"Our field kitchen is back up and running. We had a surprisingly smooth first day", enthused fellow JRS volunteer and Syrian national Sami in a rare online chat while speaking of the kitchen that was relocated after closing down briefly in late September.
Perhaps a blessing in disguise, the relocation meant that the operation, which originally provided 5,000 hot meals daily, could be moved to a more spacious location and increase the number of meals provided to 10,000 per day allowing for decreased stress levels during distribution hours. In addition, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the UN World Food Programme have fortunately been in a position to provide support for the kitchen allowing for increased capacity.
Shelter. During the summer, official permission was granted to use schools as temporary shelters causing an influx of thousands of IDPs who moved from public parks, where they previously sought safety, into 30 schools in Aleppo. However, these facilities can no longer house the rising numbers of vulnerable persons in need of shelter today.
"We're experiencing a sharp increase in internal displacement. Over the past ten days, the parks are filling up again", said Sami in an effort to explain the situation on the ground.
Just last week, one of the five shelters (former schools) for which JRS is currently responsible was evacuated by security forces, leading to the displacement of people who had already been forced out of their homes.
"A section of the main Aleppo ring-road is full of people just wandering around aimlessly", Sami continued.
As the war spreads throughout the city, IDPs are crowding into the few areas not under constant bombardment. In the face of ongoing electricity and water shortages, assisting all those in need is rarely possible and not sustainable in the long run.
"As a result of the fighting, few places are safe in Aleppo and many people are isolated. With winter approaching, which is particularly harsh here in Aleppo, and their houses destroyed, where will the families find sufficient shelter?" asked JRS Middle East and North Africa Director, Nawras Sammour SJ.
Destruction up close. Even JRS has not been spared from the wave of destruction. In September, the JRS Deir Vartan Centre was the scene of fighting between rebel and government forces. A few weeks earlier, JRS had fortunately relocated its services elsewhere due to security concerns. Therefore, no staff were injured in the attacks; but exactly when they will be able to re-enter Deir Vartan remains uncertain.
Once a place where Iraqi refugees and displaced Syrians came to learn and grow together, to rebuild their lives and their communities, much of Deir Vartan has now been reduced to rubble. Even though the building may have been seriously damaged, the enduring spirit of the Deir is within the people.
Whatever happens in the future, the only near certain outcome is that volunteers, like Sami, will continue to work with JRS responding as flexibly and effectively as they can. Our connection to the local Jesuits and informal support networks of Christians and Muslims on the ground help us reach families in need. Unfortunately, this assistance, though essential – is but a grain of sand upon the shore.
As the destruction continues, needs grow. Without a clear sign of any peaceful solution, prospects for security appear grim and the hostility of a harsh winter provokes concern for people displaced from their homes. Regardless of JRS ability to assist these people to find food and shelter, no solution will arise until the environment permits an end to violence and the negotiation of lasting peace.