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American Steve Gumaer had only been in Syria for hours when he learned 138 more families had arrived with no place to stay. The residents from the town of Tel Tamer fled Turkish bombardments, piling into open-bed trucks for a 40-mile trip that could mean the difference between life and death.
Gumaer, president of Partners Relief & Development, leads one of a handful of NGOs on hand to receive the displaced amid a sudden humanitarian crisis. An estimated 300,000 Syrians have been forced from their homes by the Turkish invasion of northeast Syria that began shortly after President Donald Trump announced a U.S. withdrawal Oct. 6.
Many of those fleeing have nowhere to go. The UN rejected one proposal to set up a temporary camp in Hasakah, where Gumaer’s operations are based. Options along with resources are scarce in a country at war for eight years.
Gumaer and his team found the families in a park, the women sleeping in a long, hastily made tent with their children. The men gathered further away. “We gave them blankets and pads to sleep on,” said Gumaer. “It’s a huge challenge to know what else to do.”
None of the key players have a plan for protecting civilians—leaving that to volunteers from Kurdish groups, local churches, and NGOs.
Large grain elevators on the way into Hasakah signal it once was the breadbasket of Syria. Now it’s taking the brunt of forced displacement from Turkey’s monthlong campaign to create a “safe zone” inside Syria. At least 180,000 Syrians have fled there, doubling the city’s size.
At a meeting with Gumaer and other aid and church leaders, local officials agreed to close Hasakah’s 68 schools to convert them into shelters. Partners already was running emergency kitchens out of 65 of the schools, so Gumaer leveraged contacts with teachers and administrators to convert classrooms into bedrooms and living spaces.
“We have 270 volunteers,” Gumaer told me, nearly all of them locals whose lives also have been upended by weeks of Turkish incursions. Yet they went to work, clearing space and rearranging furniture.
Partners has worked in Iraq and among the Rohingya in Myanmar, but this crisis is unlike other, much larger ones, because the workers are so few. International aid agencies and government agencies normally on the scene are staying away from a chaotic, dangerous landscape.
Turkish forces have deployed drones to attack civilian areas, despite a cease-fire agreement, plus they have attacked outside their agreed-to buffer zone, where the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) still have control.
President Donald Trump initially ordered the withdrawal of 100 U.S. soldiers embedded with the SDF at border positions, then a few days later ordered withdrawal of the entire U.S. contingent (about 1,000 troops), and in late October reversed that decision, sending U.S. troops back to secure oil fields.
As Turkish forces arrive, Syrian forces are moving north to take positions opposite them, Kurdish forces remain, and U.S. convoys can be seen moving in every direction. Yet none of the key players have a plan for protecting civilians—leaving that to volunteers from Kurdish groups, local churches, and NGOs like Gumaer’s.
One came under deadly fire Nov. 3, when a Turkish mortar killed Free Burma Rangers medic Zau Seng. Seng was part of a team that for weeks had rescued civilians and wounded. He was working at a casualty collection point when it came under fire.
“Zau came in love and he left in love,” said Dave Eubank, the group’s director, but Eubank blamed Turkey for creating “not a safe zone, but a zone of invasion, a zone of death.”
Leaders in the Syrian Democratic Council that has controlled northeast Syria since 2015 say the United States can monitor and stop Turkish strikes. “We hold the Pentagon responsible for all the crimes committed by Turkey if they don’t close the airspace,” said co-chair Ilham Ahmed. “It doesn’t require any military commitment.”
Alberto Fernandez, a former U.S. diplomat in the region who heads the U.S.-supported Middle East Broadcasting Networks, said in a Facebook post: “Turkish controlled Islamist fighters in Syria shell American Evangelical Christian humanitarian group, killing one (Burmese Christian) aid worker and wounding another. Meanwhile this President talks about ‘protecting the oil’ in Syria after abandoning religious and ethnic minorities to these thugs. Shameful moral incoherence at work.”