September 21, 2017
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When It Comes to Humanitarian Aid, Syrians Must Play the Numbers Game

Mohamad Katoub, a former doctor who escaped from Eastern Ghouta, was quick to point out that Syria’s daily toll of deaths and casualties were more than just numbers – until he saw the power those statistics had. Here, he explains why he changed his mind.

By Mohamad Katoub, News Deeply


Syrian children on the first day of Eid al-Adha visiting the graves of family lost during the Syrian Civil War, in Douma, Eastern Ghouta, on September 12, 2016.Samer Bouidani/NurPhoto

Syrian children on the first day of Eid al-Adha visiting the graves of family lost during the Syrian Civil War, in Douma, Eastern Ghouta, on September 12, 2016.Samer Bouidani/NurPhoto

GAZIANTEP, TURKEY – On February 15, 2014, the medical staff in Eastern Ghouta, my home, decided to close the unit housing incubators for premature babies because the hospital ran out of fuel for the electricity generators. The siege made my neighborhood inaccessible and deprived the hospital of supplies. Incubators need round-the-clock electricity and, at the time, we were hardly able to save enough fuel for critical cases. I took part in making that decision, and I will never forgive myself. A little girl died that night. She was two days old.

Eastern Ghouta has been under siege by pro-government forces since early 2013. Between November and December of that year, 33 children died because of the lack of fuel and medical supplies. The inaction of Damascus-based humanitarian organizations since then has only compounded this suffering. Three U.N. and partner agency convoys delivered supplies to our area in 2014, but each of them carried few items of value and they failed to stop the siege-related deaths.

I am now based in Gaziantep, Turkey, and work for the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), a medical relief organization. I can attest that being a beneficiary of aid in Syria is completely different from working from outside to deliver supplies. Working in a hospital whose services are needed at all times is different from working to send supplies, fuel and salaries to that hospital. Advocating for protecting health workers in Syria is completely different from defending your own life under barrel bombs.

When I was living in besieged Eastern Ghouta, I did not read the humanitarian agencies’ frequent reports on the latest aid delivery statistics. I was concerned with different numbers – the hospital’s last liter of serum, the last liter of fuel, the last orthopedic external fixation.

I arrived in Gaziantep in June 2014, determined to continue supporting Syrian hospitals from the outside. I explored the “humanitarian community” and tried to learn the “humanitarian language.” At first, I ignored statistics. Whenever I heard someone talk about Syrians as numbers, I told them: “We are not numbers. Every single casualty is a family member: a father, a brother, a sister or a son.”

inlandempireadvertising114-1Yet, slowly, I became aware of the importance of numbers. Numbers tell the story of our failure as humanitarian activists. Numbers tell the story of how funding is dispersed. Numbers prove that donors also pay for military operations that exacerbate the crisis – much more than the amount they invest in humanitarian causes.

This is the story of Syria’s failed humanitarian response, told by numbers.

According to “Fueling the Fire,” a March 2016 SAMS report by a group of INGOs and Syrian NGOs on the response of the U.N. Security Council’s permanent members to the Syria crisis:

  • Syria’s poverty rate was 35 percent before the crisis. It was 85 percent in 2015.
  • The monthly income of a Syrian family was $600 before the war. It was just $100 in 2015.
  • Syria’s unemployment rate before 2011 was 8 percent. It was 52 percent in 2015.
  • Life expectancy at birth in Syria was 70 years in 2011. It was 55 years in 2015.

According to the global nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights, there were 382 attacks on medical facilities and 757 health workers were killed between March 2011 and June 2016. In May 2016, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution to protect health workers and infrastructure in Syria, but that same month, PHR documented eight attacks on medical facilities. There were nine in June.