Syria’s ever-worsening humanitarian crisis has put small – and unlikely – international relief organizations on high alert. Among these is SERA (Special Emergency Response and Assistance), which is focused on delivering aid to areas where it is too difficult for larger organizations to operate. SERA was founded and operated by former army ranger Peter Kassig, a 25-year-old Indiana native who deployed to Iraq in 2007, studied political science and worked as an emergency medical technician in Tripoli, Lebanon. He spoke to News Deeply about challenges of delivering humanitarian supplies to Syria.
News Deeply: In a brief on your January humanitarian mission to Syria, you said a major priority is to delivery supplies directly to the people, without the outside influence of any political party or group. What are the difficulties of remaining apolitical?
Peter Kassig: When working in conflicts, sometimes the areas you choose to help are going to be dictated, not only by your organization’s capacity, but also simply by the nature of conflict.
There are areas we simply cannot go to. They’re either held by rebel forces that are too extreme to deal with, are too highly contested, or are patrolled by government forces reluctant to collaborate with an international NGO. So naturally, you’re going to be funneled into certain areas at certain times.
We do not discriminate between pro- and anti regime people and we do strive to remain neutral. IDP’s in Syria in the north (i.e. Idlib) are mainly anti-regime but that’s neither good nor bad from our perspective; they are simply civilians who need help.
ND: Discuss the hurdles you face during your work.
PK: What limits us as far as our reach and our access is that we are a brand new NGO that is just starting to look into how to operate in Syria effectively, safely, and efficiently, to reach civilians in need on all sides of the conflict. I am glad that we were able to provide around 4,500 lbs. of food as well as gas cooking stoves, but it was a drop of water in the ocean.
The most complicated things you have to navigate are the specifics of where you deliver aid and how, what aid you deliver and who you deliver it to. The decision between delivering something like blankets or cooking fuel, clothing or antibiotics…each of these things have different values, they come in different quantities. Certain things are needed more than others, and certain things are stolen more than others.
ND: So you have to make those decisions on the spot?
PK: Yes, which is why we conduct on-site needs assessments. We’re constantly monitoring media and news, speaking with contacts and sources. But we are also traveling to locations to assess actual need on ground.
We speak to people, meet with leaders of camps and LCCs (Local Coordination Committees speak to everyday people and trying to understand from them what they need, what they see as the problems, as the potential dangers. From all that you’re able to gain a fairly decent idea of an appropriate direction to go… You have to be really careful, extremely patient and very conscientious of every potential impact you’re going to have on that population.
ND: How do you decide what supplies to bring?
PK: We looked at what is going to have the maximum effectiveness in terms of the overall operation, and: can we get it there safely? Is the population in serious need? What do they need? Does the budget that we have make it feasible for us to address that need for that particular population?
ND: How’s your funding?
PK: We need more funding. Most of what we’ve done in terms of development, operationally or anything else, I’ve funded personally from my savings. It’s been very small scale and very modest. The largest single operation I’ve been able to do so far cost about $2,000 in Idlib.
But we don’t need millions of dollars to be effective.
ND: How did you build up your network to prepare for your January mission to Idlib, where SERA delivered food, propane canisters and stoves to the Qaa camp, which houses internally displaced Syrians?
PK: I worked three to four days a week at a hospital in Tripoli for about three months (June – August 2012) and then moved on to auxiliary support for a free clinic that was established a few miles away after the amount of wounded being transported to that particular region decreased to the point where my services were no longer needed there.
I lived in the hospital with the rest of the Syrian medical support volunteers. It was a very emotional and life-changing experience that allowed me to develop a very trusted base of non-military friends that were Syrian.
The nature of what SERA is trying to do it has been one of the things that’s made people react as positively as they have and made them willing to accept my help.
With the medical supplies, the worst case scenario is that we make a delivery to a clinic, and that clinic gets overrun or taken over, and that stuff falls into the wrong hands. But even if you have 5,000 Band-Aids, you can’t sell them for such a massive profit that you’re going to be able to use that money to do something negative. They can only be used as bandages, and that is the beauty of it.
ND: Have you ever been asked, as a former soldier, to go outside your mandate?
PK: Sometimes rebels want to know if I will help train people or if I will join the fight. I always tell them no. It is of course not that I do not feel terrible for the civilians that are suffering in Syria, but… for an American young man in my position that would be foolish, and regarded as such by pretty much everyone, including the opposition.
I can either be in a position to deliver tens of thousands of dollars of antibiotics for women and children, or I can be another young man with a gun.
(To learn more about SERA or to donate, visit their webpage: serainternational.org)