Friday, 1 September 2017

Once a tourist, now a humanitarian worker: Woking parishioner reflects on his recent trip to Syria

Alan second from left with CAFOD staff member and partners
Whilst most Woking residents are heading off on their summer holidays, a parishioner from St Dunstan's, Woking, Alan Thomlinson, who works for the aid agency CAFOD, has just returned from a week in Syria.

This was Alan’s second trip to Syria; his first was as a tourist in 2010, when he visited Damascus with his wife. They enjoyed their trip so much that they intended to return to explore the rest of the country, but their plans were curtailed by the start of Syria’s brutal civil war.

Seven years later and Alan was visiting Syria in a very different capacity. As the Emergency Programme Manager for CAFOD’s Syria response, he travelled to the coastal city of Latakia to visit nearby projects supporting displaced Syrians. Latakia is a government stronghold and currently the security situation is, when compared to the rest of the country, relatively stable.

“It was quite surreal. Women and families were out on the street and it was very cosmopolitan. Restaurants and cafes were open and it felt safe walking around. I was WhatsApping my wife photographs of the hotels and cafes and she was surprised by how normal it looked.

“Syria is a very cosmopolitan society, a mix of religions and cultures, Islamic, Christian, regional and Mediterranean. Visiting Syria you see that diversity, but with the news you just see war and fighting, so you can be tripped up into thinking that’s what Syria is like – but the people are incredibly hospitable; when we visited some internally displaced people, who had nothing, they were offering us tea and snacks.”

Whilst on the surface the situation in Latakia seemed – ostensibly - ordinary, Alan described how quickly he started to see the poverty and the great need for humanitarian assistance. The project Alan visited is run by our local church partner and supported by CAFOD, assisting 2000 displaced families with rental support, health care services and essential items, including food.

“I visited four families on house visits and it was shocking to see the conditions they lived in. One family was living in the cellar of a block of flats, which was not really fit for human habitation. It was very gloomy and the family talked about the number of cockroaches and rats that bothered them at night. There were two young girls, around nine and ten, studying for exams, who were complaining of constant headaches from studying in such darkness.”

To date, the UN estimates that the conflict has killed over 310,000 people and 14.9 million are in need of urgent humanitarian aid. CAFOD has been working with local church partners in Syria since 2012, ensuring that people affected by the crisis have food, relief supplies and safe places to stay. CAFOD is also supporting Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.

However desperate the situation is at present, Alan has hope for Syria’s future: “I definitely hope to return as a tourist, but it’s likely I will return there with my job first. Hopefully the conflict will end as soon as possible and give the Syrian people a chance to rebuild their lives, livelihoods and homes.”

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