Helping the victims of Syria’s civil war

Peter McQuade
Peter McQuade
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Peter McQuade looked down at the man’s phone as he pressed the play button. A video clip began to roll. It showed a group of soldiers kicking a man. Then they set him on fire.

Not far away, in an informal makeshift camp, he met another refugee called Ahmed.

Like many of the million or so people who have fled the civil war in Syria seeking a safe haven across the border in Jordan, Ahmed once had a successful business.

Peter says: ‘He has three brothers in prison back in Syria. Another, just 17, was shot dead during a protest.

‘Ahmed took us to see his camp. There were about 20 people there. He was the only adult male. He started crying and told me he felt less of a man because he felt he had to keep strong for all the women he was looking after. He was desperate.

‘All he wanted to do was go home, but he had no idea when, or if, that would ever happen.’

It’s all a million miles from the Hayling Island to Paris charity bike ride which Peter now 58, helped launch back in the mid-1980s.

He is now the vice-president of a Swedish-founded global software company. He is about to assume responsible for the company’s award-winning corporate and social responsibility programme which includes helping a charity called Medair deal with the refugee crisis in Jordan.

But Hayling is still his home and he uses an analogy using his birthplace to try to explain what he saw on a trip three weeks ago to Jordan with Medair.

‘We spent some time with a group in a camp whose homes were literally just across the border.

‘Put that in a local context and it was like standing on north Hayling and looking across to your home at Langstone. You could see it, but there was no way you could ever reach it or might never reach it again.’

Peter’s company Qlik Tech is providing Medair with software programmes to help it get aid to those who need it most in the most efficient way possible.

It enables them to keep track of things like tents, food and medical aid from its base in Lausanne, Switzerland, to the bitterly cold makeshift camps of Jordan ensuring they get to where they are needed most.

Peter adds: ‘Of course you get some idea of what it’s like there from media reports, but nothing can prepare you for the desperation you find on the ground.’

He says: ‘It is evident the situation is graver than what we hear and see in the media.

‘When the number of registered refugees passed two million, the United Nations declared Syria the 21st century’s worst crisis.

‘However, I was told the reality is closer to three million and in Jordan alone there are approximately a million refugees – almost unimaginable in a country with only six million inhabitants.’

Peter visited formal and informal refugee camps on the Syrian border from where he said he could hear the crump of shells exploding inside the devastated country.

‘There’s one formal camp at a place called Zataari which has now become the fourth largest town in Jordan,’ he adds.

Many refugees have been travelling for months across Syria, dodging from safe house to safe house, in an attempt to reach safety in Jordan.

‘There’s more of a challenge around the psychiatric side of things than the physical side.

‘I met a nine-year-old boy who had been shot in the head. His injury wasn’t obvious but I was told he had also ‘lost his mind’. That’s probably a crude translation but I heard it time and again.

‘The same phrase was used about injured people who were carried over the border in blankets. It’s the trauma they’ve been through.’

What struck Peter during his visit was that, unlike places like Sudan or Somalia, many of the refugees had been relatively well off.

‘Just a short time ago these people had comfortable lives similar to our own with access to reasonable housing, education and health care.

‘In many cases they were either gainfully employed or owned businesses. Now they are living in dire circumstances with the loss of loved ones and loss of hope.

‘Children make up more than half of refugees with rarely a toy and deprived of schooling. They are being labelled ‘‘the lost generation’’. Conversely, there is a lack of young men – presumably fighting, imprisoned or dead as a result of recent events.’

He says he rarely heard anyone make a political statement about who was right or wrong in the multi-faceted and complex civil war. ‘Only one time did I hear someone ask why Cameron or Obama weren’t doing anything.

‘All I could promise them was that I would do everything possible to spread the story.

‘It was so touching and everywhere we went, no matter how desperate the conditions these people were in, we were always offered tea. Hospitality is so important to the Arab way of life.’

As Syrian society teeters on the edge of final collapse after three years of ferocious war and economic devastation, the UN is making its biggest-ever appeal for £4bn in aid to help the country’s starving civilians.

Three-quarters of Syria’s 22.4 million people will need humanitarian aid to survive by 2014, according to a UN study.

Bread in some areas costs five times what it was at the start of the conflict, and 80 per cent of Syrians say their greatest fear is shortage of food.

The former foreign secretary, David Miliband, who is now chief executive of the relief charity International Rescue, has warned the refugee crisis in Syria is ‘the biggest humanitarian test of the century’ – a test that the international community seems to be failing.

The relief effort is being crippled by a lack of funds from donors and increasing danger for relief workers, he said.

Snow has worsened conditions for the 2.4 million Syrian refugees who have fled to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and elsewhere, while another four million people have been displaced within Syria.

Doctors are trying to stop a polio epidemic with an emergency immunisation campaign.

Whole districts have been rendered uninhabitable by the government bombardment that inevitably follows a rebel takeover in urban and rural districts. Many people inside and outside Syria are reaching the end of their savings after three years in which a lot have been without a job.

The violence is still getting worse, sending more people fleeing for safety elsewhere.