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World Humanitarian Day 2016: Staff profiles

Staff profiles: Yamen - Syria

For over five long years, the Syrian people have endured one of the most savage and brutal conflicts of the 21st century. An estimated 13.5 million people in Syria need humanitarian assistance, and around half of the people remaining in Syria are unable to meet their basic food needs.

Behind each of these figures and numbers, are the humanitarian workers, like Yamen JASEM, who work tirelessly to improve the food security – and they do this in areas that are becoming increasingly complex, dangerous and unpredictable.

Yamen is from Syria and has been working for FAO for three years as a field monitor. We spoke to him about his challenging work in a conflict-affected country.

What is your current role with FAO and what does it involve?
I’m an FAO Field Monitor, which means I supervise and implement the day-to-day project activities. Essentially, I assist and implement appropriate monitoring and evaluation mechanisms of field activities for the smooth implementation of the project activities.

Can you give an overview of the scope of the emergency and what you’ve seen on field missions throughout the country?
The losses in the agricultural sector have been significant. This includes crop damages, loss of livestock and poultry, and damage to agricultural infrastructure (including irrigation, storage and seed processing facilities). Farmlands have been abandoned due to insecurity, rising fuel costs, unavailability of labour, and disruption to input supply chains. Fuel availability and price increases have also largely reduced irrigation capacity which has affected food production. Herd and flock numbers of cattle and sheep have fallen by 30 and 40 percent respectively. Poultry flocks – generally one of the main and most affordable sources of animal protein – have shrunk by 50 percent. In addition, marketing of crop produce has become a major challenge due to the reluctance of transporters to travel within insecure areas.

Can you describe how the conflict has affected food security in the country?
The situation is very serious. More than half of the people remaining in Syria do not have enough food to eat and are unable to meet their basic food needs. With the deterioration of the security situation in many areas of the country, ensuring the minimum living standard conditions for the affected populations becomes increasingly difficult and requires adequate humanitarian and emergency assistance. The majority of the affected populations have been hosted by relatives residing in safer areas. This has resulted in an overburden of the limited financial capacity of the host families. People have lost their assets and access to productive assets while also exhausting their savings. Host communities are also facing socio-economic problems while continuing to accommodate and cater for the needs of people who had to leave their homes. Thus, an urgent and severe need for livelihoods assistance is required to support the affected populations so they can maintain an acceptable standard of their basic needs and living conditions. Access to and functionality of local food markets in areas affected by the ongoing conditions have further constrained market access, hence the possibility of purchasing food for crisis-affected families has become harder.

How is FAO responding to the crisis?
Despite enormous challenges, FAO has supported the livelihoods of almost 2 million people in 13 of Syria’s 14 Governorates, including in hard-to-reach areas in the north. Main areas of support include: wheat and barley seeds for cereal production; vegetable production kits; micro-gardening kits for displaced families; poultry production packages; animal feed and health services; and food security analysis and coordination.

What is the current focus of FAO’s emergency response in Syria?
Support to small-scale household-level production is increasingly important in Syria, following the fragmentation of the agriculture sector. In addition to saving livelihoods, agricultural interventions increase local food availability, access and variety. Helping farmers to stay on their land and produce food is critical to prevent further migration.

What do farmers in Syria need most right now in terms of assistance?
Agriculture has a pivotal role to play in addressing many facets of the crisis. By ensuring that farmers have the tools and inputs to produce, we increase food security in the country, we strengthen their resilience, we preserve their livelihoods, and we give them hope and a reason to stay on their lands.

Describe the location of where you work
I am situated in the south of the country in Dar'a Governorate. The area has been severely affected by the conflict many have left their homes seeking refuge within other parts of Syria or in neighbouring countries. The governorate is one of the country’s main vegetable production areas.

What motivates you to work in the agriculture and food security sector?
Because agriculture is a means to food security, employment and poverty reduction

Can you share your most inspiring moment in humanitarian work?
Earlier this year, I met a woman who was a project beneficiary and she told me that the assistance (animal feed) she received from FAO was a lifeline for them. They had a poor rainfall season so the family had not been able to harvest barley and they had depleted all their stocks. As the husbands had left to find work in Lebanon, they had to find a way to sustain their livelihood and support their families by themselves. The women were amazed with the assistance they received; I could see the amazement in their eyes – that’s really rewarding. Every time I think about this family it gives me greater motivation to continue doing the job.

What are the biggest challenges for you and how do you cope?
Working in humanitarian assistance context means that one needs to work a lot and for long hours. You also need to get in direct touch with those affected and sometimes help in different areas. This takes some time to adapt, especially when needing to spend time with your family. However, all the difficulties are forgotten when gratefulness and happiness is seen in the beneficiaries’ eyes upon receiving aid.

What are the biggest challenges facing FAO in the location where you are?
The small amount of assistance provided compared to the huge needs to cover. The agriculture sector has been largely affected, and there’s a lot to do to help it recover in order for it to take up again its vital role in supporting and sustaining food security in Syria.

What is the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do on the job?
Going cross line in a conflict is not only a dangerous and stressful thing to do, it also involves a lot of challenges in terms of difficulties in coordination with stakeholders, meeting beneficiaries to monitor and evaluate activities, and doing on-the-ground assessments to best plan for upcoming interventions. Hard assignments however become easier and even enjoyable when working with a supportive and professional team like the one we have.