Suppressed giggles filled the room as an image of school children playing with characters like Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob Squarepants flashed on the screen. An emotional support program for children. It was a break in the tension, but not for long. The other images had been of bullet riddled ambulances; portraits of the 17 volunteers who have been killed since the crisis in Syria began two years ago.
This week, the Dr. Abdul Rahman Attar, President of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), visited the American Red Cross to brief staff about the situation and challenges of working in his war-torn country. As an international communications staffer, I’ve read a lot about Syria and the work of the Red Cross and Red Crescent there, but this was my first time hearing a firsthand account. The emotion in the room was tangible, Dr. Attar’s captive audience hanging on to every word.
Dr. Attar and SARC lead a group of some 10,000 volunteers, 3,000 of which are active at any given time. Those who work in critically needed first-aid have some 120 hours of training under their belt. They drive ambulances, provide medical care, food and water to some 2 million Syrians a month; all while putting their lives at risk. The tagline at the bottom of each slide resonated loud and clear, “Beyond the line of duty.”
The work Dr. Attar and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers are performing every day in the most challenging of places is nothing short of heroic. Children, like those in one of the 14 emotional support programs SARC is running, are the most vulnerable in the crisis, he said. What he expected to be a one to two month situation has continued for more than two years now and safe humanitarian access is a constant challenge. Even when access is granted, there are often delays such as check points that SARC must deal with when transporting the injured to medical care. But he continues to look forward, dealing not only with the current situation but how to build capacity within his organization.
“I want to see the future after the crisis,” Dr. Attar said.
Until then, SARC, as the lead humanitarian agency working on the ground, keeps on. Working with partners and support by Red Cross societies from around the world , Dr. Attar and thousands of volunteers are focused on helping those most in need until the crisis comes to an end.