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Simon Hacker’s diary: Syria talks giving rise to hope

Canadian Simon Hacker works for the United Nations World Food Program.

A selection from the diary of Canadian aid worker Simon Hacker, responsible for getting food to millions in Syria.

The civil war in Syria has riven the nation and put the entire region on edge.

As the conflict nears the end of its third year, more than 125,000 people have been killed and about 6.5 million have had to flee their homes. About 2.1 million of them have sought refuge abroad; the rest remain in Syria. The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) has identified four million Syrians at risk, unable to get the most basic foods because of the war that swirls around them.

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In this continuing series, Canadian Simon Hacker, a humanitarian logistician working for the WFP, shares his unique perspective on the country and on the efforts to help the Syrian people.

With representatives of the Syrian regime and the opposition meeting tenuously in the so-called Geneva 2 conference on the future of Syria, The Globe and Mail's Patrick Martin asked Mr. Hacker: Has there been a perceptible difference on the ground?

Simon Hacker: Just on Sunday I was mentioning to a friend how the last few days in Damascus felt unusually quiet. Paradoxically, it's during these modicums of stability that anxiety levels sometimes peak – I am not sure if it's because it signals a change in the air or because it gives us too much time to think. Perhaps both.

Then, as we sat in a nearby restaurant celebrating my colleague's birthday, our mobiles started buzzing all at once. "Six mortars landed beside the hotel … all staff to be vigilant and remain indoors," read the text message. In the last year and a half, I have received hundreds like it. The usual questions and chatter immediately follow: How close were they? What was the target? Did anyone die? None of us has the answers – the mortars just landed 15 minutes ago. Within minutes we would be distracted by the task at hand: What's good here? What are you going to order? Is the cake ready? The mortars already are a distant memory.

With Geneva 2 under way, there is indeed an air of change, one of hope: Hope that durable solutions will soon be found; hope that people will stop dying, and hope that humanitarian access will improve. And, while we all know it won't be easy, there is no one in Syria who doesn't have his fingers crossed that the talks will have some positive outcome. Our eyes will remain glued to the TV over the next few days hoping that the politicians, the diplomats, and the peace brokers can find some common ground. Any carrot would be welcome at this point, especially regarding access to 2.5 million people that are difficult to reach with life-saving assistance.

PM: Being a Westerner in some countries in conflict can be dangerous, as we saw recently at a restaurant in Kabul. How do you manage the fear – and the fear your family must feel for you?

SH: Indiscriminate acts of violence can happen anywhere. We don't have to look far to see the tragedy that happens when people air their grievances in violent ways against innocent civilians – it can even be in our own backyard. Living your life in fear won't change this, nor will it affect the outcome.

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While working in Syria may be more dangerous than taking Toronto transit to work every day, I believe the risk to be manageable – both statistically and psychologically. More importantly, I believe the risk to be worth it – after all it's not about me; it's about the 4.25 million people we are trying to feed this month. The trick is to focus on the things you can control and to forget about the rest. Admittedly this job is not for everyone, but for anyone with a sense of service and sense of adventure, I would highly recommend it.

PM: It must be hard depending on local staff for translating the language and the culture all the time. Could you comment on that?

SH: Being able to speak the language definitely would be an advantage – not only in terms of communication but also in terms of understanding cultural nuances. Since I've been in Syria I've taken weekly Arabic lessons. Unfortunately, it takes an inordinate amount of energy to learn a new language. And it seems like it's getting more difficult every year I age. I have no illusions that I will learn this incredibly complicated language in two short years (the duration of my assignment here), but even just a few words is much appreciated amongst the locals, and can pay huge dividends in building rapport with our partners. I also have a feeling that I'll find myself in the Arab world again, so I see learning the language as, perhaps, a life project. Something I'll approach slowly and with patience.

PM: Three years ago, you were with the WFP in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake. It was another intense, life-or-death situation. Do you worry you might get hooked on the intensity of situations like this?

SH: I was sent to Haiti for the cholera crisis – a tragic secondary disaster that killed thousands. My mission was supposed to be for three months but it ended in just three short weeks when I was urgently put on a plane and sent to Ivory Coast in response to the civil war that then gripped the country. I landed in Abidjan within 72 hours of the fall of [president] Laurent Gbagbo. You could have rolled a bowling ball down the main road. Not a soul to be seen. The streets were lined with looted and boarded-up shops, and French soldiers were manning the key checkpoints.

With operations in close to 80 countries, WFP staff have to be ready to move at a moment's notice, to go anywhere, and to do anything. Any time you find war, natural disasters or misery, you will almost always find us there. Of course there is a certain kind of pace and intensity at which we work, one which our organizational culture is built upon.

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PM: Would you recommend this career to young Canadians?

SH: The best career advice I ever heard was "choose a career you find meaningful." However, one need not leave Canada to heed this advice. There are thousands of Canadians who make a difference every day in the lives of the underprivileged, the marginalized, or those who are just down on their luck. They do this without every crossing a border, or even leaving their communities. I believe these values to be ingrained in Canadian society.

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