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‘Becoming a humanitarian was my way of saying no to what was happening in Syria’

A World Food Programme Local Security Agent talks about the challenges of keeping humanitarian workers in Aleppo safe
, Hussam al Saleh
‘When anyone targets an ambulance, he is killing all of humanity,’ says Bashir. Photo: WFP/Hussam Al Saleh
‘When anyone targets an ambulance, he is killing all of humanity,’ says Bashir. Photo: WFP/Hussam Al Saleh

Each month the World Food Programme delivers emergency food assistance to 4.8 million people across Syria. To make this happen, an entire team of staff must come together to plan, pack, drive and distribute food to families who have lived through a humanitarian crisis.

WFP has staff from around the world working in Syria, and the majority of them are those who saw their own homes, neighbourhoods and cities changed forever by the conflict. Among them is Mohammad Bashir Summakie.

‘My father never closed his shop when he wanted to pray, he used to put a chair in the entrance and went to the mosque. Aleppo was the safest place’

Born in Aleppo, Bashir worked on the front lines of the crisis as the city he knew and loved changed irreparably before his eyes. Today, he’s a Local Security Agent with WFP, and it’s his job to keep his colleagues in Aleppo safe.

Calm, kind and just the sort of person you’d want to have in a crisis, Bashir shares his story and his hopes for the future of Aleppo.

Bashir on a field mission in Kallaseh neighbourhood old city of Aleppo. Photo: WFP/Hussam Al Saleh
Bashir on a field mission in Kallaseh neighbourhood old city of Aleppo. Photo: WFP/Hussam Al Saleh

 

“In July 2012 during Ramadan, conflict broke out in Aleppo,” he says. “Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes and businesses, not realizing that our city would never be the same again.”

What many people imagined would be a short conflict turned into one of Syria’s most deadly.

Bashir was just 20 years old and studying at university when the conflict began. It did not take long for the university’s dorms to fill with families who were fleeing from the eastern side of the city. It soon became the largest shelter for internally displaced people in Aleppo. For Bashir and his friends, classes were over. It would be years until students could return.

Bashir was raised in typical Aleppian family, and his father ran a business in the heart of the city. When he was young, he played in the old souks during his free time, enjoying the delicious food, the smell of the spices and the freedom to explore the city.

‘Aleppo is the oldest continually inhabited city of the world, it will never die’. Photo: WFP/Hussam Al Saleh
‘Aleppo is the oldest continually inhabited city of the world, it will never die’. Photo: WFP/Hussam Al Saleh

“I was a kid and used to tour almost all the 16 km-long bazars of the old city and never feared getting lost, people were so kind and caring,” says Bashir. “My father never closed his shop when he wanted to pray, he used to put a chair in the entrance and went to the mosque. Aleppo was the safest place.”

When the conflict broke out, Bashir and some of his classmates rushed to help. He adds: “That was the first time in my life I saw people from Aleppo running away and they did not know where to go. We couldn’t accept that and decided to help people however we could. We helped them to carry their belongings to safety at the university campus, but we knew we wanted to do something more.”

Bashir’s friends came across a group of Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) volunteers who were supporting families displaced by the conflict. A supervisor asked Bashir to volunteer — then in no time Bashir joined the tactical field intervention unit. His team was responsible for negotiating access to besieged areas in order to deliver the lifesaving assistance, evacuate people who required medical care and open safe corridors for civilians.

‘I used to communicate with UN security units, I liked the way they handled such complicated, sensitive and critical missions.’ Photo: WFP/Hussam Al Saleh
‘I used to communicate with UN security units, I liked the way they handled such complicated, sensitive and critical missions.’ Photo: WFP/Hussam Al Saleh

 

“I gained a huge amount of experience by joining this unit, I learnt how to negotiate humanitarian access, how to keep myself safe and handle radio communications,” he says. “Every time we were on a mission, we learned new techniques to help people who were in desperate situations. During this time some members of my unit were killed, and others were kidnapped for short and long periods — myself included.”

“Becoming a humanitarian was my way of saying no to what was happening in Syria”

He says he’ll never forget the day he called an ambulance to rescue two injured civilians, and it was targeted while his colleagues were rushing to the rescue.

“When anyone targets an ambulance, he is not only killing the crew and the rescued person, he is killing all of humanity,” he says. “I have seen my city that once was called the ‘Jewel of Syria’ being destroyed … poor people became displaced. Becoming a humanitarian was my way of saying no to what was happening in Syria.”

Bashir volunteered with SARC for six years and says it helped him become a more confident, open-minded and analytical person.

“I used to communicate with UN security units, and I liked the way they handled such complicated, sensitive and critical missions. I knew that I would learn a lot if I joined the UN and I especially wanted to join WFP because it was the largest organization in Syria.”

Bashir joined WFP in 2018 and participated in many ‘cross-line’ missions — large convoy of trucks loaded with humanitarian aid moving from government- to opposition-held areas. It was his job to keep his WFP colleagues safe during these stressful journeys.

“The pressure and risks are enormous,” he says. He adds: “One day the Syrian crisis will come to an end, and the Syrian people will rebuild their country. Syrians are very resilient people and I hope this day will come soon.”

Read more about WFP’s work in Syria.

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