm, I do really need to get going and finish that report…’ or even, ‘what kind of sandwich?’ It was ‘Tesco! Man, I can’t wait to mooch around Tesco!’ And lo and behold, I am ready to head home.