The pictures and stories coming out of Syria and particularly Aleppo during the civil war have been both harrowing and soul destroying. What can we do, far away, in a different country with our limited resources and influence? Over and over on the news we see refugees, destruction, pain and anguish as more people are killed and yet more are made homeless. Families are ripped apart and destroyed. The sense of mistrust, fear and anger must be unimaginable to us back at home complaining that our broadband isn't fast enough or that we don't have the latest smartphone.
The image that really did it for me, the one that set me on a path to do something, however small in the grand scheme of things and yet making a real difference to peoples lives, was the stunned small boy sat in the ambulance.
The event was simply titled Portsmouth to Aleppo and was designed to raise awareness and to receive donations from the public to send, via shipping container, to the people of Aleppo. Food, blankets, clothes, tents, sleeping bags, baby items, shoes, walking aids, medical supplies… anything that would be useful to refugees in a war zone fleeing their homes.
And so it began, an important experience in my life that was to show me how powerful a noble cause can be in bringing people together to achieve amazing things that at first seem near impossible. Here was my chance to make that positive difference. I wasn't going to stop a war, but I was going to help those affected by it.
Michelle and I started collecting aid donations from people in Portsmouth and nearby areas, picking up from Milton, Baffins, Buckland, Drayton, Paulsgrove, Southsea, Somerstown. We went as far as Bedhampton and even travelled to Chichester one evening in my truck and made a massive collection from Lucy Roe who turned out to become a good friend.
A storage room I had access to started filling up, I couldn't believe it, the amount of donations people were giving made me appreciate how generous people really are. Remember this was before the actual event and I started to wonder if I hadn't underestimated the amount of aid that would finally be collected.
Event day came, just before Christmas, December 20th, preparations were made throughout the day by lots of volunteers who just seemed to coalesce with an automatic awareness of the gravity of the situation they were trying to help with. I put out a facebook post to the followers of the event, 1700 people were showing an interest at this point, with a map showing the drop off point on the south side of Guildhall Square at the top end of Guildhall Walk, a couple of car parks and a few other instructions. I grabbed a hi-viz jacket, some traffic cones, a few other bits and pieces and made my way down an hour early. Already, donations were starting to pile up.
BBC News were there, local radio and newspapers, Councillors, an army of volunteers, a queue of traffic was starting to form all the way back to Winston Churchill Avenue with cars full of donations. I was in awe at what was happening. This video captures the evening brilliantly, it had a profound effect on me. Take a couple of minutes to watch it and feel the magic. People were joined in solidarity, the event gave people the opportunity to do their bit, however small.
The latent wish to do something was given an outlet and the outpouring of support and community spirit was truly something special to witness.
The mountain of aid collected now needed to be transported to our storage facility. It dawned on me early on what a mammoth task this was going to be, how can you transport this lot with just a few small vans?! A plea on Facebook resulted in the offer of a 20 ton tipper lorry from AR Banks. It was truly like a guardian angel turning up as I saw Stuart and Sarah Banks pulling into Guildhall Walk to lend a very welcome hand.
Over the next 4 hours we filled that tipper lorry 4 times with all the soft bag donations. All the boxes and hard or heavy items were transported by a small fleet of vans, transits, pickups and cars, about 25 trips back and forth, all full to the brim. It was a long night, there were around 60-80 volunteers, a mountain of aid to shift and a human chain consisting of 40-50 people at a time.
This series of photos shows just some of the volunteers and the amazing energy and goodwill shown by everyone that night.
Over the next 3 months we sent 3 containers of aid to Syria destined for the people of Aleppo. Donations kept coming in and we kept organising, volunteering, sorting, moving, packing, labeling, storing, marketing, raising funds, and collecting. We were joined by a sister depot in Alton at The George pub run by a wonderfully generous woman named Susannah Stredder. By January 20th we were ready for the 1st container - another memorable day, another human chain, TV crews and high spirits.
Containers 2 and 3 came in quick succession. Michelle and I met many great friends and gained valuable experiences and memories. It was a chaotic but ultimately rewarding time and whilst we were pulling our hair out at times with various frustrations it was a magical time. I personally achieved what I set out to do which was to make a difference to peoples lives affected by war. It may have been only a small part but it was my part. Don't underestimate a small group of people on a passionate mission.