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An update on getting aid to people in need in Syria after the earthquake

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

People in Syria were already struggling to get food and other basic supplies even before the earthquakes hit this month. They've been in a civil war for more than a decade. The parts of Syria hit hardest by the quake are controlled by rebels, and the government has made it difficult for international aid to reach them. That's slowly beginning to change. Kenn Crossley is Syria country director and representative for the U.N.'s World Food Programme. Thanks for joining us.

KENN CROSSLEY: Thank you, Ari, a pleasure to be with you today.

SHAPIRO: I want to begin by playing you a cut of tape from my colleague, Ruth Sherlock, who entered northern Syria in the first week after the quake. And here's what she told me on February 13, 10 days ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RUTH SHERLOCK: We didn't hear any ambulances because there were hardly any. We didn't really see much of the heavy machinery that we'd seen in Turkey being used to try to excavate these destroyed buildings. In the town of Jinderis, on this one street with collapsed homes on either side, the mayor of the town, Mahmoud Hafar, had this question.

MAHMOUD HAFAR: From the first day, where is the world? Why are we alone? Why are we alone?

SHAPIRO: Where is the world? Why are we alone? Kenn Crossley, has that changed? Are your teams now able to reach Syrian communities like Jinderis?

CROSSLEY: Yeah, I think the mayor is asking a very legitimate question, is where is the world right when the people in Syria do need the world the most to be stepping up for them? I think when you're speaking with me, I work for the World Food Programme. Our primary focus, of course, is on making sure that people in crisis have enough to eat. We, in fact, were there within hours, and we were able to provide food for hot meals. We were able to provide sort of ready-to-eat food, so tin foods, you know, things that don't need cooking. Even now, within just a few weeks, we've been able to reach nearly a million people, the majority of them in the parts of Syria where you're discussing right now.

SHAPIRO: As I mentioned, people in Syria were experiencing widespread food insecurity and hunger even before the earthquakes. And so right now, how wide is the gap between the need and what you're able to provide?

CROSSLEY: Well, this is exactly the issue. And maybe just to clarify a couple things, the people in Syria - all of Syria, including in northwest Syria - have been in a major, major economic challenge. So the conflict had displaced literally millions of people. They were homeless, very, very little livelihood or possibility to work for themselves. So we have been assisting for food assistance, 5.5 million people every month, including 1.4 million people right there inside of northwest Syria, and with barely enough to sort of scrape by. The people who were receiving assistance were also the ones who were impacted by the earthquake. They were in exactly the same places. They were hit hard.

And then to add sort of further aggravation, they're now taking in their neighbors. They're taking in extended families. So the people who had so little are now needing even more. And so the gap is growing and growing. I mean, just for this year alone, I need $450 million to maintain the food assistance support to everybody we're trying to reach, $150 million, specifically and directly related only to the earthquake response for the next six months, to try and help these people get back a little bit on their feet.

SHAPIRO: In the early days, we saw images and heard descriptions of these pancaked buildings and towns reduced to rubble. Now that we're a few weeks in, can you just describe what life in these communities is like at this point?

CROSSLEY: Life is still very, very jittery for the people in those communities where the devastation has been the worst. Everybody has lost somebody. This was just starting to calm down, and then the second earthquake re-invoked all of that. So there is this jittery, apprehensive feeling in the air. There has been work to remove rubble in some of the areas to start cleaning up the streets again. But again, when that relies on heavy equipment, when that relies on fuel, which is in very short supply and very expensive here, it's difficult to see that. So the sense of return to normalcy is delayed. It's going to be long delayed. And the sense of sort of continuing isolation, dislocation, apprehension, anxiety, frustration and just real deep, immediate need is here and it is prolonged.

SHAPIRO: The U.N. says there are now three open border crossings where aid can enter Syria from Turkey. How much do you depend on the whims of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who had been ostracized from the international community, to allow you to do the work you need to do to help people who are starving?

CROSSLEY: It's true. There are new border crossings opening up into northwest Syria. And the answer is that we rely heavily on negotiated access and negotiation with all of the parties who have influence over whether we can move in safely. And so it's a negotiation every single time we try and cross any border, and that is changing. And this earthquake has changed that. The earthquake has given some impetus to start relaxing some of the previous restrictions which have been there. I'm cautiously optimistic that it will continue. That's a continued priority for all of the U.N. system, and for us, particularly in WFP.

SHAPIRO: Kenn Crossley is with the World Food Programme. Thank you very much.

CROSSLEY: Thanks, Ari, a pleasure to chat. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Seyma Bayram
Seyma Bayram is the 2022-2023 Reflect America Fellow at NPR.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.