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.

EDA's 4th 40-foot, 10 ton, shipping container left for Arsal, Lebanon, on Thursday Sept 24th, full of clothes, boots and shoes for the coming winter; also toiletries, school things, knitted teddies, baby things. And 25 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.

The container arrived in Beirut on October 23rd and was cleared by Customs on Nov 13th in good time for distribution before the winter really took hold (as it has now done with a vengeance). But on the very day that the container was released by Customs, a suicide bomber in Arsal blew up 5 Muslim clerics who were trying to negotiate the release of Lebanese army soldiers kidnapped by ISIS.
Getting anything done after this terrible event and in the ensuing security clampdown seemed an almost impossible task. But EDA volunteer Maggie Tookey successfully managed the delivery and distribution of the container goods, eventually overcoming all obstacles put in her way, while remaining within the restrictions imposed by Lebanese security for her own safety. For a gripping, day by day account of this delivery, please go to Maggies Dec 2015 Arsal Diary.htm For more details of current and recent EDA work in Arsal, please see Arsal Main Story, below.

Helping refugees in transit in Europe:

Hundreds of thousands of Syrian and other refugees are making their way through SE-Europe, overcoming many difficulties and privations along the way, hoping eventually to find safety and settlement somewhere in the West. They migrants are often trapped in awful circumstances, ranging from terrible shelterless muddy fields surrounded by barbed wire, to endlessly waiting trains with nothing for their comfort. Meanwhile decent people from every country of Europe try to help. EDA has taken a part in these efforts, supporting the work of two other organisations from our own city, 'Edinburgh Cares' and 'React Now' who have sent a number of aid missions to refugees passing through the Greek islands, Hungary, Serbia and Croatia.

Maggie Tookey and John Home Robertson visited the island at the end of September, to survey and determine possible roles for EDA, and bringing funds for immediate action.
They found that the situation on a 5 mile stretch of beach on the north coast of Lesbos, was terrible. Tiny boats packed with anything up to 60 people, just kept coming - 5,000 a day arriving on inaccessible beaches linked only by a rough mountain track. No place for a tiny Hyundai hire car! -- but Maggie and John decided nevertheless to use it to transport people the eight miles to the nearest reception center, and spent most of their time on Lesbos doing so (incredibly, the car survived this treatment!) Maggie wrote "At one point I had 10 people in my car - 4 adults in the back, 2 in the front seat with me and 2 babies and a toddler on laps in the back. The 2 babies I managed to stuff in through the back window at the last minute to be reunited with their mothers - all soaking wet, cold and traumatised by their 6 mile journey across from Turkey in a boat that was dangerously full of water on arrival at the beach. For the privilege of taking this journey they had each paid smugglers around $1300.

The PIKPA Refugee Camp:
This is where a number of the most vulnerable, injured, boat wrecked, orphaned, pregnant refugees arriving on the northern beaches end up. It is run entirely by an admirable group of Greek volunteers who receive very little financial support and yet provide a lifeline for this most vulnerable group. Maggie and John were really impressed by the camp, and decided that the best use for the money which EDA had provided them for Lesbos would be to support PIKPA. This is what the 4000 bought: a 2 months supply of fresh food/vegetables, chickens and eggs (some to be delivered later); a 3 months supply of olive oil/cooking oil; A water filtration system to create a supply point in the camp for clean, safe drinking water; Basic medicines and dressings; Cement and aggregate to construct wheelchair ramps to provide access for the many disabled people coming in. We think this was good value for our donors' money!

On October 10th EDA volunteers Jim Harkins and Jaap Prins, both old convoy hands, left Edinburgh in our recently acquired 7.5 ton truck, with a carefully selected load of 2 tons of warm clothes, shoes, sleeping bags, small tents and toiletries. Ahead of them was a 6-strong contingent from Edinburgh Cares, led by Akeel Umar and Shahid Aziz. Who took with them a considerable amount of cash to buy food, water, and other necessities to distribute to the refugees in the transit centre at Opotovac in Croatia. In addition, a large commercial truck, funded by EDA, brought over 10 tons of blankets, jackets and shoes from warehouses in Leicester and London to deliver to Red Cross warehouses for immediate distribution. So great was the need that by the time the EDA party arrived most of these goods had already been distributed. EDA volunteer Colin Cooper went out by air to Belgrade then travelled to Opatovac by train. Akeel and Shahid worked with Colin late into the night buying 1000 Euros worth of supplies (at the nearby Lidl!), and making family-size packs to give out at the nearby Tovarnik railway station. The next day the EDA truck unloaded in the Red Cross Centre in Opatovac. The now reunited team then bought more supplies and spent many hours preparing over 1000 food packs at the Tovarnik railhead. These were distributed as the refugees filed slowly past to board the trains

Giving out food packs for a train journey is not a big deal in humanitarian aid terms. But this was a day on which Hungary again closed its border: those first on the train were in their carriages up to 4 hours before moving off. Effectively they were in a mobile prison transiting Croatia for nearly 9hrs. All were tired and worn by this stage of their journey, but or the frail or elderly and the mums managing children, this was a very trying joiurne indeed - and as you may imagine, there was no trolley service or restaurant car on this train.

The EDA party then went their separate ways. But the truck would not have not made it back were it not for Jim Harkins' extraordinary mechanical skills. A rusted radiator pipe on a truck can entail days of waiting for parts, and hundreds of pounds of labour charges. With his extensive background of convoy experience and mechanical expertise, Jim tackled the problem with a hacksaw, rubber hose and jubilee clips. End of saga.

SAMOS: Again working together with "React-Now", EDA sent a 1/3 container load to Samos, where React-Now coordinated the delivery of aid. Particulary appreciated by the local hospital, whose resources have been stretched past breaking point by the refugee influx, were many boxes of surgical scrubs, donated by Lojima International.


Being aware of the remarkable efforts being made to receive and accommodate people in Germany, especially in Bavaria, we made contact with a big German NGO, Diakonia, who are doing a great deal for Syrian and other refugees arriving in Munich. Diakonia confirmed that they needed and would welcome shipments of goods collected here.

The Lord Provost added a personal donation of good warm clothing, and a presentation bottle of single malt for the Lord Mayor of Munich!). At the same time with the help of Pickfords (over the road from our warehouse) a 40' commercial vehicle was loaded up with another 8 tons - 24 pallets - of winter clothing and other items meeting Diakonia's requirements. The truck would travel separately but were timed so as to both arrive at the Diakonia warehouse in Munich on the morning of the 10th.

10/12/2015: A good day in Munich

At 9:30 am, David Reeks, Jaap Prins, Jeanne Bell, Denis Rutovitz , and Thomas Werner (EDA coordinator in Munich) arrived at the Diakonia warehouse on the NE side of Munich Its a purpose built warehouse, big, glossy, efficient, mostly staffed by fine and friendly volunteers. The manager is Dieter Sommer whom we found to be a really good man. . There were about a dozen reporters and camera crews from newspapers, TV and radio. We did the usual symbolic unloading, pictures by the trucks, interviews etc. The main question from the interviewers was: how did you come to bring your aid to Munich? We explained that
we had seen the pictures, read the articles-knew the terrible experiences of the refugees, and the amazing reception given huge numbers arriving in Munich; the public in Edinburgh, as all over the UK have responded with great genrosity in bringing in huge quantities of clothes, bedding , shoes etc - and it seemed an excellent idea to bring some of that aid as a contribution to your effort here, and as a sign of our admiration and support for what Germany and Munich in particular have done. The Scottish Government thought so too, and gave us a grant of 10,000 towards transport and other costs; the Lord-Provost of Edinburgh gave a personal donation, and he and a Minister of the Government came to personally send off the truck and sent greetings and a letter of support to the Lord Mayor of Munich
This of course went down well; but having seen the splendid way Diakonia works, and appreciated the imensity of the German effort, we really meant it.
After the Diakonia warehouse and sorting centre, the party went on to visit the "Munich barracks" - a huge area of army huts and now a transit centre where arriving refugees are registered. They may be there for only a few days or for many months. Diakonia provides a "free shop" organised just like a shop where refugees are given a list of things they can "buy" and then are free to wander around, try on, and select items until they go to the "till" where the items are simply ticked off - the emphasis is on help, smiles and friendliness. The nicest thing that we saw, was a school and play centre in the middle of the barrack area, also run by Diakonia volunteers where children come and to learn German or play, and talk to people in their own languages mostly) and of course unload some of the terrible things they have experienced. The atmosphere seemed as good as it could be.

The next day, the Edinburgh party was received and duly thanked by one of the Mayors of Munich. The EDA party handed over a gift of a bottle of malt from the Lord Provost and letters from him and Minister Marco Biaggi (on behalf of Minister Humza Yousaf)

Here are links to the main TV and Radio coverage: Bavarian TV (State and national station):
TV coverage, Munich TV (Munich TV):
newspaper coverage, Munchner Merkur

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) .

2015: Vocational Training; help for schools
Our main achievement in Arsal in 2015 was 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 concert with a small Lebanese NGO "Rural Mortar", EDA 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 last. 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. We are now seeking funding to continue the program in 2016

Winter 2015/16:
The winter was late in coming this year, 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 will last 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.

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.