CIPHR sales ledger assistant Madiha Iqbal shares her experience of helping Syrian refugees in Lebanon
It’s fairly easy to donate to charity by dropping of a bag of unwanted items at your local shop, or putting a few coins into a collector’s bucket on the high street.
It’s far more difficult, emotionally and physically, to donate your time and skills by volunteering with a local charity – let alone one working overseas.
But that’s exactly what Madiha Iqbal, sales ledger assistant at CIPHR, did earlier this year when she spent five days volunteering in Lebanon to help Syrian refugees.
Since civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, 5.6 million people have fled the country. The UNHCR estimates that were just over one million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon in 2017, more than half of which live in extreme poverty (on less than $2.87 per person, per day), and that 91% of households are affected by food insecurity.
It was food insecurity that the group of volunteers from Muslim Aid and Action Relief UK were focused on tackling, says Iqbal. “Most charities send the refugees clothes and toys; they only get packs of food once or twice a year. Although they are given food by the refugee camps, it’s rationed: they have to sign books when they collect food, and are only given a certain amount per family member. There’s very little freedom when it comes to food.”
On their arrival in Lebanon, Iqbal and the other volunteers spent three days putting together packs of food – comprising essentials such as lentils, sugar, rice, oil, milk powder, tea, and chickpeas – for distribution at three different camps.
“We arrived at about midnight in Beirut on the first day, and then were up at 5am to drive to the warehouse to pack parcels,” she says. “That took about eight hours, and then we distributed them the same day. We did that for three days; it was pretty intense.”
The food packs will give each family a month’s supply of basic foodstuffs. “They can choose what to do with it, and they have different things in it [compared with other food they are given],” says Iqbal. “It gives them more freedom and choice. There are a lot of families there that used to be well off; they’ve lost everything, so I think for them it’s been even harder to adjust to not really having much.”
The group of 10 volunteers set out to raise £2,500 each, but donations have reached over £40,000 so far. “Because we had that extra money, on our final day we went and bought toys for the children, and spent time playing with them, which was nice,” says Iqbal.
One family’s story was particularly touching, she says. “One woman explained that she had lost her young son during a bombing raid. When she was fleeing into Lebanon, she came across another young boy – of a similar age to her son – and she took him in as her own. She didn’t know his name, so she gave him the same name as her son who had passed away.”
Now back in the UK, the trip has had a significant impact on Iqbal. “It makes you appreciate what you’ve got, like your family. I have two older brothers; now when I fight with them I think, ‘I should be nice today instead.’ The people we met were so hopeful and generous, even though they had lost everything. I could appreciate how they felt, but I’ll, hopefully, never be in the same position.”
She’s also looking forward to doing more charity work, both closer to home and overseas. “I’ll definitely be doing more projects in the future – it’s great to see directly how your time and money is helping others.”
You can donate to Muslim Aid via Madiha’s Virgin Money Giving page: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/MadihaIqbal.