In late December, we sent out an urgent request for help evacuating families from Aleppo and the surrounding villages. After the front lines collapsed and the fighting ended, nearly 100,000 people were on the move from places that had been bombed and shelled.
In the villages of Al-Foua’a and Driya, thousands of women and children were evacuated to safety in Homs after living under siege for nearly three years.
They left with nothing and needed everything. You answered our call for help and raised almost $100,000 ‒ twice our initial goal! You enabled our team to coordinate the evacuation and provide emergency resources for children and families. Here is a look into what life was like under a three-year siege and the eventual rescue you made possible:
“To hear or read about the siege is nothing compared to living it on a daily basis.”
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When the siege began three years ago, all power and water lines were cut. People gradually started running out of supplies until nothing remained except pantry stables like chickpeas and lentils. Gas canisters ran out quickly, so young men would gather firewood for cooking and heating. Mothers had to invent new ways of cooking to feed their children, like grinding pasta and rice to bake bread.
Eventually even the basics ran out. Anything still available was sold at exorbitant prices (6000SP/$28 for a single banana). People had to wait for supplies to be parachuted in to them. But because they were dropped from relief planes that flew over the villages, the fuel canisters often shattered and bread bags would break open and scatter. Sometimes relief drops would cause injury when boxes fell on children in the street.
Mothers told us about sleepless nights because of hunger, going to bed with tears in their eyes, and watching their children slowly starve.
Life was very scary day and night and “the night was brighter than the day” because of constant shelling. “I swear that when shelling began, especially with gas cylinders (used as a kind of missile), we became like mice and hid out in underground rooms, staying there for several days, not knowing if it was day or night,” said one woman.
The Evacuation to Homs
When the front lines fell and the fighting stopped in December, women and children were finally allowed to leave the besieged villages. Our Syria staff and volunteers were there from the very beginning to coordinate the evacuation and safe passage to Homs.
The evacuation was carried out by bus and lasted for two days. The whole operation was inevitably chaotic as people panicked and there were many attempts to board the busses by force in order to escape the siege.
The busses passed through several checkpoints causing further delay and anxiety among the passengers who worried about suffering, ongoing violence, and separation from their families.
The first busses reached Homs on December 21. As soon as people arrived, our team began to assess urgent needs and provide immediate assistance. We use a community-based approach, which means that everyone has a voice in determining how they are helped. And as people work together they begin rebuilding the social networks that are torn apart during war.
We are currently serving 1,300 people and are expecting an additional 2,700 this week. We will eventually welcome 17,000 people in the coming months.
Our team in Syria, The Syrian Society for Social Development (SSSD), is led by Roy Moussalli. They carry out our work on the ground and coordinate with a trusted network of partners to provide families with the resources they need. You can learn more about SSSD in our Annual Report.
Each family was placed in a small two-room block home. They received gas canisters for cooking and electric heaters and blankets to endure against the bitter cold.
We facilitated emergency medical care, with a special focus on those were sick, wounded, and/or disabled. And we ensured food and clean water distribution by working through the municipal authorities and local community organizations.
We began trauma counseling almost immediately. The long years of siege left deep emotional wounds, especially in children. We implemented play-oriented activities for children to develop their ability to process what they experienced during years of siege and war.
Women joined a group led by trained facilitators called “Hear my Heart.” It is a therapy space for women to support each other and know they are not alone. It is also a way for our staff to understand their needs and worries, so we can better serve them and their families.
There are not many men at the shelter yet, but they also participate in trauma counseling. The few men around mostly express their desire to work and contribute in any way possible.
Children told us over and over how much they wanted to be back in school. Even during the siege, young students persisted in going to classes given by heroically committed teachers in any possible space ‒ even though most teachers were gone, schools were destroyed, and the children needed to spend most of their days finding food and ways to stay warm.
There is a school building available in Homs, but it was completely bare when we arrived. We provided school materials, chairs, wooden benches, and tables. We also found former teachers living in the shelter. They were thrilled to get the school up-and-running and begin teaching again.
Thank you for answering our call for help. Thank you for standing beside these children and families from the first moment they left a brutal three-year siege. Thank you for providing the resources they need to recover and rebuild their lives.