After a quick mid-morning breakfastat a nearby restaurant (I always order the same thing: ful bi laban – fava beans with yogurt – a Syrian specialty), I arrive back at the office and my Syrian warehouse manager tells me we have 20 trucks stuck at the Lebanese border. I ask him if they are urgently needed. He says yes. This particular manager is an up-and-comer and I’ve come to rely on him. Just a few weeks ago he and his entire family were forced to flee their home outside Damascus because of fighting in the area. Millions of Syrians have a similar story to tell.
My Syrian interpreter and I hop into the armoured Land Cruiser and head to the director of customs to see if we can get the trucks released. With midday traffic and all the various checkpoints to go through, the trip will take us over an hour. We see the director and he greets us with a smile. After some pleasantries and a cup of coffee, we ask for his help. He makes a few phones calls and tells us the trucks will now be released. He thanks us for the noble work that WFP is doing to help his country. I thank him also and we leave.
It’s 2 p.m. as we exit customs and I suggest we walk back to the office – better than being stuck in traffic. The streets are full with the bustle of normal city life.
I get a message telling me we’ve only loaded food for 50,000 people. I immediately make a call to find out what’s going on. We’ll be hard pressed to hit the target at this rate.
On the way to the hotel we hear a couple of loud explosions. Not a single person flinches. We’ve all come to learn the difference between incoming and outgoing artillery fire. Those were outgoing.
Recently our warehouse in Damascus found itself in the middle of an epic battle. A day earlier, you would have said it was one of the most peaceful areas in the city. After visiting the warehouse and feeling the reverberation of intense shelling and gunfire, I realized we were unlikely to recover this food any time soon. Just after departing, and a few grey hairs later, it was straight back to the drawing board. With food for more than 400,000 people now stuck, it was all hands on deck to figure what to do next. With some clever rerouting of deliveries and local purchases of food, we were back in business. Another day, another disaster averted.
Walking back,my Syrian colleague shows me some pictures of his family picking apples at an orchard last fall. It brings me back to my own childhood.
I can trace my humanitarian routes back to when I was a young boy helping my mother as a Rotary volunteer in Southwestern Ontario.While taking development studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, I decided to pursue a life of international service and resolved that human rights would form the basis of all my future decisions. Those decisions led me to pursue graduate degrees in human rights at the United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica and in social policy from the London School of Economics.
After finishing my degrees I interned in Kenya with the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. After a few days I was hooked.
In the past seven years with the World Food Programme, I have worked in eight countries that have suffered either from natural disasters or conflicts or both. I have witnessed the tragedy that grips people when they don’t have enough food to eat, as well as the incredible resilience of the human condition. People in places such as Syria continue to dream even with the constant sounds of shelling and mortars raining down around them. It’s inspirational.