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For Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers, Fridays are filled with anticipation

18-11-2011 Feature

At Al Zahirah Disaster Response Centre in Damascus, Saleh Dabbakeh, ICRC communication delegate in Syria, talked to four volunteers about what it is that makes people volunteer their services and what it brings them when they do.

Introduction

Damascus neighborhood, Al-Zahirah. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent has turned a hospital that is under construction into an emergency operations centre to respond to the current health needs of the population. 

Damascus neighborhood, Al-Zahirah. The SARC has turned a hospital that is under construction into an emergency operations centre.
© SARC / H. Hawasly / sy-e-00085

The commitment and devotion of Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers (SARC) has been especially apparent since the recent violence erupted in Syria. Many have given more of their time at the expense of their jobs and everyday lives to be part of a life-saving effort. 

Volunteers at Al Zahirah, which covers the capital and surrounding areas, are on full alert every day of the week. 

But Fridays are particularly busy.

Tammam

Tammam, 32, a civil engineer, heads the operations room at Al Zahirah.

Tamman monitors the movement of Syrian Arab Red Crescent ambulances working in Damascus and its suburbs. 

Tamman monitors the movement of Syrian Arab Red Crescent ambulances working in Damascus and its suburbs.
© SARC / H. Hawasly

We have been mobilized and responding to the situation since 24 March. Since then, I have devoted all my Fridays to Al Zahirah and volunteer work. At Al Zahirah, we started out using a simple operations room that has since been expanded and improved using local know-how and equipment. We plan to increase the number of ambulances and develop the operations room further.

The first hour on Friday morning is key. For me, it is an hour of anguish. I think about where violence might occur, where to send out the first vehicle on a reconnaissance mission, etc. Another concern, given the difficult situation, is how we can provide volunteers with guidance and assistance to help them take decisions in the field. I never feel at ease until all the volunteers have come back safely to the operations room at the end of the day.

There is more to my work than just managing field operations. I have to attend to a range of issues, from psychological support for first-aiders to the preparation of ambulances. In the operations room, it is not enough just to manage operations – you also have to lead. You have to set a good example for others.

There are challenges in volunteer work, but there are also opportunities. I remember one day when we needed an ambulance to respond to a call. Within 10 or 15 minutes, four different teams had responded. It really felt as if we were one family, working together to meet needs.

There is a feeling of brotherhood and solidarity among volunteers – an atmosphere of closeness that you do not experience anywhere else. We eat together, and we talk and plan together, all with a strong team spirit. Volunteers from other governorates and branches are now coming to Al Zahirah to learn from the experience of the Damascus branch.

Bashir

Bashir, 28, is a resident neurologist at a Damascus hospital.

Bashir is getting his medical mobile unit ready for action. 

Bashir is getting his medical mobile unit ready for action.
© SARC / H. Hawasly

I come to Al Zahirah on Thursday afternoons to prepare 10 ambulances and two mobile clinics for the weekend. I have to make sure that medicine and medical supplies and equipment are ready. I'm usually at the centre on Fridays and Saturdays as well.

I'm happy when I don't get calls on a Friday, because I know that no one has been hurt. It saddens me to see people hurt. When I stop the bleeding of a wounded person and know that I have saved his life, I'm deeply content. People are usually pleased when they find out that we are volunteers and that we do not get paid for our work.

Every Friday morning, we make sure that the ambulances are ready to go. Teams are formed and given official mission sheets that include the names of the first-aiders in each ambulance. Each team is made up of the team leader, two first-aiders and a scout. (The scout evaluates the situation of the wounded or the sick and makes decisions regarding access.)

Sometimes, ambulances enter trouble areas without any problem (usually a vehicle is sent ahead with volunteers to check on the security situation in such places). Sometimes identification and mission documents are checked. Sometimes ambulances are not allowed through for various reasons.

There are still problems in some neighbourhoods because of confusion about the red crescent emblem. Even our neutrality can be questioned at times, and some people want us to take sides. But our neutrality and impartiality are increasingly better understood. We provide help for anyone who needs it. Our volunteers take the wounded to the closest hospital unless the injured person requests otherwise.

Female volunteers have played a role in improving people's confidence in the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. By talking openly and frankly, they have brought us closer to the population.

Rina

Rina, 32, is a project coordinator with an international NGO catering for Iraqi refugees.

For me, Friday used to be a holiday, but now it is simply a time to do my job.

I have been a volunteer since 2001. In 2009, I had to give it up as I went back to college, but I came back this year as a first-aider. I thought it was better to go out and try to save lives than to be miserable and tense watching the news on TV.

Neutrality gives you the larger picture of events unfolding in the country. Being neutral does not make your work easier, but it allows you to see things with objectivity. If you are not neutral you can easily find yourself in a difficult situation.

The first time I responded to an emergency call I saw people who were dead and people who were injured. I asked myself who they were. Asking the question made me uncomfortable because I thought it might affect my neutral judgement, as they all needed help regardless of who they were. Since then, I have promised myself that I would just provide assistance to everyone in need and stop asking such questions.

This has not been an easy time for most Syrians. I have decided to avoid discussing politics with family, relatives, and friends in order to keep my sanity.

Today was not a busy day; thank God [she laughs]. Spending time in the field does not make us feel that our mission is complete. We evacuate patients and sometimes are unable to provide full treatment. On 5 June, the anniversary of the occupation of the Golan, I worked more than I ever had before, during my whole life, administering first aid. Some people died as we were helping them. We were not able to save their lives. That is sad, but I am so proud of what has been achieved: it is huge.

Now I am more concerned with looking at the Syrian Arab Red Crescent's achievements. Our ambulances, our teams and we ourselves have become more efficient, and we are proud of that. We can now arrange for local psychological support services to be provided, including support we provide to each other. Our relationships among ourselves, as volunteers, have become better, stronger and more solid.