JUST IN: On the Ground in Syria (A Firsthand Look)
WARNING: This episode contains references to violence that may be triggering to some listeners.
Preemptive Love team members just returned from northern Syria and give a firsthand account of the ongoing crisis caused by the Turkish offensive. They share how violence against vulnerable communities, particularly the Kurds, is continuing, despite a so-called ceasefire along the Syria-Turkey border.
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This breaking episode features firsthand accounts of what’s happening on the ground in Syria. After our team heard updates from Erin Wilson and Jen Meyerson about what they saw displaced people facing weeks after the US troop withdrawal in northeastern Syria, we knew we had to pause our regularly-scheduled Love Anyway podcast episodes.
What they told us is too important not to share. Some of the stories you’ll hear are quite literally life-and-death scenarios.
In this time-sensitive episode of Love Anyway, hear reporting from:
- Jen Myerson, Programs Manager
- Ben Irwin, Director of Communications
- Erin Wilson, Senior Field Editor
- Kayla Craig, Podcast Producer
Our team reports that the Turkish ceasefire is not over. Violence is continuing. Families are hiding in gutters and sewers as Turkish bombs fall.
Preemptive Love has a presence throughout the vulnerable region of northeastern Syria. Despite the danger, we’re not going anywhere. Our on-the-ground teams are continuing to receive people, including young children, who have experienced serious injuries as a direct result of this violence.
Breaking updates from this episode include:
- Jen and Erin were able to travel to Hasakah, one of the largest cities in northeastern Syria. Preemptive Love is operating in 37 abandoned schools outside the city, where people are taking shelter. What caught our team’s attention the most? The children. They are visibly hungry.
- Erin and Jen also went to the Al-Hawl camp in Syria. In the eyes of much of the world, this place is simply known as the camp for ISIS families. And the only reason it’s on some people’s radar is the fear that ISIS families may escape as a result of the Turkish offensive in the Kurdish region of Syria. But Erin describes what the clinic we are providing vulnerable children and women is like. It’s built out of a shipping container, and she said the staff is working diligently to keep it as clean as a hospital.
- Tal Tamr has come under continued Turkish bombardment in recent days. Tal Tamr is a place in Syria that was once a refuge for Assyrian Christians fleeing genocide. It was a safe place for them to heal and practice their faith. But now, despite a so-called ceasefire, they’re not safe anymore.
Quotes from this episode:
- “This is a horrific situation. I can not emphasize that enough…of how traumatic it is. Particularly for women and children. And they are not only afraid of Turkish bombs, they’re afraid of ISIS.” Jen Myerson
- “What was just one very complicated, civil war has morphed into three or four wars simultaneously. This is not getting less complicated. It’s not getting less dangerous.” Erin Wilson
- “Sooner or later, the world is going to forget these families who are on the run from violence, who are still not able to go home, or who are forced to go back to communities where violence is still taking place. Sooner or later, the world is going to forget them. We don’t have to forget them.” Ben Irwin
- “This is what this many years of war does to people…it makes you think that this situation is just part of life. And it’s not. And it shouldn’t be.” Erin Wilson
The video featured in this episode (watch below) is from our friend Rana’s sister. In our last breaking episode about Syria, we told you about how she, along with her two young children, are stuck near the frontlines. It’s too dangerous to flee.
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“I’m on the roof. There is an airstrike. I’m hearing the fighter jet again. My husband and children are in the house, and the jet is still flying above us.” . This is an airstrike filmed this week 25 miles from the Syria-Turkey border. Families are hiding in gutters and sewers as Turkish bombs fall, desperately waiting for a chance to flee. . The fighting is NOT over. Children are still hungry. The Kurds and others who have fled are telling us that no one else is helping them. . We’re operating in 37 makeshift shelters. We’re seeing children who are dangerously malnourished. The nights are getting colder. We are not letting up. . More to come. Please continue to support our emergency response. Link in profile. https://lovefir.st/33k4giP
Thousands of families have been displaced by the Turkish military offensive in northeastern Syria. Turkish bombs continue to fall, despite claims of a ceasefire. Our mobile clinics are providing urgent medical care, and our teams are providing ready-to-eat food packs. But the need is enormous.
Related breaking-news episodes of Love Anyway:
- Crisis in NE Syria (And the Ceasefire That Wasn’t)
- US Withdraws from Syria (And it Could Lead to War)
- Unrest in Iraq
As Ben shares in this episode, it’s not just about providing food and emergency medical care right now. It’s about creating jobs and helping families farm their lands again, to feed and care for their children again. Your donation helps rebuild entire communities.
Give today to families caught in this fast-breaking conflict.
Jen: This is a horrific situation. I can not emphasize that enough. Of, of how traumatic it is. Particularly for women and children. And they are not only afraid of Turkish bombs, they’re afraid of ISIS. And it’s just pure evil. That’s the only, the only way that I can describe it. Of some of the stories, the people have gone through. It actually…my brain can’t actually comprehend some of the things that to them is reality. And here we are, the only organization that I saw on the frontlines, like this is real stuff. And it is overwhelming and amazing all at the same time, that we have the ability to do this in such a way, and we are doing it well.
Kayla: The audio you just heard was from Jen Myerson, programs manager here at Preemptive Love, recorded just after she returned from northern Syria, along with our Field Editor and lead podcast host Erin Wilson.
After we heard their updates, we knew we had to pause our regularly scheduled podcast episodes, because their updates are too important not to share. Some of the stories you’re about to hear are quite literally life and death scenarios. [cut breath] Some of what Jen shares recount violence toward children, so please listen with discretion.
I’m Kayla Craig, and this is a special episode of Love Anyway, a podcast by Preemptive Love.
Ben: So we were actually planning our third podcast season. When protests erupted in Iraq, people protesting the lack of opportunity, the lack of services and government corruption and people saying we’ve had enough and then things blew up in Syria. And just time after time, we’re like, we have to, we have to let people know what’s going on. What we’ve come to realize is this, this is too important to take our eyes off of. The media is starting to move, turn its attention away from the crisis in Syria. We cannot afford to turn our attention away the crisis in Syria is anything but over.
Kayla: Erin and Jen just returned from their trip to Syria.
Ben: They were there with another teammate of ours, Michel, visiting some of the projects some of the emergency response that’s taking place in medical care. And the food distributions that are happening and while they were there was extraordinarily difficult to communicate with them a lot of communication channels that you and I take for granted are shut down or blocked in Syria so it was very difficult to get information while they were on the ground. But now that they are out of the country they’re able to share some of what they saw what they heard what they experienced firsthand what’s going on in that part of Syria.
So we are using this podcast to continue to raise awareness to keep people in the loop on what is really happening [cut breath] beyond the political hype and spin that you’re hearing from governments in Washington and in Turkey, and in Moscow.
Ben: So the last time we did an update, the President had just announced this ceasefire that was supposed to be permanent. It’s really just been anything but.
Kayla: That’s Ben Irwin, director of communications for Preemptive Love.
Ben: There has still been fighting. There’s still been bombing. There’s still been bombardment shelling airstrikes along the border particularly around town called tell Tal Tamr.
Some of these places that are being affected right now in Syria…they are there some of the most diverse communities in the Middle East. They defy the stereotype that many people have of the Middle East as this hopelessly fractionalized polarized place where Christians and Muslims and Arabs and Kurds can’t live by side by side. Well, they have been living side by side in this part of northern Syria until this moment of crisis. And if we want to stop the next war before it starts, we have to think about how we can rebuild these deeply-rooted diverse communities and that that requires a long term, ongoing sustainable commitment to our friends on the ground.
Kayla: Here’s Jen.
Jen: If I could sum up the northeast in three phrases, I think I would say the ceasefire is definitely not over. Children are very hungry.
Erin: We are very, very far from a point when the violence is going to be over and the needs to help are going to be done. I think before Turkey, the Civil War and ISIS aspect of what was happening in Syria had fallen so far from the news cycle for the most part, that people just assumed everything was okay there again. And so what this wave of violence has done by bringing it back in the news like it is, there’s now like at least three levels of war happening in Syria. You have the Civil War, you have the ISIS war, which everybody thinks is done, that’s not done. And now you have this incursion from Turkey. And layer on top of that, this dividing-the-pie that’s happening with Russia. Russian flags in many places higher than the Syrian flag. Like just lots and lots and lots and lots of Russian presence. So you could really count that as a fourth.
What was just one very complicated, civil war has morphed into three or four wars simultaneously like this is not getting less complicated. It’s not getting less dangerous.
Kayla: That’s Erin Wilson.
Jen: Jess had asked me like, you know, do you feel safe and I realized in that moment that I am terrified of being caught. It was weird because you felt safe. I mean, we joked a lot in the car. But you also knew that these things happen. You just never know. And so we did take cautions. And we drove during the day and we took different roads that were very militarized because that helps.
Ben: What Jen came back and reported to our team was that the ceasefire is absolutely not over. The violence is continuing. They’re continuing to receive people who have had serious injuries as a direct result of this violence.
Jen: Many with just violent trauma wounds, and at the same time our clinic is being known to have such great service to the point that people are traveling from outside to use our facilities. And I’ve known a lot of emergency doctors but what our doctors are treating are crazy. They showed me photos of a child’s foot after he stepped on a landmine. They showed me photos of a baby who was shot was being breastfed, shrapnel wounds in kids’ necks…the amount of children that were treated…it’s overwhelming what our doctors are doing in this horrific war. This is a horrific situation.
Kayla: Jen and Erin were also able to go to Hasakah, one of the largest cities in northeastern Syria. Preemptive Love is operating in 37 abandoned schools outside the city. What caught our team’s attention the most? The children. They are visibly hungry.
Jen: It was something that both Erin and I noticed, is when your hair starts to turn color and your skin starts to you know…that’s a sign of malnutrition. And it doesn’t happen overnight. These children ran from the middle of the night. Some of them with sandals. Some of them didn’t even have shoes, just with the clothes on their backs. And they haven’t had an opportunity to eat a real meal since the beginning of the crisis until we showed up.
Jen: Our mobile clinics are doing great. They are going to a lot of the same areas that are our food is being distributed. We are going to be implementing rolling beds, we were able to go to Homs, which is on the west side of Syria. And in Homs there is a set of internally displaced people who are sewing these rolling beds, and it’s kind of like a giant sleeping bag where you have a map on the bottom. It would have fit me, it’s like six feet, you know, six feet long. It’s great. It has plastic on the outside and then cotton on the inside. So it’s going to keep them dry and it’s going to keep them warm.
Kayla: Erin and Jen also went to the Al-Hawl refugee camp in Syria. In the eyes of much of the world, this place is simply known as the camp for ISIS families. And the only reason it’s on some people’s radar is the fear that ISIS families may escape as a result of the Turkish offensive in the Kurdish region of Syria.
But Al-Hawl actually began as a refugee camp nearly 30 years ago to house Iraqi refugees who fled during the Gulf War. And Al-Hawl served as a shelter for Iraqis again after the US-led invasion in 2003. Fast forward to the beginning of 2019, when Al-Hawl became a temporary home to nearly 10,000 Syrians displaced by war.
But…this camp that was meant to be a refuge became an unofficial school of ISIS ideology for the tens of thousands of children held there. And as Erin put it, it looks like an outdoor prison. But Erin also described what the clinic we are providing women and children is like. It’s built out of a shipping container, and she said the staff is working diligently to keep it as clean as a hospital.
Erin: And they really care deeply about the people. The doctors and like the staff there, they’re on a two-week rotation. They live literally live their sleep there for two weeks and then go home for two weeks. And so they’re putting everything they’ve got into these. They’re choosing to go they’re choosing to work in and choosing to put everything they have into this place and I think it really shows
Jen: We launched the clinic, like five days before the Turkey situation. And so about two-thirds of the security in Al-Hawl camp have left. And that means that they had to leave because partly it was managed by the US partly because now they’re having to join forces in the north.
Kayla: The camp falls under the jurisdiction of the United Nations, just like other refugee camps around the world. It is run, and jointly protected by the Syrian Democratic Forces and private military contractors paid for by the US government. Until recently, the surrounding area was also protected by US forces.
But all that is up in the air, with the recent Turkish incursion into northern Syria, with US forces now gone, and new attacks by Turkish-backed militias. With the lack of security, the violence, unrest, and fighting within the camp has already begun to rise, making it an especially dangerous place to operate.
Jen: Instead of operating as a clinic they were operating as an ambulance and they were bringing Gun victims from the annex into the main part of camp. And they told one story which still boggles my mind of this woman who a French woman who was shot near the heart, they brought her into our main clinic, we knew that we wouldn’t be able to, to serve all of these women to the capacity that they need simply because we didn’t have enough doctors, a lot. A lot of doctors have left because they don’t feel safe there. And so a woman from the annex was shot by other people in the annex close to the heart. They took the bullet out, but they were so close to the heart that they wanted to bring her to a main hospital. They brought her to the main hospital and Hasakah and I think it was a day later, she escaped and she ran away leaving all of her kids in the camp. And she just had a bullet near her heart, you know, and she is she left. And so it is um, it’s a very tense situation.
Kayla: So why are we showing up at Al-Hawl? Because when we say we love anyway, we mean it. We mean it when we’re handing out meals to families fleeing war. We mean it when we’re offering entrepreneurial coaching in our job creation programs. And we mean it even for families of ISIS, for those whose ideology might be what scares us the most.
There is only one way to change the ideas that lead to war—by showing up, right in the face of them. By pressing back against hate and against violence with relentless love. So the cycle of us versus them, the cycle of war, is ended.
And that’s why Erin and Jen visited Al-Hawl camp, listening and assessing conditions there. It’s why we’re working on how to meet the needs of residents. We’re pursuing ways to provide crucial medical care and food, and to provide care for the youngest and most impressionable, these children of ISIS families.
Kayla: Preemptive Love has a presence throughout the vulnerable region of northeastern Syria, and despite the danger, we’re not going anywhere. Families…Kurds, Arabs, Christians…they’re all still being bombed out, forced to flee their homes. They desperately want to go home, to return to their farms for planting season, to provide for their families. But it’s unsafe, and many times impossible, to do so.
Because the message from our friends on the ground is clear: There has been no ceasefire. Families are hiding in gutters and sewers as Turkish bombs fall.
Jen: Bombs are still going off, you know this, even though it’s a ceasefire and bombs are still going and we even know some of our Iraq office have family members of friends who are stuck in the cities, and who are showing us the photos that was just on Instagram a few days ago of it looks like a volcano erupted but that is again, that’s reality.
Kayla: We posted the photos and videos from Tal Tamr, which has come under continued Turkish bombardment in recent days, to Preemptive Love’s Instagram account. Tal Tamr is a place in Syria that was once a refuge for Assyrian Christians fleeing genocide. It was a safe place for them to heal and practice their faith.
But now, despite a so-called ceasefire, they’re not safe anymore.
The imagery of one video is hard to forget … as you see this black billowing smoke against these blue skies over this ancient city that’s 25 miles from the Syria-Turkey border, you hear this woman, and there’s so much fear in her voice, saying, I’m on my roof. I’m filming, this is the sound of a fighter jet…God protect us.
Kayla: The video is from our friend Rana’s sister. In our last breaking episode about Syria, we told you about how she, along with her two young children, are stuck near the frontlines. It’s too dangerous to flee.
Jen: Our ambulances parked about five miles outside of where that picture that looks like a volcano erupted. That’s where our ambulance is, is five miles outside, waiting for people to escape, to treat them. And so people are sleeping on the floors, they are cold and they are hungry. And so we have been able to distribute food to the point where they are running out of food in Hasakah. We’re still going to stay on top of it to try to find out ways to make sure that people in these areas are getting fed.
Kayla: So, why is the ceasefire not being enforced? The best we can tell, evidence suggests Turkish officials were never really interested in a ceasefire. They are interested in clearing out Kurdish territory. This is an unprovoked offensive they launched—in the days leading up to it, the Kurds actually dismantled their border defenses at the urging of the US. The Turkish government does not want a viable, autonomous Kurdish territory on its border. Meanwhile, some US troops have returned to the region—not to enforce the ceasefire, but to secure oil fields in the area. In the vacuum left by the US, Russia has stepped into police the so-called ceasefire.
Kayla: While some parts of northern Syria are still under bombardment, other parts close to the fighting are eerily calm. But underneath that calm, lies another story.
Erin: We spent some time in Qamishli and I pronouncing it come-slow, not Qamishli because that’s the Kurdish pronunciation and a lot of things folks who live there are Kurdish. It was bizarrely calm there. So we left the hotel one morning and the, you know, the market the morning market was just on the very corner. There was like fruit for sale and all kinds of vendors and stuff going on. And it’s not far away that war is happening. Like it’s not far away. And people are living their life like everything is normal.
Erin: It was…it was sunny and we were driving down the streets and there were school girls like teenage girls holding hands walking to her from school, smiling, laughing. There was, you know, businesses were just going about their thing. It was so bizarre and knowing that just not you know, very far away out of your shot, but not far away. There was actual bombs dropping on on communities.
Erin: And if you think about when a hurricane warning or something happens in the US. It’s going to hit some on the eastern seaboard. You know, every grocery store has not got any food, water in it for a huge, huge area around where they predict the storm is going to hit. Everybody’s prepared for what might happen. This is just a little way away from more people are living our lives. Like everything’s normal, and that’s not normal. Like this is what this many years of war does to people, it makes you think that this situation is is just part of life. And it’s not and it shouldn’t be.
Erin: It’s like, well, this is just, this is just the new normal. And I just really feel like the, the work that we’re doing is so important, not just because of the way that we show up or the way that we serve, but hopefully that we can, I don’t know, make people feel loved and remind them what normal really is, and that it’s not that.
Jen: So being in the northeast Syria was challenging for me personally, as an American, not so much for how much I was hated, but for how much I was loved. And we heard a lot of stories of frustration, of abandonment of feeling it is because of America that they are in this predicament. And here I am an American, and they’re offering me tea. And they are saying that they’re honored to have me in their home. I wonder if the roles were reversed if I would have the same response. And I don’t know, I would like to say I would. I don’t know.
Kayla: I asked Ben what we can do to help these families…
Ben: Sooner or later the world is going to forget these families who are on the run from violence, who are still not able to go home, or who are forced to go back to communities where violence is still taking place. Sooner or later, the world is going to forget them. We don’t have to forget them and the best way that we can show that we remember that we see that we care that we are with them is to give. And if you can give month after month, that’s even better, because that allows us to stay with them beyond the initial crisis, because a displacement that takes place over the course of a few days can last for years, the ripple effects of that disruption to your life can last for years, sometimes decades. And we need to stand with these families and help them get back on their feet. It’s not just about providing food and emergency medical care right now. It’s about creating jobs and helping them farm their lands again and provide income to feed and care for their children again, and to rebuild entire communities.
Kayla: As you’ve heard, thousands of families have been displaced by the Turkish military offensive in northeastern Syria. Turkish bombs continue to fall, despite claims of a ceasefire. Our mobile clinics are providing urgent medical care, and our teams are providing ready-to-eat food packs. But the need is enormous.
Visit preemptivelove.org/podcast to give lifesaving food and medical care today for families caught in this fast-breaking conflict. While you’re there, you can see photographs of the places mentioned in this episode, read more about our work in Al-Hawl, and watch the video from Tal Tamr.
Thanks for listening to this breaking news episode. We’re @preemptivelove on Instagram and Twitter.
Until next time, I’m Kayla Craig. And this is Love Anyway, a podcast by Preemptive Love.