Firewood rations for Syrians, not a solution
by Abu Malek
I can only hope the situation will not be as bad as last year. Last winter, it was freezing cold. Even the weather did not have mercy with us. Every few days, we faced another winter storm. Each time, when we felt the roughest weather had past, a new storm would rise. Temperatures dropped well below freezing, prices for fuel and firewood were constantly increasing and most people could not afford heating materials. To keep warm, people started burning plastic bags and their old slippers. Some developed breathing problems from inhaling the smoke.
In order to alleviate the suffering of the most vulnerable, we planned to distribute one ton of firewood to each family, reaching at least 200 families. Our resources were limited, so we could only select the extremely vulnerable: households without any other source of assistance, recently displaced persons, or female-headed households. We would also look for households with a large number of dependents, and families with people with special needs.
As an organization rooted in solidarity, we were founded in 2011, at the beginning of the crisis and as overwhelming needs became clear. (Our city of initially 200,000 people is now hosting over 1.5 million displaced persons.) We are only ten volunteers, doing everything we can to help the community around us. We do everything ourselves: procuring of material, cutting of firewood, transporting, packaging and distributing it.
This year, in response to the cold winter, we are again distributing heating materials. Since fuel is becoming scarce and very expensive, we must resort to distributing firewood. Last year, after we had loaded the firewood on the pick-up truck, and were traveling to the distribution site, a dozen women followed us on foot, picking up small pieces of firewood that fell from the truck. With empathy for their situation, I asked them to bring their “family books”, (papers used for identification and registration), so they could also benefit from the distribution. After one hour, we found 200 additional people with their papers, ready to register at the distribution site -- in addition to the 200 families we intended to serve initially. What could we do? Leave these people in the cold? Obviously they were in need. While I registered their information, my colleagues cut the cords of wood into smaller sections. We distributed 10-30 kilograms per family, depending on the family size. Using smaller daily ration, families would have enough to last them through the winter.
When the wood was distributed, we went off with the truck to collect a new load. People were running behind the truck, desperately throwing their family papers onto the back of the truck. They were frantic to be registered, hoping to find some support, a little firewood to help them survive the winter.
We worked into the night, without a break, without eating or going to the bathroom. Registering names, cutting wood, bringing new truckloads… Soon, a winter storm was coming, but we still had too many families to register. People had been waiting hours in the cold, though. We couldn’t stop our work. We added an additional row for registering names. Then, moving even faster, the beneficiaries began helping us, collecting the names of people in line. We worked through the night, until 4:30 am. From that day, we distributed firewood daily, until we had reached 1000 families... What else could we do, facing hundreds of people queuing in the cold for hours to get some blocks of wood? This was sign enough of their desperation, proof enough of their vulnerability. These are the witnesses to the cold of winter and in the darkest days of war, among 4.5 million Syrians who are considered “hard-to-reach”. Can we not do more to help them?