Syria and Staff Care

Providing aid to those suffering from disaster or conflict is always a challenge.  It can induce stress, frustration and even feelings of anger and helplessness.   These experiences can in turn exacerbate the personal issues and struggles all of us bring to work.

It is critical that in these demanding environments humanitarian aid staff and others receive the care they need.   This can include deployment consultation, one-on-one consultations once in the field, self-care instruction and opportunities, management coaching and more.

And if there is one place staff care is needed right now it is Syria and its neighboring countries.

Syria represents one of the largest humanitarian crisis since WW II.   But even that sobering fact is an abstraction that doesn’t begin to capture the suffering that has been inflicted on women, men and children.   Many humanitarian aid workers experience a deep sense of anger and powerlessness in the face of the scale of Syrian suffering.   While these reactions are not unique to working with Syrians, the situation does have characteristics that make the aid worker experience different.

  1. Magnitude.   Out of a population of about 18 million, 5 million Syrians have been forced from their country, mostly to take refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.  Six million Syrians have been driven from their homes and forced to live in another part of their country.   More than half of Syria’s population has been uprooted, often without basic belongings and a future source of income.  This is the equivalent of more than 130 million Americans driven from their homes by violence or its threat.

On top of this, of course, is the relentless and often targeted destruction of homes, businesses, hospitals and schools.   It is generally accepted that the attacks by varied groups have eliminated decades of social and economic development.

  1. Lack of access to those in need. Due to the political and military dynamics, aid workers are especially constrained in their ability to reach Syrians in need. Aid organizations are doing tremendous work in refugee camps in Jordan and elsewhere, as well as working with families and individuals there and in other neighboring countries.

But the worst suffering is being inflicted within Syria.  It is very difficult to reach the people who need it most.

  1. No end in sight. Syria descended into violent conflict in early 2011. Nearly each year has seen the involvement of another power, with its own favored armed groups and goals.   Losses by one faction and its patrons simply open opportunities for gains by another.   A cease-fire in one area is used as an opportunity to intensify attacks in another.

A real cessation of hostilities and a return to stability appear to be far over the horizon. Trying to relieve the suffering this causes can come to look like a Sisyphusian task.   At that point, compassion fatigue comes very close to despair.

For these and other reasons, it’s especially critical that those trying to assist in Syria care for those who care for the suffering.   A number of humanitarian aid groups are doing just that.  They have obtained outside expertise and built their own internal staff care capacity.

The result is healthier staff.   This, in turn, is reflected in higher retention rates and a better and more sustained capacity to fulfill the mission and assist the suffering.

Syria is a tragedy of unusual proportions and intensity.  We all hope it ends sooner rather than later.  In the meantime, NGOs will continue to provide aid and comfort to those in need in Syria and other countries.  The least the rest of us can do is offer them the psychosocial support they need and deserve.


Gary Brown, LCSW, MPA, is a Staff Care Specialist with The KonTerra Group.   In addition to other engagements, Gary has trained new justice sector professionals in Sri Lanka and trained senior and mid-level managers at the United Nations International Labor Organization on multicultural approaches to managing conflict.  His most recent assignment was with the US Agency for International Development in Afghanistan.

Gary Brown

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