REYHANLI, Turkey — In the wilds of war-torn Syria, there’s a young Persian woman outdoing the United Nations on aid.
At first glance, it hardly seems possible that this 28-year-old Iranian-American, with her California slang and her Converse shoes, is going inside Syria at all. Even harder to believe that she could be getting aid into more civilian hands than many established aid organizations who face major obstacles.
But, in a way, it’s true: Puneh Ala’i brings funds directly to Syrian villagers in rebel-held parts of the country — which is more than the UN can say.
That’s because legally, the UN still considers Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a sovereign head of state, so funding must go through Damascus — right under the regime’s nose.
Ala'i, whose trips are the first for her new global not-for-profit For the Unseen, is focusing on areas that have broken away from regime control because she is concerned that aid is not reaching Syrian civilians that have been left stranded there, often without food and shelter.
Syrian humanitarians, who are better equipped to access these areas, are equally concerned. Yakzan Shishakly runs the Maram Foundation, one of the first humanitarian groups on the ground inside Syria after demonstrations against Assad spiraled into a bloody conflict more than two years ago. He says not much of the UN’s money, including $385 million from Washington, gets into areas under rebel control.
Every week, Shishakly said, Maram staffers visit numerous villages “where there has been no aid since a year, two years ago, and they never see any NGO or help.”
The UN is not happy with the state of affairs either. On October 2, the agency’s humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, called on the UN Security Council to order the expansion of humanitarian efforts inside Syria.
“Humanitarian workers need full and sustained access to reach every person in need, wherever they are in Syria, and they must be protected to do their work safely,” Amos said, promising that “over two million people who have been unreachable for many months” would be helped if the roads could be secured.
But the UN Security Council has been divided in its response to the crisis in Syria, and is unlikely to unite on the initiative.