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Um Sameh, the wonder woman of eastern Ghouta

With famine gripping the besieged enclave of eastern Ghouta, Um Sameh stepped in with One Hand, an organization she founded, to fill the gap left by international organizations unable to deliver aid to starving residents.
Children gather wood in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh - RC1A2DB1AA20

Um Sameh, from east Damascus, has led a tireless campaign to fight the rampant starvation gripping her besieged city. In the kitchen of an unassuming farmhouse, she and a small group of volunteers cook meals daily in a collection of enormous pots and then risk their lives to deliver food under shelling to hundreds of civilians trapped inside homes across Ghouta. Their organization, One Hand, is a call for compassion toward people of all faiths and backgrounds.

Um Sameh cuts a solitary figure, her small Suzuki weaving through the haze of shattered streets on her daily food runs in Ghouta, on the southeastern edge of Damascus. The relief provided by Um Sameh's daily deliveries is rare mercy for a civilian population pinned down in their shelters amid relentless bombardment and possible suffocation from the Syrian regime’s use of banned chemical weapons.

Um Sameh is deliberate in risking her life to venture out. “I don’t like people to come to the kitchen,” she said. “We are always afraid when it comes to people being together in a group during the shelling, so for this reason I started going to them instead.”

These words were spoken by a mother who has received little mercy herself during the tumultuous years of the Syrian conflict. One Hand's founding dates back to the early days of the siege in 2014, but the fuller story began with a very different kind of tragedy — the abduction of Um Sameh's son by government security officers in 2012.

Sameh was finishing his final year at medical school when officers entered his home one night and hauled him away without explanation. His mother spent the next months in a frantic search, going from facility to facility in search of news about him.

“I did everything to try to find him. I called so many people and groups, human rights organizations that work on these things, everyone. But absolutely nobody could help me,” Um Sameh said. “It was all a failure.”

Prior to her son’s arrest, Um Sameh had begun delivering medical supplies to front-line relief stations in her hometown of Harasta. Amid her search for Sameh, authorities had grown suspicious of her, and she was subsequently accused of terrorism and detained. They held Um Sameh for several months, moving her from one location to another, before releasing her in January 2013.

Suffering from partial blindness in one eye due to high blood pressure related to the stress of detention, Um Sameh immediately struck out for the besieged neighborhoods of east Damascus, where she had lived most of her life. What she found was a humanitarian disaster and famine that had dramatically escalated during her time in prison. The regime had targeted shops, and the food that could be found was mostly smuggled through tunnels and sold at exorbitant prices.

“The situation in Ghouta was very grave,” Um Sameh recalled. “I asked myself, what can I do to help people? They are starving. So it just seemed natural to open a small kitchen.”

By collecting small donations from surviving local shops, Um Sameh and a group of five volunteers began cooking meals, preparing cig kofte (balls of bulgur wheat and meat), manoushe (flat bread with various toppings), baked pastries, rice and simple Syrian sauces. They then packaged the food in ready-to-eat cartons and delivered them to a handful of starving families around eastern Ghouta.

As bombing intensified and international aid ground to a halt, the scale of suffering began to vastly overtake One Hand’s meager resources. Um Sameh decided at that point to reach out beyond the enclave and was able to strike up partnerships with other civil society organizations, such as Women Now, which helped with immediate relief in the form of 285,000 Syrian pounds (around $1,500 at the time).

Subsequent online campaigns launched by friends outside Syria were able to raise more funds. Um Sameh expanded operations, buying more pots, purchasing large quantities of smuggled food and organizing a network of distributors to drive all around eastern Ghouta.

People close to One Hand estimate that the organization feeds more than 250 families a day, and additional monetary aid generated through online campaigns was donated to support 300 children of widowed mothers in eastern Ghouta.

Um Sameh is yet to learn the fate of her son, more than five years after he was detained. Unable to help him, she is instead determined to remain in the besieged enclave and feed those suffering from hunger.

“My work is an extension of the medical relief I was doing before. It is only about civilians,” she said. “That’s what I am going to dedicate myself to until the last day of my life.”

The Syria Institute estimates that 400,000 civilians are trapped in besieged areas of eastern Ghouta. Executive Director Valerie Szybala told Al-Monitor that a 2015 study she conducted suggested that at least 500 people at that time had already died in besieged areas as a direct result of starvation. She noted that exact numbers are difficult to collect under the circumstances.

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