‘I hope people don’t forget’: Diary of an aid worker in Syria

UN Refugee Agency

This diary of a UN Refugee Agency staffer in Aleppo reveals what it is like to live and work in a war zone.

Yumiko Takashima meets seven-year-old Subhi, who is visually impaired, in Aleppo, Syria. ©UNHCR/Antwan Chnkdji

Yumiko Takashima works for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Syria — over 8,700 kilometres from her native Tokyo. She joined the organization twenty years ago and has worked in Timor-Leste, Sudan, Thailand, Afghanistan and beyond. Since 2018, she has been stationed in Aleppo.

Over 5.6 million people have fled the war in Syria since 2011, seeking safety in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and beyond. Millions more are displaced inside Syria.

To mark World Humanitarian Day, which falls on 19 August, Yumiko tells us what it’s like to live and work in one of the most difficult places in the world, every single day.

A man walks through the shattered streets of Aleppo in February 2019. ©UNHCR/Antwan Chnkdji

05:00 a.m. My phone’s alarm clock rings and I drag myself out of bed to go jogging. Exercise is really important… especially in a city like Aleppo where the local food is so delicious! My newfound love is ‘Kabab bil Karaz’ (cherry kebab). Before the crisis, Aleppo used to be the economic hub of Syria and it was well-known for its large covered market, traditional products such as soaps, and delicacies such as ‘Kebeh’ and ‘Mahashi’ (eggplant and zucchini filled with minced meat).

We currently have to live in a hotel because of the security situation, so I run a few laps in the small garden around the hotel. Life in a hotel isn’t as glamorous as it sounds and you quickly start missing what makes a place ‘home,’ like being able to cook and enjoy a meal in your own kitchen. But we try to make the best of it. Like creating a small kitchen in a common area, where we can cook.

Yumiko learns about some of the activities at this children’s centre in Aleppo. ©UNHCR/Hameed Maarouf

08:00 a.m. After a quick breakfast, I’m in a car, ready to go to the office. It’s only a 10-minute drive away but we have to take a different route very day, for safety reasons. We drive in armoured vehicles anywhere we have to go.

Half of Aleppo has been destroyed because of the crisis. The other half is intact. One street divides the two sides. If I stand in the middle of that road, I feel like I’m in a movie — one side being destroyed and the other intact — it is so unreal but it is real. The needs here are huge. More than 990,000 people in and around Aleppo have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Some 161,000 have since returned home. UNHCR is supporting families who choose to return with village support programmes aimed at improving the conditions when people do go back home. We estimate that there are about 1.4 million people in need in and around Aleppo. Behind each of these numbers, there are real people, with real lives.

That’s why I’m here: it’s about how we as humans can help each other. What amazes me is people’s resilience. What you may hear about Aleppo is not what it’s really like. People here have faced very difficult situations, but they don’t look back, they just want to move forward and have normalcy in their life. We as humanitarians can help our fellow human beings, who just happen to fall into crisis, to move on.

Yumiko meets 79-year-old Um Bassam, who has returned to Aleppo to rebuild her life amid the devastation. ©UNHCR/Antwan Chnkdji

08:15 a.m. Once I get to work, I take 15 minutes to quietly go through what’s coming up that day, to prioritize work and think about how to deal with any difficult meetings. Those 15 minutes are very important to me, they help me focus. First up today is a team meeting. There are about 60 of us working here in Aleppo at the moment, including 52 national colleagues. Many have themselves lost family members and friends because of the crisis. Yet they keep going. I’m so honoured to be a part of such a strong, confident, passionate team.

11:00 a.m. I head out with my colleague Mustafa to visit a community centre run by UNHCR, to make sure our activities are on track. In these centres we offer different services like legal advice, counselling, job training and catch-up classes for children who’ve missed out on school because of the crisis. Children are the future of Syria and we want to make sure that they are not left behind.

A community centre is more than just a building where people can access protection services and information. It’s a space where people meet and discuss what they want to do for themselves in their communities. Right now, UNHCR supports 22 community centres and 10 smaller satellite centres in Aleppo. We also have 28 mobile teams that go out to small, remote villages to make sure that families there receive the support they need. These teams consist of local outreach volunteers who know their communities best.

Yumiko talks with young women and girls at a community centre in Aleppo. ©UNHCR/Antwan Chnkdji

2:00 p.m. I meet with the staff of a national organization that is helping UNHCR distribute winter supplies. We are still very much dealing with emergencies in various parts of Aleppo. We are there to help, to provide shelter and basic items like blankets, jerry cans for storing water and more. During winter it’s extremely cold here. That’s why we provide materials like clear plastic sheets to help families cover destroyed windows and doors, to keep out the cold. Last winter, we assisted over 215,000 people in the area with essential items like sleeping bags, winter jackets, blankets and plastic sheeting.

6:00 p.m. Most staff leave the office before it gets dark — for our safety. When I get back to the hotel, I continue working, answering emails and preparing for the next day, sometimes late into the night. If you asked me to describe this job, I would say that it’s not a job, it’s a vocation. It’s something I’m so lucky to be able to do. Even if it’s hard being away from my family and friends.

Many of us want to do something when we see someone suffering, as a fellow human being. We may not always be able to do as much as we want but even listening to people and showing that we care matters. We’re lucky to be able to do it here in Aleppo. I hope people don’t forget about the displaced families here who need help. They’re people like me and you, who just happen to be in this difficult situation, by no fault of their own. I know it’s so easy to forget what’s going in on the next town, country, continent. But I get to see what happens when you do help. People are strong. With a little support, they can go on with their lives.

A while ago, UNHCR helped install streets lights in one area of Aleppo. Lighting up the streets means life can go on after dark: people feel safer and can move around more easily, kids can do their homework in the evening, families don’t have to sit in the dark anymore. So it’s not just light, it’s the hope it provides for the people. When the lights went on, an old lady came out of her house and hugged me, crying and pointing her finger at the lights. She didn’t speak a word of English and my Arabic is terrible, but we didn’t need any words to understand each other. Times like that, I feel so privileged to be working in Aleppo.

UNHCR is providing Aleppo residents with lifesaving assistance, including the kitchen sets shown here. ©UNHCR/Antwan Chnkdji

You can help Yumiko and the UNHCR team in Syria provide support to more Syrians in need, by donating today.

  • Just $6 can provide a blanket to a person displaced in Syria
  • An investment of $10 can help support access to vital health care for a person in Syria
  • Just $42 can provide homework support, catch-up classes and other targeted support for primary school students in Syria whose education has been disrupted by the crisis
  • Cash grants of between $50 and $200 can make all the difference to families struggling to pay rent and buy food in war-torn Syria

Thank you for your incredible support and generosity.

UN Refugee Agency

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The official account of UNHCR. Follow us as we provide vital aid and protection to the forcibly displaced around the world.

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