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Thursday 28 May 2015

From Nicaragua to Syria: Bridge of Peace

Bridge of Peace Syria is an aid organisation that brings a very particular experience to bear on its work. We asked directors Hamsa and Moshe Newmark to tell us more.

Q:  You had a history prior to the Syrian crisis of focusing on Central America; why did Syria in particular cause you to change your focus?

A:  Bridge of Peace is a registered, non-profit humanitarian aid organisation, located in Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA. We are dedicated to providing material support of food, clothing and educational supplies for Syrian refugee children, women and families who have been displaced because of the war and have little or no access to these life essentials.

Founded in 1987 as Puente de Paz, Bridge of Peace responded to the humanitarian crisis in Central America created by the Contra War in Nicaragua. Because of an influx of refugees into small and medium sized villages that taxed their sources of clean drinking water that skyrocketed infant mortality, Puente de Paz financed and helped supervise the building of potable water systems using appropriate, gravity feed technology, comprehensive water testing programs with bacteria-free hand pump installations, a widespread vaccine immunisation program and the building of a school.

Our work in Nicaragua pretty much concluded in 1991. Since then, Bridge of Peace has focused on a host of environmental, social justice and educational projects affecting other countries in Central America and here in Northwest Arkansas.

In response to the war in Syria that began in 2011, which has created one of the largest genocidal, humanitarian crises since World War II, we shifted our focus of support to Syria and Turkey. Seeing the immense suffering on an even larger scale than we saw in Nicaragua, we wanted to reach out and help provide relief.

How would you compare what you see in Syria with what you’ve experienced in Central America?

What we saw in Nicaragua after a successful revolution was a “low intensity war” sponsored by the U.S. There was no intensity of airstrikes but rather a systematic “guerrilla strategy”. Raids with killings, raping, and abductions were perpetrated, village by village, along with an economic embargo with an aim of slowly bleeding the countries morale, economy and resources. After nearly two decades of war, the people finally gave in and voted the U.S. backed presidential candidate in 1990.

By comparison, the situation in Syria is a thousand times worse. The war is “all-out” with use of airstrikes, barrel bombs and gas attacks. In addition, the multitude of raiding factions in the mix who either support the regime or who are fighting it makes the situation much more complex. Also, people are picked up, detained and tortured to death; in Nicaragua we did not experience this to anywhere near the degree as we see happening routinely in Syria.

What in your previous experience was useful in responding to Syria? And what was new to you?

There were a number of elements from our previous solidarity work with Nicaragua that were very useful toward our current work in Syria. First was the fact that we cut our grass roots fundraising “teeth” in the milieu of a very unpopular cause as we do today with Syria. Also, we saw the importance of having trusted people on the ground that were able to suggest where the most urgent help was needed and then help orchestrate the projects and shepherd them along to completion; we have a Syrian Middle East Coordinator, Tamer Altaiar. It was also useful for us to understand the timetable for projects from beginning to end taking place in a war zone. It has taught us patience.  What is new to us is the extreme danger and complication of implementing projects due to air attacks and extremist rebel check points.

Have your thoughts on how to respond to Syria changed over the past four years?

What has changed over the past four years since the revolution became violent is not our response to the need but our perspective on commitment. Earlier on, the situation was less complex and more hopeful that the international community would take action and the war would end a lot sooner. As the war has dragged on with no help for the opposition forthcoming we see this struggle and its aftermath to be a very long and lengthy process; coupled with humanitarian need that will last decades before the country is rebuilt.

You can find Bridge of Peace Syria at bridgeofpeacesyria.wordpress.com and on Facebook.