Healing refugees

Syria’s camps as seen by a Swiss humanitarian

Foreign Affairs

"This is a humanitarian disaster I think the world has never faced before, because everybody is just waiting for these negotiations in Geneva and now you hear new messages that these negotiations are going to be moved [to Montreux] because of a watch exhibition being held in the same place. It sounds quite stupid."

"People in the camps from all sides consider themselves first as Syrian (not opponents). They of course all have their own opinions, but when I’m there, I just take pictures, I go with my camera. They are occupied with the basic survival things, they don’t talk about politics."

"It’s very cold. There’s a lack of blankets and heaters, there’s no organisation working there at the moment. There were blankets sent in by Turkish organisations, but every day there is a need for new tents for 1000 people."

Today (December 17, 2013) we are transporting food for 1200 families in northern Syria, in collaboration with one women’s organisation from the Syrian side and a Turkish organisation from the Turkish side. Today we have rice, potatoes and meat. About forty women in Syria will cook it and then it will be delivered to four different camps."

"I think the children realise quite well what’s happening. Children are not stupid, they know exactly what’s going on, they remain children but sometimes with adult responsibilities, as they are orphans."

"We don’t transport aid from Switzerland because it costs a lot of money. Here, blankets cost around CHF7.50, so why should we collect them in Switzerland and transport them 4000 kilometres to Syria when you are in an area living from the textile industry? We are living now in Turkey and we have to show respect towards the Turkish as well. They are hosting 700,000 refugees, so we buy everything here. You have to take care of the local market as well."

Oscar A.M. Bergamin participating in a hot meal distribution in Northern Syria, December 17, 2013

"It’s dangerous to be in Syria, but when I talk to these commanders they respect that I’m there and just helping. You should have no other agenda than just humanitarian aid, that’s very important. Not talking about any project. Just bringing food. They don’t like the word “project”. But you can say: 'I’m impartial and do not deal with politics'. Our agenda is just to help. Not talking to certain groups means that you’re not impartial."

"When it’s cold and snowing, you get more donations. You get no financial support for children when it’s about a war. This is a little bit stupid, but that’s the way it is. Everybody sends money after a typhoon in the Philippines. They collected more money in two days than you would need for Syria for the next six months. And in our organisation, we have a lack of money. You need so much money to buy the necessary things to make just a soup for so many people."

"We started our back-to-school operation, then the winter came. We are also supporting schools with material, in the cities just next to the camps and in the camps as well. They are coming out of the camps, they can move a little and then go to the school. We’re organising that. It’s not that easy but it’s possible."

"We are the only European organisation working directly in northern Syria with a logistical background in Turkey. To be able to work there, you have to keep your eyes and ears open. We’re working closely together with the local population. You may face danger, but sometimes you have to talk face to face to armed non-state actors and explain what you’re doing and then it’s ok."

"This is the first time in history that three years after a war, two million people do not have consistent access to food, so you’re facing camps with people who don’t have any food at all and this is brand new in recent history. We didn’t face this even in Afghanistan."

"It’s very cold and freezing and you see all these children. You visit the camp, and after a few days when you come back, you hear this or that child has died because of the cold, then it’s shocking. You never get used to this."

"Children are always laughing in the photos. They are not crying. They are happy to see you. One has shoes, the other has no shoes, so you try your best to get everything."




Oscar Assadullah Mukhtar Bergamin has been helping refugees facing starvation in different camps in northern Syria since July 2013, when he founded his association Ash-Sham Care in Zurich.

For the past few months, Syrians in besieged areas have been dying of hunger, thirst, sickness and more recently of cold and not only because of the daily fighting on both sides. They made bread out of lentils when there was no more flour and when the lentils ran out, they ate cats, dogs and donkeys. Children are even eating leaves and cardboard.

Despite the dangers and risks, Bergamin continues to commute between Zurich and Gaziantep in Turkey where he buys aid and joins forces with other local associations to carry foods and blankets to different refugees camps. He cannot name the camps for security reasons. Speaking on the phone on December 17, 2013, while heading to northern Syria, he explained to swissinfo.ch that Ash-Sham Care was one of the very few European humanitarian associations working directly in northern Syria but with logistical support in Turkey. He sent pictures he had taken in different camps during the exceptionally tough winter there and descriptions of what he's doing and experiencing inside and outside the camps.

Bergamin is a Swiss citizen, born in 1964 in the Netherlands. After studying Media and Communication, he worked from 1999 to 2009 as an editor and journalist. His fascination with Islamic history, art and culture led to longer stays in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. He started studying Islamic jurisprudence and the Hadith and in 2005 converted to Islam. By the end of 2009, he joined the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland (CCIS) led by the controversial figure Nicolas Blancho. But two years later, he decided to leave the group because of divergences.

After his Syrian furniture company, (Pierre Loti Design) set up in Damascus in 2010, was destroyed, Bergamin founded the NGO, Ash-Sham Care, with humanitarian projects in Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. Bergamin worked for two years as a special officer for the Swiss Army in Kosovo and spent one year as an international civilian consultant in the Psychological Operations Support Element in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul in Afghanistan.

(Pictures: Ash-Sham Care; Quotes: Oscar A.M. Bergamin; Production: Islah Bakhat, Christoph Balsiger, swissinfo.ch)

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