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Syrian Aid Groups Train An Army Of Activists

At a border crossing, Mulham al-Jundi directs aid vehicles from southern Turkey into Syria. The Turkish border officials know him; they quickly stamp his papers and wave him through.

Jundi is with Watan, a private Syrian aid group that collects donations from abroad and delivers support to some of the hot spots inside Syria — places that international aid agencies have been unable to reach.

The group has seven ambulances that help support field hospitals that have been established inside Syria, says Jundi, 28, who heads the aid operation from an office in southern Turkey.

The staff at his office are young; all of them are new to humanitarian aid work. But their lack of experience is offset by connections inside the country. A roster of volunteers, activists on the ground, send reports listing urgent needs, from building a bakery to funding a field hospital.

"We have a good network inside. We can reach different areas. So, we made some mistake at the beginning, but now we have a good plan," Jundi says.

There are also plans in southern Turkey to help Syrian refugees. For example, Watan has established a sewing project, with rented space in a workshop, that allows the refugees to share the profits from the sale of what they make.

"A little money can help [the women] not to ask people for money, not to need men," says Marwa Sayd Essa, a university student. She designed the workshop plan and persuaded Watan to fund it. She found markets for the baby blankets and computer and cellphone covers that are made by the women here.

Some are widows, most are university graduates, and all of them are grateful for any cash, says one woman, Um Mustapha, noting that it's the first she has earned since she was forced to leave Syria.

"I was a schoolteacher, so I was used to having a job and actually going out every day," she says. "This workshop helps you to get out of the house, make your brain work again."

A Nonstop Flow Of Refugees

The flow of refugees to southern Turkey ebbs and swells but never stops. There are 17 refugee camps that are full and an estimated 200,000 refugees who are undocumented.

At the same time, a generation of young Syrians has also come to southern Turkey, says Adib Shishakly, who heads the aid effort for Syria's main political opposition group.

Now, there are 130 private Syrian aid organizations, he says, and what he sees in these dedicated young Syrians is the beginning of civil society.

"This is excellent. As bad as the situation [is], this project is very exciting," he says.

What's new, he says, is that Syrians are forming their own independent aid groups. Inside Syria, the government controls, monitors and hand-picks the staff for humanitarian organizations.

"Nobody was able to sit down and form anything, because that was illegal," Shishakly says.

But despite all the new aid organizations, he says, the workers don't have the skills to address Syria's catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

"They are very new to relief work and they need a lot of training," Shishakly says. "I don't see them being very effective for 18 months."

Speeding Up The Process

For his part, Mulham al-Jundi is trying to speed up the process. He brings the management skills he learned in a high-tech company in Saudi Arabia. He gets proposals every day from young Syrians who have quit jobs, who pay their own way to southern Turkey, but most don't know how to work in an aid organization.

"Some people can do it, and some people can't do it 100 percent, so we teach them to make this project successful," he says.

It is a long-term project. Aid is the first priority, and building the country is his long-term goal.

He had a good job in Saudi Arabia, but he walked away to work in southern Turkey. It's his contribution to the uprising, one that many other young Syrians have made.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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