accessibility & help

Red Cross volunteers in Syria uniquely positioned to help, but it’s dangerous work

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28 November 2011

Volunteers Rina and Samia treat a patient in an Syrian Arab Red Crescent ambulance on the way to hospital.As unrest in Syria continues, the Red Cross’ neutrality enables the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Syrian Arab Red Crescent to continue assisting people affected by the violence, despite difficult and dangerous conditions.

So far, more than 8,000 ICRC food parcels and over 800 ICRC hygiene kits have been distributed – enough to cover the needs of nearly 48,000 people. Moreover, the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have together started distributing 30,000 school kits to the neediest children affected by the unrest in several places.

With support from the British Red Cross and other National Societies, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is providing the Syrian Arab Red Crescent with 14 ambulances. The ICRC has also donated dressing kits and other medical equipment to private and government hospitals and to Syrian Arab Red Crescent branches and clinics in those areas.

When visiting places of detention the ICRC must have access to the entire premises and be able to talk to any detainee in private. But, because the findings are used confidentially to improve the situation where needed, the ICRC is often allowed access where other organisations are not. In September, for the first time in its 44 years of working in the country, the ICRC was allowed to enter a place of detention, the Damascus Central Prison, to review conditions there.

Putting victims first

Béatrice Mégevand-Roggo, the ICRC's head of operations for the Near and Middle East, says: “The ICRC’s priority is always to think about victims first. This means that our main focus is on assessing the situation and assisting accordingly and in the fastest manner.”

Accordingly, the ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent are able to provide urgently-needed emergency healthcare services such as first aid and medical evacuations. Samiah, 32, is a volunteer for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. She says: “Sometimes we are held up at a checkpoint and not allowed to enter an area. Usually, however, the deadlock can be broken once we start to explain the Syrian Arab Red Crescent's neutrality.

“One day, when we were administering first aid in a trouble area, people swarmed towards us because we were using our radios to contact Al Zahirah Centre. When we explained that we were Red Crescent volunteers, the crowd calmed down and we were able to resume helping people.

 “Another time, after a confrontation with security officers, protestors took refuge inside a mosque. When we got there, we explained our mission to the security officers and were allowed to enter the mosque. We evacuated one casualty and administered first aid to people on both sides.”

Saving lives despite danger

However, while the Red Cross’ neutrality provides some protection, volunteers still face considerable risks in the course of their work. Mégevand-Roggo says: “There have been reports of medical and other healthcare staff being deliberately prevented from performing their tasks of evacuating the injured and providing first aid and other medical attention for those who need it. This is not acceptable, because providing healthcare for the wounded and the sick, no matter who they may be, is a basic humanitarian requirement.”

Mégevand-Roggo is still determined that the Red Cross should help wherever possible. She says: “We are obviously aware of the security risks our work entails, but we are willing to expand our activities if the conditions are at least minimally acceptable.”

For those people who continue to risk their lives, volunteering helps make the situation more bearable. Rina, a Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteer, says: “It was better to go out and try to save lives than to be miserable and tense watching the news on TV.”

Find out more about our response to unrest in the Arab world

See more stories from Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers

Read the full interview with Béatrice Mégevand-Roggo


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