MYCorps Middle East: An Experience

//MYCorps Middle East: An Experience

MYCorps Middle East: An Experience

Hello there. My name is Ain, and let me be honest with you – I believe I was born a better reader than a writer, but in these pages I will put together my messy thoughts and recollections for your consumption, as best as I can. Please bear with me.

A little introduction perhaps. I am a fresh graduate in Medicine, now back in Malaysia for good after five years studying abroad. Having an unnecessarily long waiting time for call to duty, and a curious tendency towards volunteering activities, I decided to answer the call for what seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – the MYCorps Middle East programme. In retrospect, indeed it was, and for that I feel compelled to share with you a glimpse of what I had experienced. Educational maybe, inspiring I hope, but really – human experience is, above all, a shared experience.

 

… and I leave all my doubts at Your door.

(Ain Ariffin)

 

MYCorps, an initiative by the Ministry of Youth and Sports (KBS) with their main partners Malaysian Life Line for Syria (MLLFS) and Malaysian Humanitarian Aid and Relief (MAHAR), that was set to train and groom young Malaysians into becoming international youth volunteer leaders. Demanded three months of my life, quite a huge commitment to make for someone in the unemployment line (I could be called in anytime!) – regardless of that however, I went ahead and applied anyway. Out of more than 1000 applications, mine was accepted, shortlisted, and the next thing I knew I was at the front gate of the International Youth Centre (IYC), Cheras – one of the 45 participants selected for this programme. We were scheduled to attend one month of pre-deployment training, followed by two months of international deployment to assist the Syrian refugees in one of these three countries – Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan.

I remember the training being mentally draining than it physically did. We had back-to-back lectures/sessions on basic humanitarian skills (ie first aid, project deliveries, media, etc.), international humanitarian laws, the Middle East crisis; visits from prominent local humanitarian figures, NGOs and government agencies. Quite overwhelming, but very useful – knowledge of which I realize (now more than then), are hard to come by. We were also physically and mentally challenged to endure 24 hours of urgent deployment to Cameron Highland from Kuala Lumpur with nothing but our IDs, RM 20, and a a small group of like-(and unlike-) minded people. Not to forget the grand finale where we spent three days in a PLKN camp, trained by a few military personnel – enough said.

All in all, this experience – was to prepare us, in all aspects, for what lies ahead in the Middle East.

 

AS A NEWCOMER: Expectation

 

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

(H. Jackson Brown Jr.)

Well said, Mr Brown. If you know me well enough, you would know that those are the exact words that I live by. So there I was, set to go to Turkey as my country of deployment. Having had no strong preference on which country to go to since the very beginning, I was just glad another, much senior doctor is going together with me – who turned out to be more than just that eventually, she became one of my best friends.

Anyway, back to the main story – I wouldn’t pretend to be an expert in the Middle East crisis, because I really am not, so these were a few of my expectations before the mission started:

 

  1. Turkey is going to be chaotic. Bombings and shootings are usual news coming from that part of the world, even in the morning of our departure there was one reported
  2. Turkey accommodates the largest population of Syrian refugees in the world, so they must be either (a) filthy rich; or (b) ridiculously noble but economically strained to do so – hence they must be in real need of support from other countries
  3. All Syrian refugees in Turkey live in camps – derelict, torn down camps popularly photographed on media
  4. We are going into those camps, staying inside with them, doing all these seemingly impactful acts – treating the acutely ill, giving out food baskets or cash coupons
  5. What are we going to do there, really? What sort of projects to establish? I bet there will be supervisors on the ground, Malaysians surely, overseeing our movements and making sure we don’t screw up

 

Boy, was I naïve or what?

 

AS A HUMANITARIAN WORKER: Reality

 

In 2010, I stood in the middle of Killing Fields, Cambodia wondering how the rest of the world in 1970s could allow the monstrosity of Khmer Rouge regime to happen.

In 2016, now I stand at the nearest place I can imagine myself to be to the worst humanitarian crisis of My time – and still left wondering of the same thing.

Helplessness is utterly heartbreaking.

(Ain Ariffin)

The above thoughts were written down when I was in Istanbul, Day 1 in Turkey. I couldn’t remember the details now, but I do remember that it was dusk, and there was this beautiful merging of colours outside – orange, like fire that burns; curled into the greyish clouds like tentacles across the sky. As if stepping out of a trance, I suddenly remember where I was, how close I was to one of the world’s most disastrous conflict areas, and all that beauty became so overwhelming it almost made me weep. At that point in time, I know I was there for a reason, and even though I am not exactly sure how the mission will turn out just yet, I will do whatever is required of me, to the best of my ability. That was my promise.

 

You’re not helpless Ain! Write! And make sure the world never forgets!

(Wan Safiyyah Nurnajah)

So I did – and hopefully you don’t.

Before I go any further though, to give context to this writing, here’s some facts and figures on the Syrian crisis as it stands in 2017 (list of sources below!):

 

  • Since 2011, nearly 5 million people have fled Syria, seeking refuge from bombs and bullets in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and other countries. Millions more are displaced inside Syria, including those in besieged areas.
  • Refugees from Syria are currently the largest refugee population from one conflict in a generation. The bordering countries are getting to threatening saturation points, especially Lebanon, which hosts nearly 1 million Syrian refugees and has the largest per capita refugee population in the world, alongside Jordan. Turkey is currently hosting around 3 million Syrian refugees, the largest number of Syrian refugees in one country in the world.
  • 10% of Syrian refugees across the Middle East live in camps, with the remaining 90% live in urban or rural settings. This is reflected in Turkey as well, the majority of them live in urban areas, with around 260,000 accommodated in 21 government-run refugee camps.

 

The initial duration of the mission was eight (8) weeks. We were stranded in KL for a week, so that left us with barely seven weeks to do what we’re supposed to do. We were in Istanbul for a week to sort out all the formalities required, and as for the rest, most of our time were spent in Gaziantep. It is a city bordering Syria in its southern side, barely 100 kilometres away from the besieged city of Aleppo. My team comprised of 11 volunteers, half of us in the healthcare line (of medical, physiotherapy, pharmaceutical, psychological background) and the other half were teachers, legal assistant, IT and physics graduate – a mixed bag of individuals. Our local partner was Bonyan Organization, a Syrian NGO based in Turkey, operating in both countries.

Phew! A lot of stories to share definitely, but I’m going to be very selective here. For now, let me just address the list of expectations I have had previously, and how they were met with realities on the ground –

 

  1. Turkey is going to be chaotic
  • It was not. When we first arrived in Istanbul, barely 24 hours after the latest bombing somewhere in the city, the streets bustled with sound of ambulances zigzagging through heavy traffic – but that was it. Everyone else just carried on walking around with tragic usualness.
  • I was having lunch in the city of Gaziantep, when news broke out that a suicide bomber got shot down by a police nearby. We were instructed by our local NGO to leave whatever we were doing at once, and get back home – we did, and that was it. I guess in a country so accustomed to these attacks, the people there just learn to move on pretty quickly.
  • There were a lot of random checks though, I cannot recall an instance where our van was not checked whenever we went in and out of the city. The official letters from KBS and UNIW (Union of NGOs of Islamic World, thank you!) were both crumpled beyond comprehension by the end of the mission. With all that’s happening in that blessed country, it leaves little to wonder why they’re being so cautious. My colleagues who received more than random questions were far less understanding though hehehe!

 

  1. Turkey accommodates the largest population of Syrian refugees in the world, so they must be either (a) filthy rich; or (b) ridiculously noble but economically strained to do so
  • Definitely (b): Turkey is currently the host for 2.9 million Syrian refugees (registered) who are considered, on most parts, as guests. The government builds camps for them, allows them to stay, work, study and provides a few other privileges (on certain terms and conditions). I am one person and that may not be enough, but I testify to this – as far as my observation goes, even though the system is not perfect and a few argue that the Turkish government can do a lot more, they are surely doing more than many richer countries put together.
  • They do receive financial assistance from the United Nations (UN) and other international governmental/non-governmental agencies but they are hardly enough. This is where the rest of us come in.

 

  1. All Syrian refugees in Turkey live in camps – derelict, torn down camps popularly photographed on media
  • Incorrect – only 10% of Syrian refugees across the Middle East live in camps, with the remaining 90% live in urban or rural settings.
  • Those living in camps are wholly managed by the Turkish government, their psychosocial and financial needs directly addressed. I have been into one, and I assure you, there are far from derelicts. Not the new one at least.

 

  1. We are going into those camps, staying inside with them, doing impactful acts
  • Sorry to disappoint, but we did none of those things. Apart from the sad fact that we did not manage to gain better access into the camps, those inside are generally well taken care off, the acutely ill are looked after by the already established set of medical teams – but what about those outside of the system? The remaining 90% living with minimal care and support; those with chronic illnesses or amputees who had passed the acute stage of medical care; the lost generation – orphaned children, missing years of schooling, left out of the education system; where do they go, to whom do they turn to? After quite a thorough needs analysis through our preliminary visits, we figured that we would be better off shifting our focus towards Syrians outside camps, who are lacking in support and assistance we believe we could help provide.
  • Our mission in Turkey then, naturally, was to address the needs of Syrians in the urban and rural settings who are forced to work for minimum wages to pay rent, or worse, left to beg in the streets. We also had the opportunity to look into the living situation of vulnerable groups of Syrians such as the orphans and single mothers (in orphanages), the sick requiring medical treatments (in temporary accommodation and rehabilitation centres), especially in Gaziantep.

 

  1. What are we going to do there, really? What sort of projects to establish? I bet there will be supervisors on the ground, Malaysians surely, overseeing our movements and making sure we don’t screw up
  •  First of all, no – there were no supervisors on the ground, not from the Malaysian side at least. This was supposed to be part of the training – we were equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge during the pre-deployment period, then were expected to work together as a team and make our own decisions collectively on the ground. We were not entirely alone, fortunately, as Bonyan Organisation (our local partner) played a central role in helping us navigate our way in Turkey and making sure our projects ran smoothly. Besides, our trainers were also generous in their guidance and assistance, despite being thousands of miles away. I can tell that they were careful not to spoon-feed us too much though, and looking back, I am grateful for that.
  • Decision-making was particularly tricky, working in a team made up of 11 strongly opinionated individuals – I learned a lot from my colleagues. Somehow we managed to pull off the mission satisfactorily, despite all the challenges and limitations. Alhamdulillah we managed to execute a few projects, and unlike my initial expectations, they involved so much more than just aid deliveries. I will get to that in a bit.

 

Here is a brief overview of our activities in Turkey, especially for those of you reading this who have contributed with us MYCorps in one way or another – material, monetary, and most importantly, prayers! I guess it’s good to know where all that went to, I owe you that at least:

 

  1. Courtesy visits to related authorities

Types:

  • Turkish governmental agencies (eg AFAD)
  • Turkish non-governmental agencies (eg Turkish Red Crescent)
  • Syrian non-governmental agencies (eg As Sham)
  • International agencies (eg IPHS)

Aims:

  • To learn on the management of Syrian refugees in Turkey
  • Share, exchange experiences on management of refugees in general
  • Establish future collaboration for the benefit of Syrians in Turkey

 

  1. Small projects

Education:

  • Ez-zahra University: Books, money for books
  • Sultan Ulamak school: Books
  • As Sham kindergarten: Classroom supplies (tables, chairs, etc.)

Economic assistance:

  • Immediate relief for Darul Ihsan: Outstanding bills and rent payment
  • Visiting poor families: Cash donations

Social engagement:

  • Dar Salam Orphanage: Open Day “Make Them Smile” (cooking, games, cash donations, gifts)
  • Hayrat Waqf school: Open Day (cash donations, gifts)
  • Street projects: Cash donations, food baskets, hygiene kits

 

  1. Country project: Temporary accommodation and rehabilitation center ‘Darul Ihsan’
  • Physiotherapy room
  • Clinic and Dispensary room
  • Classroom
  • Playspace

 

  1. Special events
  • Volunteering week
  • “Open Road to Aleppo” rally
  • “Welcoming Ceremony” for Malaysian government representatives

List! What is this list if only collections of words trailing, one after another. I guess they are important in their own right, but what do they actually mean? Do they change anything?

 

AS A HUMAN BEING: Reflection

 

Honestly, I am not sure if they mean anything. This one group of young, passionate people came to a foreign country for a few weeks wanting to make a change in this world.

I cannot speak on behalf of my colleagues, but these I do know…

  • I came to an orphanage. A little girl named Tasneem clung on to me every time I did. I deliberately reciprocated her attention, singled her out, and she seemed to enjoy it. I played with her, I read to her. I eventually learned that she was left there with three other siblings, her father dead and her mother is in Syria. I remember how she pleaded, there at the doorstep of the orphanage, for me to stay when it’s time for us to leave. I remember how she repetitively called my name and I just had to turn my back. It broke my heart and I know it broke hers, too. But all that came from knowing, deep down, that that’s because I made her feel special, the way she made me feel as well. At one point in time, in a sea of people, we made each other feel like we matter.
  • I came to a temporary home for the sick and injured. We somehow ‘adopted’ that center, took it under our wing, and worked on that place for a few weeks. We established a physiotherapy room, a clinic and a dispensary, a classroom, and a play space for its occupants. It was just one group of people, inside one building – a tiny dot among the population in Gaziantep. On our last day, our translator there pulled me aside and said his thanks. He told me how our paintings on the wall brightened up the place. He told me as the children used the colouring books we bought for them, they momentarily forgot about their sufferings in the past and the horrible things they have gone through. A therapy of some sort.
  • I came to Reyhanli, the Turkish-Syrian border point. It was a rally, named “Open Road to Aleppo” organized by IHH, one of the largest humanitarian NGOs there. As the name suggests, it was held as an effort to put pressure on the Syrian regime to open a humanitarian corridor for thousands of civilians in the besieged city. A young Syrian came up to us and motioned her fingers towards the Malaysian flag we carried – and remarked that that was the only non-Arab flag flying there that day. As we linked hands, she thanked us for being there.

 

Now. I am still not sure if any of those above changed anything, or if it did, how long will it last. I believe that is not for me to answer. All I know is that they give me a sense of purpose, that an act of kindness, no matter how small, goes a long way. More importantly though, and this is something bigger than all that put together – to rethink how we think about Suffering.

Make no mistake, War is real. The repercussions are real – deaths, destructions. I have seen the products of war – the missing and twisted limbs, the broken families; but I have also seen resilience and strengths, the kind only those who have suffered hell and beyond can possess. I consider myself a person of faith, and I believe everything happened for a reason – yes, even the deaths and suffering. I am not saying that they are justified. I am just saying that certain things are beyond the human minds to comprehend, that we don’t necessarily have to understand them completely or become the judge of the matter, and that’s okay.

We do what we can, simply to make things easy for our fellow human being, and hope that they count.

 

Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can,

at all the times you can, to all people you can, as long as you can.

(John Wesley)

Exactly. I am not a saint, and not trying to be one, but whenever an opportunity to do good knocks on your door, you would do best to answer them – as they do not come often, and God knows where it will lead you.

Three months of MYCorps ME, and yes, it led me places. Not only to the many different cities all over Turkey, but to the peaks and dips of human capabilities. I witnessed in the Syrians, the extent of human resilience in striving and thriving under limited resources. I witnessed in the Turkish, the inexplicable generosity in making space for people not of their own. I also witnessed in my fellow Malaysians, the global inclusivity, by answering our call for support and donations, ultimately making sure all the projects we planned for the Syrians in the Middle East achievable. Most of all though, I bear witness to the humanitarian spirit of my fellow teammates and trainers in MYCorps ME, who courageously carried the Malaysian spirit with them to a foreign, war-torn region and made sure a disadvantaged group of human beings there feel a little less alone.

I believe it is important that I witnessed these, and experienced them so vividly that I am now able to share them with you. War is real. Deaths and suffering it inflicted upon human beings are real. But so are Hope and Strength in continue living. As long as these two exist, we bring it upon ourselves as part of the international community to provide as much support as we can, in ways we know how, to help them get through it.

 

I was here.

(MYCorps)

NIFFIRANIA

(Ain Ariffin, MYCorps ME)

 

References

  1. http://www.unhcr.org/syria-emergency.html
  2. http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php
  3. https://ec.europa.eu/echo/files/aid/countries/factsheets/syria_en.pdf
  4. http://reliefweb.int/

 

Disclaimer: The reflections above are solely author’s and author’s alone. They do not in any way, represent her team or the organisations involved.

By | 2017-03-25T14:44:59+00:00 March 24th, 2017|Article|2 Comments

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2 Comments

  1. Suhaib March 25, 2017 at 6:32 pm - Reply

    Proud to be one of Bonyan team who hosted you

    • Ain Ariffin April 14, 2017 at 6:09 pm - Reply

      Thank you Suhaib! You were such a wonderful host to us.

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