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Christmas at the coalface of Syrian crisis

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BACK in 1995, Mountshannon woman Ann McNamara decided to leave her job with an insurance company and work with Concern in Bangladesh for a two-year period. More than 20 years later, she is still working with an organisation responding to crisis situations.

An assistant country director with GOAL, based in Antakya on the Turkey/Syria border for six months, Ann says spending Christmas away from home and family has become the norm.
“Over the 22 years I have been overseas, I have probably spent two or three Christmases back in Ireland,” she says. “This is normal for me. It’s so crazy here you don’t even realise it’s Christmas.”

Ann initially worked with Concern for 11 years as a regional HR advisor, before working with Oxfam and then Save the Children UK in South Sudan. She returned to Concern in 2011 to work as an assistant country director in Liberia for two years and then spent one year in Lebanon.

“I finished my work there and then did a spot in Afghanistan but I was interested in getting back to the Middle East and GOAL had a vacancy. I went for it because I was quite interested in working with the Syrian refugees.”

Antakya is about 10km from the Syrian border and Ann says it is quite a nice Turkish town with a population of about 250,000 people, most of whom are practising Muslims.

GOAL has 400 staff inside Syria and Ann says their job is to manage, co-ordinate and plan all of the work that is going on in the war-torn country.

“It’s quite challenging because you end up working seven days a week to make sure that food is moving and warm clothes and warm kits are going in for the winter,” she says.
“The airstrikes are taking place in areas where we’re trying to work and that is very difficult. Here in the office in Antakya, our staff are made up of international staff, Syrian staff and Turkish staff. We need the Turkish staff because of interacting with suppliers and with the governments,” she says.

“All of our staff here are people who had to leave Syria because their houses were bombed or because they just had to leave their villages. When you ask how they are, you know some days they are very good but other days they are totally traumatised.

Appreciation of work

ANN says she is in no doubt that the Syrian people are very appreciative of the work that is being done.

“They do appreciate it and they’re just so pleased that you, to a certain extent, understand what they’re going through and that you’re acknowledging it.”

She says they deal with many people who have lost their homes and many have come to Turkey to earn some money, so they can send it back to their families in Syria.

“Every time there is an airstrike or every time they read the news, obviously they are wondering, ‘Is it somebody I know?’”

Ann believes there is an onus on getting the different parties to sit around a table and try to find a consensus.

“Certainly the bombing that’s going on; the Syrians would be totally opposed to it, no matter what side of the fence you are,” she says. “I know people are saying this is the only way to get rid of opposition forces but a lot of damage is happening at the same time. It’s a big political discussion that I would not have the knowledge to get into but you hear it from all sides. It’s a changing time for us in the world right now.”

Ann says they cannot physically see what is going on inside in Syria but they carry out evaluations and assessments and engage with local councils in Syria. She says they have a group of engineers who are working on water sanitation programmes but the airstrikes are a serious threat to lives and much of their work.

“We have a huge water and sanitation programme and these airstrikes, no matter where they’re landing, they’re damaging the infrastructure. They’re damaging the water supply, so one of the big things we do is constantly supply fresh water.”

Ann says they provide food vouchers and winter clothing kits to people who cannot safely come out of their villages and have witnessed radical changes in recent years.

“Unlike Africa, there’s people here who had very good jobs and were like you and I and went out to work every day,”she says. “Now, all of a sudden, they find that they no longer have a job, they no longer have a house and they’re depending on handouts from people. So that in itself is very demoralising.”

Ann usually gets up at about 5.45am and walks to work, arriving at the office at about 6.45am.

Her working day usually finishes between 7pm and 9pm, while she generally works six or seven days a week and works on a Sunday, which is traditionally a working day in Syria. Ann always has her computer open and her phone is always on so that people can contact her.

“There isn’t a day that people cannot contact you or ask you for advice or want to know ‘can we send out these trucks today’ or ‘can we load these goods’. But that’s the nature of the beast and what we try and do, when we do manage to get a week off or so, we try not to do any of that and just totally switch off for a week.”

Ann says she does it because she wants to do something and get involved. However, she is looking forward to returning home in a year or two and retiring.

“In this type of environment, you could work no more than one or two years. I’m here for one year but you have to really think whether you can cope. It is 24-seven. It’s a 14-hour day. It can be seven days a week and you keep pushing until at some stage you say ‘now I need somebody to step in’,” she says.

“You do walk out some days and you feel very good but there are days that you feel very down because it is outside your control.”

Keeping in touch with home

ANN is looking forward to a visit home in the near future. She will Skype her family in Mountshannon during the Christmas period and as Friday is a “closed day” in Turkey and Syria, the office will be shut. She is hopeful that if there are no security concerns, she will be able to enjoy a Christmas dinner with her colleagues.

“I knew I wouldn’t get back for Christmas but now I’m hoping I might get back for 10 days at Easter. It’s a nice time to be home and it’s also a special time in Ireland next year so I’m planning towards that,” she says.

“My three brothers are married in Mountshannon with families and I have a sister in Limerick. I have my own house in Mountshannon and they look after it and it’s nice to go back. When I go back, I feel that I don’t have to talk about it. I can just go for walks around the Shannon, just totally relax and I always love being back in Clare.

“When I started this work in 1995, I went to Bangladesh for two years; I told everybody it would be two years. I think 22 years later it might be time to say ‘I’m coming home’. I’ll finish in a few years, absolutely.”

Ann says her family sometimes worry about her safety but when she is aware that something is on the news, she rings them quickly.

She says in Somalia and Afghanistan, where she previously worked, westerners are “very high targets”, so everybody was advised to keep a low profile.

“I don’t think my family worry as much now. But sometimes when they hear that a bomb went off in Turkey or if I’m in Afghanistan and something happens, they do worry. I think Syria is getting quite a lot of publicity but I expect when I was in Afghanistan it was much more difficult because even I felt that Afghanistan was very dramatic. Here we’re a little bit removed from it. It’s just our colleagues are right in the thick of it,” she concludes.

By Trevor Quinn

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