Peter foran ruinerne i Aleppo.

Syria is devastated, but the people are strong

Travel blog: Mission East's international director has just returned home after seeing Mission East's aid work among earthquake victims in Aleppo.

By Peter Drummond-Smith, international director, Mission East

We do not fully get it into our heads, it simply doesn’t sink in, how severe the destruction is in Syria. Not even when we meet the people who fled the civil war-stricken – and now earthquake-stricken – country.

We understand it with our heads, yes, but only when you actually drive through the country does it really hit your heart how broken the country is.

When you drive past one smashed town after another and see abandoned and empty ruins kilometer after kilometer to finally meet thousands of homeless people and see them standing at the aid organizations' soup kitchens, you realize how bleak it is.

Syria is a country devastated by war, disaster and economic crises. The proud and strong people, who have been through so much, are now fighting an unequal battle with these circumstances in order to survive.

They deserve all the support they can get.

Whole residential areas have been bombed to pieces

I have just returned home from a visit to the Syrian city of Aleppo, where Mission East, together with other organisations, provides food, clothing and shelter for 40,000 people. At the same time, we distribute cash assistance so that the families can start repairing their homes - if they can be repaired.

I landed in the capital, Damascus, which on the surface looks like any other big city in the region. But you don't have to go further than the outskirts of the city before you see whole residential areas destroyed and abandoned, like ghost towns. It is also striking that shops and even large car dealers' showrooms are largely empty. They testify to the country where people could once afford to buy cars like Ford and Nissan. Today, only hollow houses remain. The economy is at rock bottom.

Kilometers of ruined cities and abandoned houses

But that's not the worst. Although the journey towards Aleppo also offers beautiful landscapes and lush fields, these breaks are interrupted by whole residential areas with many buildings totally ravaged and falling to the ground. We drove for an hour and a half through such desolate landscapes with blocks of flats where only the steel structures remained, and you could look right into what used to be the living room, kitchen or bedrooms of very ordinary families.

When we finally reached Aleppo, when we hadn’t expected it could be possible, we saw even worse destruction. The two earthquakes six weeks ago have razed entire residential areas to the ground, and thousands of people are left homeless. And because they had to flee their homes so suddenly, they were also without even the most basic necessities: Toiletries, outerwear, shoes, food and drink.

Warm clothes and warm food for thousands

That is why Mission East's first effort after the earthquakes was to hand out these items so that the most vulnerable children, women, the elderly and people with disabilities could at least keep a little warm in the bitter winter cold. Our partner organization also served hot food from soup kitchens and still does.

I visited a cement factory that has now been converted into a refugee center. Hundreds of people live here in miserable conditions; some families find an abandoned office, others huddle in storage rooms and most families have to lie on thin mattresses with only a sheet as a curtain around them for a modicum of privacy. I also visited a school and a residential area and everywhere we saw the same thing. Thousands of devastated people who are deeply dependent on outside help to get back on their feet.

Therefore, Mission East has now entered the second phase of the emergency aid: help for recovery. We distribute cash to families who can - and dare - return to their homes and repair them. The homes must of course be checked by experts first, but there are homes that can be repaired with new windows and doors and by improvements to the walls, floor and ceiling. Other homes are totally destroyed and uninhabitable, so here they have to be demolished to make way for something new.

The people deserve help to get through the crisis

I return home completely shaken. It is not the same as sitting in front of the screen and seeing the destruction in pictures and films. It doesn't sink in either, even though I know several people who have fled Syria and have spoken about the violent destruction of the war. But I must acknowledge that I woke up to the realities when I drove through the country, saw the bombed-out housing estates and abandoned ruined cities along the roads and met the thousands of earthquake victims who have no idea how to cope and get back to a fairly normal life again.

I admire these people for their ability to grit their teeth and persevere against all odds. They are a proud and strong people. They have endured 12 years of civil war, and they will probably get through this crisis as well, if the world community stands with them and provides support for them to re-establish themselves.

This is what we are trying to do in Mission East together with our partner organization SHEILD. Our effort is quite small compared to the overwhelmingly large needs. I saw in the cement factory, where hundreds of people came and got hot food, blankets and a place to sleep, that when we stand together with other organizations, it matters.