This story was originally published by The New Humanitarian on December 12, 2023.
By Beril Eski
In late October, three Syrian men sat drinking afternoon tea and eating rice pudding in a Turkish restaurant in the heart of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. The men chatted merrily with each other and with the waiters, clearly having become regulars. What brought them here – thousands of kilometres from their own war-affected country – was the desire to help.
“I sympathised with Ukrainians because Russia was our common enemy,” one of the men, 36-year-old Nour Hallak, told The New Humanitarian.
In February 2022, Hallak was watching the news coverage from his apartment in the southern Turkish city of Antakya as Russia began bombing Ukraine, and as Russian forces poured across the border aiming to topple the country’s government. The images triggered memories of the destruction wrought by Syria’s civil war on his hometown of Idlib, in the country’s northwest.
Hallak had witnessed first-hand the devastating humanitarian impact of Russia’s indiscriminate military tactics after President Vladimir Putin intervened in September 2015, supporting forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and decisively tipping the balance of power in the conflict in favour of the Syrian government.
Hallak had been studying at Damascus University when the popular uprising against the Syrian government began in March 2011.
As al-Assad’s forces brutally cracked down on protesters and peaceful demonstrations gave way to armed opposition, he got his first taste of humanitarian work, helping to smuggle medicine to secret field hospitals tending to the injured in areas being attacked by the Syrian government.
Later, he took a job working for an NGO coordinating aid efforts in opposition-held northwest Syria, moving back and forth between his country and Türkiye, where he settled in 2020.
In the first few weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ukraine’s military defied expectations by repelling the Russian army around Kyiv. But Hallak knew the humanitarian fallout from the fighting would be severe and wanted to do what he could to help.
In April 2022, he applied for a job in Ukraine with the Norwegian Refugee Council and was accepted, arriving in the country by July of that year. “I came to Ukraine with a decade of war experience, believing that my journey and struggles could make a meaningful difference [here],” he said.
‘There is a real need here’
Based on conversations with other NGO workers and human resources managers in Ukraine, Hallak estimates there are around 40 Syrian aid workers in the country. It’s not a huge number, but Hallak believes they bring valuable skills and perspectives to the humanitarian response based on their years of experience working in Syria.
Since the Ukrainian military repelled Russia’s initial attempt to capture Kyiv, the focal point of the war has shifted to the south and east of the country and the fighting has largely turned into a grinding stalemate.
Nearly two years into the war, the UN estimates that around 17.6 million people out of Ukraine’s population of around 44 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. Around 3.7 million people are internally displaced, 5.8 million have escaped abroad as refugees, and the UN has verified more than 28,350 civilian casualties – a number widely accepted to be a significant undercount.
Russian airstrikes have targeted critical infrastructure across the country, including the electricity grid and water systems. Cities throughout Ukraine continue to come under periodic bombardment, but communities near the front lines in the south and east have borne the brunt of the fighting.
That is where Soliman al-Assad, 26, another Syrian aid worker, has been working since September this year. Al-Assad was just 14 when the Syrian uprising began in 2011, and he was 16 when he escaped the country to Türkiye in March 2013. After graduating from university in Türkiye in 2018, he decided to become a humanitarian, working with international organisations to support other Syrian refugees and on cross-border aid efforts to support internally displaced people in Syria.
Like Hallak, he applied for jobs in Ukraine shortly after the Russian invasion, first taking one with the Norwegian Refugee Council in Kyiv and Chernihiv, a city that was in the line of Russia’s initial assault on the capital.
Keen to move closer to the current front lines because he felt he could help more in areas where the humanitarian situation was more dire, al-Assad took a job as a shelter adviser with the Lutheran World Federation, a Swiss NGO, in the northeastern city of Kharkiv.
He now spends his days visiting shelters and schools damaged by Russian bombardment, running projects to repair them, and providing emergency kits and cash assistance for people fleeing the violence.
“There is a real need here,” he told The New Humanitarian. “I want to be a part of it and help people who are [affected by war] like me.”
‘It wasn’t an easy decision’
Shergo Ali, 34, is another Syrian aid worker in Ukraine. His motivation to get involved in humanitarian work stems from an experience he had in 2012. As the conflict in Syria escalated, Ali helped his uncle and his family escape from their hometown of Qamishli, in northeast Syria, to the border with Iraq.
At the border, Ali was amazed by the humanitarian workers waiting for the refugees in their orange, red, and blue vests and setting up tents and field medical clinics. “They just helped people regardless of where they came from, providing them food and medicine. I realised it was something I would have loved to do,” Ali said.
Two years later, Ali also left Qamishli, as it became increasingly dangerous to live there, and moved to Iraq. Having to start over also meant he could pursue his dream job.
Ali, who had studied law in Syria, began applying for all the aid jobs he could find, finally landing a position at the International Medical Corps as a project officer, delivering medicine and other supplies for hospitals from Iraq to the Syrian border.
After moving to Ukraine in February 2023, Ali is now the Eastern Ukraine area manager for the German NGO Welthungerhilfe, overseeing progammes and operations in four cities. He is still motivated by the idea of giving other people the same support his family received from aid workers at the Iraqi border more than a decade ago.
“I wanted to be in that picture, like the people who helped my people. I should be that person to someone else. I do this here, [and] my family in Iraq is supported by somebody else. This is the beauty of this job,” he told The New Humanitarian.
In addition to allowing them to help other war-affected communities, working in Ukraine has also allowed Syrian aid workers like Hallak, al-Assad, and Ali to make the jump from local staff to international employees, opening the door to higher pay and promotions. Yet, making the move came with its own set of challenges.
For al-Assad, one major difference between working in Türkiye and Syria compared to Ukraine is the feeling of being an outsider. “I became a part of Türkiye, and the culture was closer to ours,” he explained. “Now, I am living in a country with a totally different lifestyle, religion, and mentality. I am a foreigner again.”
For Hallak, who is the resource and culture manager for the British NGO UK-Med in the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro, the main challenge is being away from his wife and two children.
When he was growing up, Hallak’s father was always away working in Kuwait. When contemplating the position with UK-Med, Hallak worried his children would miss him, like he missed his father as a kid. But he decided to take the job anyway. He hopes the higher pay and better benefits will allow him to provide his children with a more secure future.
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” he said. “But I want [my children] to study at good colleges and have a better life than the one I had. So that was one of the motives.”
‘It is a war between two countries’
While Russia’s role as one of the combatants in Syria and Ukraine links the two wars, the Syrian aid workers The New Humanitarian spoke to also said there were significant differences between the conflicts and the humanitarian responses to both.
“Syria was a street fight, with militias, unknown groups, and so on. Here, it is a war between two countries,” Ali said.
When he arrived in Ukraine, Ali was surprised to find that camps had not been needed to house the around 3.7 million internally displaced people. Unlike in Syria, there is also power, internet, and a banking system that allows NGOs to support beneficiaries in a number of ways.
Ukraine’s functioning infrastructure and high digital literacy, allows Ali’s organisation to provide cash support to tens of thousands of people without him having to interact with the beneficiaries in person.
Shops and supermarkets have mostly remained open in areas where Welthungerhilfe operates, he said, including in areas in the south and east that are a little removed from the front lines. “This helps sustain local businesses instead of depending on aid organisations to distribute kits and food boxes,” he added.
However, businesses have closed in frontline areas and, “according to the assessments by Welthungerhilfe, [those receiving the aid] mostly prefer cash and voucher assistance”, he said.
Hallak has had to tailor the experience he gained working in Syria to the needs of people in Ukraine.
“While most aid workers copy and paste their previous experiences, it is a huge ‘no’ for us,” he said. “We talk to the locals and design the operations according to their needs.”
For example, Hallak runs training sessions to support the safeguarding of children and protection of women that are adapted to the cultural context of Ukraine.
“In Syria, such sessions focused mainly on child labour because, in the local culture, Syrian boys are expected to work after the age of 12 and provide for the family,” he said. “However, here, the concerns related to Ukrainian children are more about war trauma.”
‘I ended up here to help people’
Despite their sense of purpose working in Ukraine, Hallak, al-Assad, and Ali are not planning on staying in the country long-term.
Hallak wants to return to Türkiye to help secure his children’s future. The country has come to feel like home to him, and the Turkish restaurant in Kyiv that he frequents provides a sense of connection and nostalgia while he is away.
Al-Assad also wants to return to Türkiye to help with the response to the earthquakes that hit the country and Syria in February, killing more than 50,000 people and displacing more than six million across the two countries.
Ali hopes to return to Qamishli, his hometown, in Syria, and to grow old there. But with no end in sight to the civil war in Syria, that may still be a distant dream. For now, contributing to the Ukraine humanitarian response is his priority.
“As a Syrian guy who experienced a war for years and got displaced, [I] ended up here to help people,” Ali said. “In the end, we are all humans, and we care about each other. This is the biggest power we have as humans.”
Edited by Hanan Nasser and Eric Reidy.
The New Humanitarian puts quality, independent journalism at the service of the millions of people affected by humanitarian crises around the world. Find out more at www.thenewhumanitarian.org.