The lively city of Antakya is nestled in a valley formed by the Nur Mountains, only 14 miles from the Mediterranean Sea in the southernmost tip of Turkey. Last month, as my plane banked and shuddered through the updrafts for a safe landing at the Hatay airport, I was mesmerized by the stunning natural beauty of the region. Green-carpeted mountainsides and sweeping deep blue skies greeted me as I poked my head out of the plane into the fresh air. It was hard to believe that 12 miles away in Syria was, and is, a war zone.
I traveled to Antakya to deliver a three-day humanitarian communications training for GOAL SYRIA, a country office of GOAL, the Irish international development organization headquartered in Dublin.
For safety reasons, the GOAL SYRIA office operates out of Turkey, with Syrian nationals on staff crossing the border regularly to deliver aid and manage rebuilding programs. GOAL SYRIA is currently one of GOAL’s largest operations, given that the war has displaced almost 8 million Syrians internally and sent another 3 million across country borders seeking refuge. While the scale of human suffering is hard to fathom, GOAL CEO Barry Andrews gave it a good try at TEDxUCD in Dublin last June.
The plan was to have all Syria-based staff join my training in Turkey. However, the Turkish government closed the border a week before I arrived so more than half of the participants had no choice but to use the online platform Blackboard Collaborate in an environment with already fragile Internet connectivity. On top of that, two of the cities where the majority of the Syrian-based participants live were bombed the night after our first day of the training.
Participants and the author on Day 3 of the GOAL SYRIA Humanitarian Communications training (Image: A.V. Crofts)
One participant named Walid Almawas was particularly determined. He managed to log onto the online platform and follow along with the entire training, regularly typing thoughtful comments and questions in the chat box. On the second day of the training, when it was time for the participants to head out into the glorious sunshine for a story photo shoot, his question to me in the chat box shook me to my senses. While Walid was geographically as close as the crow flies, his situation was worlds away from mine.
How can I complete this assignment, Anita? It is not safe to go outdoors.
I thought fast and typed faster.
Walid, you don’t have to go outside to tell a story. I bet there’s a story you can tell inside your home.
He answered immediately.
My wife is making breakfast. Do you mean I could tell a story about that?
Documenting Stories That Showcase Resilience and Optimism
When we think of humanitarian agencies, we often think about them as being in the business of providing things, such as tents, water, blankets and food. GOAL recognizes that providing stories such as Walid’s is important, too, and that those stories must be told. War zones, disease outbreaks and natural disasters can quickly turn humans into abstractions and statistics.
Humanitarian communications is about ethically documenting stories within communities that showcase resilience and optimism in the face of unspeakable sorrow and staggering perseverance. Or just the simple fact that life continues amidst atrocities, and in the morning you make breakfast for those you love.
Relief agencies such as GOAL are intentionally non-partisan, yet they do bear witness to the events that unfold around them. The stories that they capture and share at a grassroots level become part of the country’s collective memory. And we all know that compelling stories from the field inspire vital donations. But, perhaps most importantly, GOAL communications share stories in a way that preserves the dignity of those involved and reminds us of what we all have in common. Instantly. Everywhere.
Walid sent me his photo essay that evening. His wife preparing food at the stove. A second photo of his 3-year-old son in front of a tray of food. His infant son in a highchair. A self-portrait.
Self portrait of Walid Almawas at breakfast
In a war zone, the ritual of breakfast at home with your family is more than just an act of love. It’s hope.