Wijbe Abma Started a Charity in a Syrian War Zone
Kilis, like most border towns, feels like a bastardized, slightly less-racist Wild West: gossip spreads, people pass through, supplies (legal and otherwise) are bought and sold. In this particular border town, however, it feels like that sense of transit is more tangible than in most. Kilis, in southern Turkey, is the gateway to Aleppo, a key battleground in the ongoing conflict in Syria and one of the oldest cities in the world. Unfortunately, with fighting normally including stuff like shells, explosions, and carnage, a good deal of old Aleppo is being devastated.
This border town is also the home of Wijbe Abma, a 21-year-old “freelance” aid worker. He runs Don’t Forget Syria, an idea that started small and has snowballed to a size the founder is not quite comfortable with. It’s one man’s plan to bring aid directly to civilians within war-torn Aleppo. On his first run, he gave out 100 blankets, but his idea was picked up by the press, donations flooded in, and he now has $17,200 burning a hole in his PayPal account, a logistical clusterfuck to untangle, and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) trying to sell him flour.
A few months ago Wijbe was a regular student, traveling home from a year of teaching, drinking shochu, and banging out karaoke in South Korea when he found himself in Antakya in southern Turkey, now home to thousands of Syrians. Here a Syrian man from Aleppo told him about his son who’d been killed by regime shelling. They talked about his troubles and what was left of his city. Like many Syrians, confused and angered by the lack of international assistance, he asked: “Why won’t anyone help?” Wijbe decided to stop partying and do something.
Wijbe selecting blankets.
“It started very small,” he says. “I decided to do myself what all of the NGOs had talked about, but none actually seemed to be doing.” The idea was simple; he would walk across the border at Kilis to the makeshift camps in Syria with a couple of blankets in a rucksack, give them out to those in need, and keep traveling.
On arrival, he realized the problem was larger than he’d initially thought. The camp was dismissive and Wijbe began to feel powerless when it became apparent that no one would allow him to choose who to help. That autonomy is something Wijbe takes seriously. “More important than aid that helps is aid that doesn’t harm. The only way you know someone isn’t taking it all and selling it for weapons is to do it yourself,” he said.
Motivated, he left and founded his own aid project, committing $920 of his savings for the first 100 blankets. A Syrian friend tells me he originally bought one and slept under it for a night to test it. He caught a cold for a week, threw it out and found thicker, warmer blankets. With the help of Syrian civilians he took the blankets to Aleppo and went door to door. Each blanket came with a letter, in Arabic, explaining that it came from an individual with a desire to help and show that someone cared. On the way back their car had a dozen rounds fired at it from a nearby army base, which is a novel way of saying thank you.