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‘When the people move, we move too’

World Food Programme responds to mass displacement of people in northeast Syria

Driving back to Qamishly from a mission in Al Hasakar on a Wednesday afternoon earlier this month, WFP programme officer, Isam Ismail glanced up at the skies. At that moment, he saw the first missiles being fired in the distance, signalling the start of renewed fighting in northeast Syria.

He thought of what the people in the towns under attack were facing and how they were feeling. His memory took him back to 2012, to the outbreak of violence in his hometown on the outskirts of Damascus. He recalled his mother, father, brothers and sisters fleeing the family home, the immediate relief of escaping mortars and the slow, drawn-out pain of losing everything and becoming displaced.

By the evening, he was aware that over the coming days there would be thousands of people fleeing the bombardments. He needed to get back to WFP and the 30 national staff he was responsible for — and to get the emergency response going.

Khadijah and Mustafa

As Isam pressed the accelerator, miles away, in the town of Ras Al Ayn, Khadijah had to quickly strap her disabled adult son Mustafa into his wheelchair and flee their home. "I was just finishing preparing the meal for our family when we the explosion sounds begun," she said. "We couldn't eat a bite."

Khadijah, a widow, pushed Mustafa's wheelchair on foot for over seven hours, before a car finally came and took them to a shelter, 79km from their home. The only thing on her mind was that she wanted to get him to safety.

After trekking all day, Khadijah and Mustafa found refuge in a host community shelter. Photo: WFP/Alan Ali

"The last picture I have of my home is of the dining room where dinner was served. We had to flee without carrying anything," she said.


In Tel Abyad, 73-year-old Salja Modhi and her extended family of 12 escaped as bombs came raining down on them.

In the ensuing chaos, they had trouble finding a car to take them somewhere safe. When they did, the journey was tough, crammed together, travelling in a convoy with hundreds of other displaced people. On arrival, they did not find a warm welcome or a safe haven. "We had no place to sleep there, we slept one night in the wilderness."

73-year-old Salja is concerned she will never be able to return to her home. Photo: WFP/Alan Ali

Salja and her family were hugely relieved when a humanitarian NGO picked them up and took them to a collective shelter. "All we ask for now is to have basic life necessities like food," she said.

As they settled into the shelter, the family spoke of their hope for their house not to be destroyed and Salja became fearful at the thought that they'll never have the chance to go back home again.

Facing the emergency

Unlike Isam, who joined WFP in 2008 as a field monitor in Damascus and subsequently worked in areas of intense fighting such as Aleppo, Homs, Idlib and rural Damascus, many WFP staff in Qamishly had not experienced bombardment up close.

The safety of staff and their families was a priority. A safe house was immediately ready for them to move into if they needed it and only critical staff were expected to work from the office. "I take responsibility for all my colleagues very seriously, both in terms of safety and of their psychological wellbeing. This is important so they remain motivated to reach our beneficiaries, who are experiencing horror and displacement."

The WFP office in Qamishli assists over half a million people providing general food assistance in Al-Hasakeh and Ar-Raqqa governates every month — this figure now looks set to increase. Isam and his team worked around the clock, mapping where the bombardments were happening and where the displaced people were heading.

Plans for food distributions were adjusted to reach more people and include more ready-to-eat rations for people on the move. Warehouse workers worked into the night to make this happen.

"We were determined to reach the displaced people. When they move, we move too," says Isam. "We are mostly Syrian and we are all committed humanitarians. I defy anyone to keep a tear inside their eye when you see the people who are our friends, neighbours, families in this terrible situation. It is deeply motivating to serve your own people and bring them food and support at this terrible time".

Since the onset of fighting on 9 October, WFP has reached 218,000 people with emergency food assistance. Photo: WFP/Alan Ali

More than 170,000 people have so far fled the fighting, seeking refuge with host communities in Al-Hasakeh and Ar-Raqqa cities, either with families or friends, or in collective shelters.

Isam adds: "As first responders we moved quickly to reach the newly displaced people and to support the host communities and families who would take them in. With so many on the move, finding some of the people was a challenge."

WFP is working with partners on the ground, identifying and supporting people in shelters like Khadijah, Mustafa and Salji, as well as registering families hosting displaced people to provide them with additional food as needed. Local authorities in Al-Hasakeh are emptying schools to accommodate people arriving and in need of food, clothes and other essentials.

Since 9 October, WFP has reached 218,000 people with emergency food assistance, including 88,200 people in Al-Hasakeh and 129,700 people in Ar-Raqqa governorate. This month it is aiming to reach 580,000 people in the area.

Learn more about WFP's work in Syria