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A volunteer from the Aleppo Family of Volunteers distributes supplies to children in one of the five school-shelters that Jesuit Refugee Service manages in Aleppo. (Avo Kaprealian and Sedki Al Imam/JRS)

(Beirut) December 13, 2012 – Late on a Saturday night, as the city outside rumbles with the sounds of gunfights, Rana* was indoors trying to prepare a lecture for the next day — an activity that is seemingly at odds with her context.

"Of course the university is still open, people are trying to live their ordinary lives despite everything; it's a positive sign," says Rana.

While reporting the news from Aleppo, Syria, media have continued to repeat a war narrative of death and destruction, while bombarding the viewer with graphic images of the injured and dead. But there is another reality of the situation which also deserves attention, one that people in Aleppo — and all across Syria — face daily: that of their survival.

"It's easy to get caught up in the violence and the negativity of the situation in Syria. I try to remember that for every person who died today, there were hundreds of thousands who didn't, who survived against all odds, and these are the ones I try to focus on," said a Jesuit Refugee Service staff member.

Life goes on. Rana, a JRS staff member and university professor, has continued to lead her daily routine.

"I'm still lecturing English to the first and second year students. Of course it's not the same, in a class where last year there were maybe 100 students or more from all over the country, now there are only 30, or even less and they mainly come from Aleppo," said Rana.

Although university life carries on — albeit on a smaller scale — it is not immune to the conflict. The most recent estimate stated that up to 60,000 displaced people were being sheltered in the university dormitories.

Last year, qualified English teacher and translator, Rana would work 12 hours per day. From the morning until mid-afternoon she worked as a translator in a public sector company, and then from 3 p.m. until 9 p.m. she lectured at Aleppo University. Although she still remains involved with these two jobs, her hours have decreased significantly.

"There is no work anymore. Things have changed so much, you cannot imagine it. And with this change, my priorities are different too."

Rana now lectures just eight hours per week and spends the rest of her time and energy as an emergency distribution coordinator for JRS.

"In the beginning of the year when displaced people from Homs and Idleb started arriving in Aleppo, I tried to help them with some of my friends, but we weren't very organized. Then a mutual friend put me in touch with someone else who was also doing similar work."

From this contact, Rana got to know other volunteers in Aleppo who were working to assist displaced families. Out of this spontaneous group of volunteers and the will to help, they formed the Aleppo Family of Volunteers.

The Aleppo Family of Volunteers. The volunteers include people from all sectors of society – business people, teachers, designers, artists, pharmacists, students, lay people, religious people, Muslims, Christians – the list goes on. And most importantly, it comprises people of differing political outlooks. Yet despite their differences, they are united in their desire to respond to the urgent needs of people.

"We get along so well because of our differences, we're from a wide variety of backgrounds: socio-economically, religiously or culturally. But we live and work for a common cause. We hope to be a template for a new Syrian society in the future", explained one of the volunteers.

From simple beginnings. In March 2012 when the needs of displaced people in Aleppo became more than the volunteers could handle on an ad hoc basis, the Aleppo Family of Volunteers approached JRS Aleppo in search of support.

At the time JRS was located in the former convent of Deir Vartan in Aleppo, where staff had worked with Iraqi refugees since 2008. From this initial contact, a partnership between the volunteers and JRS came into existence.

Deir Vartan became the base for material, food and clothing distribution, as well as a reception centre for displaced Syrian families. Soon Deir Vartan became a household name amongst displaced families, with new arrivals in the city relying on the Deir in order to receive assistance. 

In mid-August all activities were evacuated from the centre due to increased violence in the neighborhood and the sudden upsurge of the conflict in Aleppo. In late September the Deir Vartan Centre was heavily damaged by fighting. Until today, no one from the JRS team has been able to assess the damage caused to the building and property themselves, relying only on accounts from third parties.

What's in a name? From March until September, Deir Vartan's reputation had become somewhat of a legend in Aleppo. Members of the JRS outreach team are obliged to negotiate with various groups in order to gain access to inaccessible areas where families are in extreme need of help. At checkpoints the name of 'Deir Vartan' has proved invaluable.

A member of the outreach team explains that, "we can get through most areas using the name of Deir Vartan, it has become a type of protection for us, and people from both sides respect it and respect us."

"Once we were stopped and questioned because we were a Christian, a Sunni and a person from another city in one car. They separated us and took one of us for questioning, but ten minutes later all you could hear was laughter from the 'interrogation room.'"

"After hearing we were from Deir Vartan they wanted to hear stories about our work and all the difficulties we face trying to help families. Some of our stories are funny, and so before we knew it, everyone was enjoying a good joke or two, and in the end they let us pass without any incident."

Despite incidences like this, the situation for the JRS Aleppo team is far from ideal as they often find themselves in precarious situations, trying to reach families that are trapped in 'hot spots.' It is not uncommon for an ordinary day to include darting through sniper areas while carrying food baskets.

When asked if the risk level would ever be a deterrent to their work, a volunteer responds without hesitation, "my sense of purpose is perfectly clear — I've never felt more alive than I do now."

by Zerene Haddad, JRS Middle East and North Africa Communications Officer

*name has been changed for safety reasons

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