Tackling the hell inside the refugee camps

Collecting used clothing, knitting teddy bears or stuffing a car full to the brim with bread. There are many ways to help refugees. Maggie Tookey knows that from her own experience. She volunteers in a refugee camp on the Syrian-Lebanese border. A day in the life of an impassioned helper.

The Lebanese city of Arsal, not far from the Syrian border, is in a state of emergency. It used to have a population of 30 000, but today more than 130 000 people live here. Thousands of Syrians have fled to the city. When they arrive in the refugee camps they hope to be in safety, out of reach of the Syrian rebels. But the danger is not over for them. In August 2014, Syrian jihadists attacked Arsal. The Libyan military fought them bitterly, and the refugee camps came under fire. Some of the tents that the refugees are forced to call home caught fire. Many people had no hope of survival.

“The news has been full of the advance of the Islamic State across Syria and Iraq but nothing is being reported on the hell going on inside the refugee camps,” says Maggie Tookey. “They are the forgotten victims.”

Tookey was one of the first helpers to drive to the refugee camps after the battle. “I finally entered on my own without our aid trucks. Some of the people from the burnt out camps were so desperate for water and bread,” she recalls.

The 63 year-old Scot has been working for the relief organization Edinburgh Direct Aid (EDA) for eleven years. Over time Tookey has become hardened. She has been on missions in Bosnia, Kashmir and Gaza, in Kosovo and in Sri Lanka. And yet, when she saw the desperate people in the razed refugee camp in Arsal, she was shocked. She says: “This was one of the hardest times of my voluntary aid career.”

Tookey saw that her help was urgently needed. Because the Edinburgh Direct Aid assistance flotilla didn’t yet have permission to enter the crisis zone, she searched for the nearest possibility to go shopping, where she bought water tanks and 500 large family packs of bread. “A Syrian co-worker and I stuffed the bread in every corner of his car,” she recounts. “When we made the delivery it was as though we were delivering handfuls of gold.”

The situation in the Lebanese refugee camps is catastrophic. The refugees have inadequate clothing, no proper shoes, blankets or mattresses. Very few of them have access to a toilet or heating. The town of Arsal sits at over 5,000ft on a windswept plateau. In February, the temperature falls well below freezing. The children plod through the snow barefoot or in paper-thin sandals.

Edinburgh Direct Aid brings aid shipments. In Scotland it collects winter clothing and blankets that it sends to Lebanon. Tookey and the other EDA helpers have also brought many tons of food, medical supplies and a fully-equipped ambulance into the Lebanese refugee camp. They have gathered donations and organized schoolbooks to the value of $3000. This enabled two Syrian schools to start a new school year. The volunteers even knitted teddy bears for the children – children who, traumatized by the horrors of their escape, have lost the power of speech.

A lot of aid consignments, enormous commitment, but is it enough? Not even close, says Tookey: “EDA will try its hardest but we don’t have enough to meet the needs of even a small proportion of them. There are just too many.” For many that is frustrating. The feeling that despite everything they give it is still just a drop in the ocean. For Tookey it is a reason to work even harder to help refugees:

“People who glibly use that phrase ‘just a drop in the ocean’ have no real grasp of how valuable that ‘drop’ can be. It’s almost as though just saying that phrase absolves the speaker from any duty to act. It’s too big a problem so there’s no point in tackling it. Not true. EDA will tackle as much as its resources allow.”

Whether with aid shipments, knitted teddy bears or simply by having a sympathetic ear for the refugees – Tookey does what she can to help. She never stops thinking about the victims forgotten by the western world.

Photo: Maggie Tookey / Edinburgh Direct Aid

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