By Kara Mason
Getting humanitarian aid to Syrians is difficult. There are roadblocks, multiple opposition forces, ever-changing opposition borders, steady fighting and now the Islamic State group.
It’s always been a dangerous job, said Dena Elian, grants and programs associate for medical aid group Syria Relief and Development, but the presence of the Islamic State group has heightened the sense of uncertainty in the country for citizens and aid workers.
Elian has been doing relief work since she was in high school and ended up in Washington after graduating from Michigan State University. She became interested in Syria while she was in college and said aid work is her calling.
The Islamic State group controls major highways throughout the country. Usually, the group charges a fee to drive on the roads, Elian said. Prices for diesel have increased due to the group’s control of major oil refineries. Delivering medical supplies and other forms of aid to certain areas in Syria has become more expensive.
For now, the cost fluctuations have been negligible, she said. The biggest concern is still security.
The Kansas-based nonprofit’s hospital in rebel-controlled Aleppo was destroyed earlier this year from a barrel bomb attack. It wasn’t caused by the Islamic State group, but fighting between the group and opposition forces 15 miles to the north is pretty constant.
If the Islamic State group gains control of the city, it would most likely be a game-changer. It would be nearly impossible to get aid there. The United Nations and the Assessment Capacities Project have reported that in Islamic State group controlled areas, such as the northeastern portion of the country, humanitarian access is “extremely limited.”
Since the conflict began in 2011, 10.8 million Syrians have needed humanitarian assistance, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. To help alleviate the crisis, the U.S. has spent just over $2.9 billion in aid since 2012, but the conflict has worsened. July was the deadliest month with 1,500 civilian deaths, Elian said.
“There’s always a fear of traveling,” Elian said, especially since it’s hard to keep track of shifting borders and danger zones.
But travel has become a necessity for millions of Syrians.
“We often see patient numbers fluctuate from week to week and month to month, but it's difficult to pinpoint what the explanation is for it,” Elian said. “Migration trends, as well as patient trends, tend to correlate with increased violence and other harsh conditions. At our facilities, we tend to see more of a trend surrounding our caseload distribution. Since June, we've definitely seen a spike in conflict related injuries at our facilities.”
Some of the moving is due to the Islamic State group, she said. But it’s difficult to say how many of the cases they see are related to the group.
Syria Relief and Development has four field hospitals, a wing in Jordan and several small clinics throughout the country that employ 250 Syrians. So far, none of the hospitals is in Islamic State group controlled territory.
“We’ve been really lucky because our hospitals work in opposition-controlled areas,” Elian said.
But that could change quickly.
“It’s something you have to prepare for, because no matter where you are it could happen,” she said.
The Islamic State group and a confusing array of opposition groups has caused a decline in donations to the nonprofit.
“There was a huge humanitarian crisis before, but now people think Syria and they think terrorism,” Elian said.
People have become exhausted with Syria, and attention has been redistributed to other issues, such as the Ebola breakout, she said. It’s tough to get people on board because they know it’s not going to end any time soon.