Syrian Refugee Crisis: Peacekeepers and first-responders


The United Nations have adopted the International Volunteer Day in 1985. Since then, people around the world recognize the commitment, dedication and impact of individual volunteers and volunteer organizations on the 5th of December. Matthew Sugrue is a project manager for the Syria Response in Jordan and writes about his  work with Syrian volunteers, who are an integral part of CARE’s support for Syrian refugees.

"Drop upon drop collected will make a river / Rivers upon rivers collected will make a sea / Little and little together will become much". - Gulistan of Sa’adi

Caught between hearing and seeing the stories of hundreds of refugees and knowing that there is only so much help they can provide, the volunteers are the peacekeepers of the Syria program. The daily work of CARE’s volunteers involves trying to help people made vulnerable by circumstances beyond their control. They hear the stories of what refugees experienced in Syria, in what they have experienced in Jordan, how difficult the circumstances are, and how each has their own personal struggles that they need assistance in working through. They sit with people who have fled their home and do their best to reassure them that, at the least, someone is genuinely interested in what happened and is happening to them. As part of their day, they also explain to each refugee that CARE may not be able to help all of them due to limited resources and the necessity of first assisting the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. Volunteers hear the heart-wrenching stories and know that not everyone who is coming to CARE’s centers will receive assistance.

The volunteers are the first responders for the Syria program. They are the first faces that refugees sees when they come to one of our centers. The volunteers are the first people to explain to them how CARE’s program works. They are the first person to provide services, by informing them about other service providers in their city and their rights as a refugee. They listen to the complaints of the refugees attending the information sessions and provide as much information as  available to help the attendees. The case managers and senior staff hear the same stories as the volunteers do, but we have the benefit of either first reading about the case in the registration document or hearing it second hand. We have the small, but welcome, relief of some forewarning. The volunteers do not have the same buffer and hear the stories of people who have undergone endless suffering directly and for the first time.

The volunteers are the ambassadors for the program. Whenever donors and/or journalists come to visit one of our centers they want to talk to the volunteers about their experience and what types of issues they have encountered during their time with CARE. Sure they want to get a briefing from the senior staff but you get the feeling that the visitors would prefer a “brief briefing”. The Jordanian volunteers are asked how they feel having so many refugees in their country and what motivated them to volunteer to help the Syrian people in Jordan. The Syrian volunteers are asked about their experiences in Syria, why the left, how they feel about volunteering with CARE, and what they would like the international community to know about the Syrian people in Jordan.

The volunteers are the resident quality control consultants for the Syria program. Whenever a colleague or myself has  a question about the a new procedure related to registration, information provision, distribution, or any other process in which the volunteers are involved our first stop after developing the new procedure is the volunteers. The volunteers provide feedback on what they think of the new procedure or target, as well as the ideas on how to do what we want to do, only better. Many  bad ideas, made with good intentions, were avoided due to advice from the volunteers.

The Syria team’s volunteers come from different social backgrounds and different places. They are recent graduates from Jordan, and young people who would have been recent graduates in Syria if the war had not occurred. They are former lawyers and university professors from Syria, and Jordanians who were working in other sectors but felt compelled to help out. They are Christian, Muslim, and Druze. They are men and women, from families that were wealthy in Syria and those that were less well-off. They are relaxed and focused, out-going and reserved, funny and serious.

The different personalities of the volunteers are never more so on display then when the staff and volunteers are together outside of working hours. The Iftar dinner, the breaking of the fast in Ramadan that CARE Jordan held for the volunteers and some staff was one of those great moments when you see all the volunteers eating and relaxing together. You get to hear stories about their past and their hopes for the future, mostly funny stories about the past, in more detail than during the brief moments of calm during the day when you get snippets and fragments of lives on hold. These moments are important because they reaffirm the fact that “refugee” is an unfortunate adjective forced upon people by terrible events. It is not a definition or an inherent personality trait. Hearing stories of trouble caused as teenagers, the favorite café in their home city, their favorite sports team, help to reinforce and remind of this central fact. The volunteers are average people doing extraordinary work under difficult circumstances; helping where they can.

Each family that is aided by CARE, with cash assistance, case management, referrals, or information, began the process with the help of a volunteer. Every day the volunteers help Syrian refugees in small but important ways. None of their actions change the world in a large way but each action represents one small change for the better for one family in need. Small changes build up slowly, always slowly, until you have assisted 150,000 individual Syrians in Jordan.

Little by little the volunteers help a lot.