Support for Syrian Refugees

Arsal is a town on the Syrian border, high above the Bekaa valley, on which EDA has focussed its main humanitarian effort over the past three years.

This month(September) EDA's 6th and 7th 40-foot, 10 ton, shipping containers were sent on their way to Arsal full of clothes, boots and shoes for the coming winter; also toiletries, school things, knitted teddies, baby things. And a number of carefully checked sewing machines, fabrics, haberdashery and knitting wools for the women's self-help groups among the refugees, and for EDA's vocational training courses.

ARSAL Main Story
Arsal used to be a village of 35,000 poor Lebanese inhabitants . In the last two years some 100,000 Syrian refugees have poured over the indistinct border. Some have managed to escape further into Lebanon, but some 75,000 are still crowded into tents and makeshift dwellings. At 1500 metres in the mountains above the Bekaa valley, Arsal is always cold in winter: the 2014/15 winter was one of the coldest, and this winter now seems set to follow.

EDA has been working in Arsal for nearly three years. Besides the most recent one we have sent three full-size shipping containers from the UK: two with mainly winter clothes, one mainly food, but also with school materials, medical supplies, shelter materials, and a four wheel drive ambulance.

In August 2014 there was an ISIS incursion into the town. Lebanese army soldiers were killed, some taken prisoner (and later executed). A shootout ensued. Many tents caught fire, and there were many resulting injuries and deaths. Fortuitously arrived from Edinburgh at just this time, EDA managed to deliver 8 tons of desperately needed food, and for a time was the only NGO operating in Arsal.
In November more Lebanese soldiers were killed, captured and again more executions. The local Lebanese were extremely angry, as well they might be, making access to the refugees difficult and sometimes dangerous. All the same, with the help of Dar Al Fatwa Relief, EDA volunteers Denis Rutovitz and Maggie Tookey were able to buy 500 warm winter jackets and winter boots in Lebanon at good rates and having obtained a go-ahead from the army at an opportune moment between road closures they were able to deliver these in person, and oversee the setting up and start of the distribution.

In Edinburgh at the same time we asked for donations of warm clothes and winter boots. The response was almost overwhelming, and not only in donations. Many also volunteered to help pack and sort everything. Finally on 23rd December there was a great turn-out to stuff a 40 shipping container absolutely full of over 1000 boxes of winter things and much else. This was then sent on its way to Grangemouth and arrived in Beirut on January 25th 2015; and then, as so often happens, It took a further three weeks to clear the container through Customs.

Meanwhile, in order to provide immediate help in the worst of the winter, we arranged for the distribution of 20 litres of fuel oil to each of 150 families. For some this meant the difference between hypothermia and survival; for all it provided an at least temporary respite from the cold.

Maggie visited Arsal again on Feb 17th 2015 to assess the position. She returned two days later with 3 truck-loads of aid from the container, overcoming obstruction by weather and checkpoints alike with her usual steely determination and apparent composure. She spent the following 10 days in Arsal in freezing temperatures and ever-present danger, overseeing the distribution of the aid.In response to local requests, she added to the aid sent from Edinburgh local purchases of items ranging from fuel oil for two hospitals to underwear for hundreds of women. Maggie kept a day-by-day diary of her work and events there. It's a fine story, but a long one. To read it - and its well worth while - please click on this link (or copy it into your browser's address line) .

Winter 2015/16:
The winter was late in coming but in January it arrived with a vengeance, blanketing the Bekaa in snow even at low levels in the valley, let alone in the hills. As mentioned at the start of this long note, in December 2015 Maggie Tookey once again against all the odds managed to get the aid delivered, . A shipping container load - 8 tons - is a lot of toiletries, underwear, nurses uniforms, hospital drapes, teddies, school things, and above all warm clothes, and good shoes and boots: enough to help most of those in Arsal in real need of winter clothing and footwear.

In addition, that week we again arranged for the issue of 20 liters of fuel oil for each of 150 families who for one reason or another are not receiving the UNHCR fuel allowance. The small oil-burning stoves heat up the tents quickly. Used with care, the oil lasts a good many days making it possible to dry wet things and for everyone in the family to warm up, at least for a few hours each day.

2015/16: Vocational Training

Our main achievement in Arsal in 2015 and 2016 has been of a very different nature -- an attempt to alleviate the bleak hopelessness of life of the young men and women, both Lebanese and Syrian, in Arsal (the situation of the Lebanese is almost as bad as that of the refugees. Because of security concerns, the army will not allow the stonecutters to go to their quarries, the shepherds to graze their sheep or the farmers to go to their orchards, all these being mainly situated in the 20 km of mountain-top and valley between Arsal and the Syrian border; Arsal's cherries are famous: there are said to be 3,000,000 cherry trees now going to waste or being cut down and sold for firewood by the militants occupying the no-mans-land where they grow).

Acting in together with local partners, EDA has set up a series of vocational training courses, aimed at equipping young people with useful mainly manual skills, and which will hopefully give them a minimal sense of achievement and purpose, and lead to at least occasional employment. The first of these - a pilot course in basic electrical skills (house-wiring and installation of battery-backed up power supplies - essential in Arsal!) - was successfully completed in August 2015. EDA volunteers Maggie and Denis monitored the start and the ending of the course, and carried out extensive discussions in Arsal, Baalbeck and Beirut, planning a full training term in electrical work, motorcycle maintenance, sewing and tailoring, rug-weaving (a traditional Middle Eastern pursuit), basic IT and computer graphics. This full program ran from September through to December. It received an enthusiastic welcome and appears to have been a morale booster not only for those taking part, but for the village as a whole. An expanded series of course was completed in July 2016, and the latest round will run from September until year's end.
It appears to have been a morale booster not only for those taking part, but for the whole community.
Community Workshop

We have also established a community workship, open to all, for, so far, sewing and computer work. It is now permanently staffed by our Lebanese and Syrian colleagues, who manage and supervise the facility. Three expert seamstresses -- each with a terrible personal story of hardship and loss in their Syrian homeland -- provide guidance and encouragement to all who visit to mend or to make. They are currently aslo engaged in making uniforms for the newly reconstituted local police force, and a newly formed sports club. Using specialised fabrics donated by Lojigma in Dundee and sent out by container, they are currently embarking on a large project to make surgical drapes and strips for hospitals not only in Arsal, but in the Bekaa Valley as a whole.

More Schools The most urgent need in Arsal is for more school places for the refugee population. There are estimated to be 16,000 school-age children amongst the refugees of whom at least 6,000 are not in school. Some attend the Lebanese schools in the "Share" scheme partly financed by DfID (the UK Department of International Development). But with over twice as many refugees as natives in the town, there simply cannot be enough places in this scheme. But there are many teachers amongst the refugees, and a number of groups have got together to set up and run effective volunteer schools. EDA has provided substantial help in teaching materials, winter fuel, school desks, stationery, sports equipment. More recently, we have funded the building of two new schools:
Why EDA? The question is often asked: What difference can a small agency like EDA make in the world of misery that is Syria and its refugees?
The answer is not much overall. But in Arsal quite a lot.

Community Support Whenever we have asked for donations in kind for refugees, the response from Edinburgh and many places further afield has been extraordinary. This Autumn in particular we have been almost overwhelrmed by donations of warm clothes, winter shoes and boots, toiletries, whatever we have asked for. Many also volunteered to help pack and sort everything - hard, long and cold work in our unheated and difficult warehouse.
If EDA has been able to make a small contribution to the big picture its because of this wonderful community effort and the support of many generous donors, whose cash contributions have made it possible to actually deliver the donated goods, to buy in more, and to pay for school extensions, fuel oil supplies and training courses.