From Syria to Afghanistan: The aid workers who brave world’s darkest regions

In the depths of Syria and war torn regions of Somaliland you will find Medair volunteers who pride themselves on helping those in places where others will not go.

The Christian charity is centred in Switzerland but UK director Alex Day was in Manchester this month to promote their work at home and abroad.

Speaking to MM, Mr Day described the dangers of working with long suffering communities in places where the chance of kidnap, or worse, always looms large.

“We used to work in Somaliland and one of the laws is that NGOs have to have armed guards to work there, that would never be our choice but we had to do that,” said Mr Day.

“The more acute the need, the more risk we are prepared to take.

“Medair is able to do quite simple things but they provide that little bit of hope for the future and let people know that someone out there cares.”

Mr Day’s appearance was part of Medair’s bid to raise its profile in the UK and to recruit workers to carry out lifesaving work from Haiti to Afghanistan.

Despite their name the charity carry out aid work with their feet firmly on the ground as Mr Day was keen to point out.

“Despite the name we don’t fly planes,” Medair’s UK director added.

The charity started out as a combination of organisations and is currently working on the Ebola crisis.

Mr Day is primarily based in the UK but has done relief work in Haiti and aided refugees in the Middle East.

He described his experiences working with Syrian refugees, who had lost their homes and families, in Jordan and the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, which borders Syria.

“We met someone who had been living in Jordan for the past few years and had been appointed as the community leader,” said Mr Day.

“He was imprisoned in Syria for a while and he took us up to this ridge where you could look across into Syria; as he was looking across he just broke down in tears.

“He shared with us that he came up to that ridge most evenings, to look into Syria and described it like being in prison. He felt this longing to be home, but couldn’t get there.”

WORKING ON FAITH: Mr Day is the UK Director of Christian charity Medair

Medair’s focus on reaching those in dangerous situations in remote areas can cause sparse media coverage and the charity is in need of more donations.

Damon Elsworth, a relief worker for Medair, worked in South Sudan for 18 months from August 2010 before coming home to Manchester.

He worked on vast water and sanitation projects across the country throughout its transition to independence.

Mr Elsworth said: “My favourite project involved travelling three hours, two or three times a week, to build a water treatment system.

“The project involved teaching local people who practised open defecation about hygiene.”

The relief worker helped extract water from the White Nile for 15,000 people living in rural areas, and build a brand new community water treatment system.

He left the country to return to Manchester where he married his wife and started work as a civil engineer.

Due to the nature of their work, Medair’s volunteers live with the constant threat of danger but Mr Elsworth felt confident that the charity always had a route to safety.

“Medair won’t do anything without an exit strategy and ours is to partner with local NGOs and governments,” added the engineer.

“I have been caught in a number of dodgy situations but we were always positioned close to United Nations’ bases.

“Our biggest threat was water borne diseases because we subjected ourselves to risk during the projects.”

The team were always protected by fences and guards but Medair avoids the use of armed guards whenever possible.

The charity believe the deterrence method of protection, led by the motto ‘our guns are bigger than yours’, is un-ethical.

Mr Elsworth, originally from Kent, said his time in Manchester had proved that the north is a kinder more charitable place than the south.

“The community in the north is more visible, I don’t know why but the community sense in Manchester is much bigger.”

Medair continues to help those in dire need in some of the lowest profile disaster zones across the world.

After speaking with their staff, you can’t help but feel a little guilty.

To find out more about Medair click here.

Image courtesy of David Gough, IRIN Photos, with thanks

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