We all watch news journalists on TV putting their lives on the line as they cover stories of disasters and human tragedy. But one thing we never see as viewers is what happens once the cameras are switched off. We never see the difficulties a reporter experiences when he or she meets children maimed, families displaced and communities destroyed.
CNN reporter Arwa Damon has seen it all as war correspondent covering some of the world’s most troubled spots – often caught on air, in the middle of the conflict.
Arwa decided not to turn her back, and set up INARA, a charity to support Syrian living refugee camps. Tempo absolutely loved the mission of INARA, and so caught up with Arwa to learn more….
TEMPO: Tell us about INARA and its purpose.
Arwa Damon: INARA is the International Network for Aid, Relief, and Assistance. We work with children from conflict areas who have catastrophic injuries or illnesses that have been aggravated by war or circumstances caused by war, and need lifesaving or life altering medical treatment.
If there is another organization that already provides the needed treatment then we refer the child on. In the event that no organization can help, we tap into our network of doctors (many of whom provide their services pro bono), medical institutions and other support, to ensure that the child receives the proper care. All of our children have dedicated caseworkers that, beyond facilitating the medical assistance, are also a support system for the family.
I registered INARA in the USA in 2014 and we officially launched in August 2015. We are niche, focusing on complementing what medical aid already exists and filling in the gaps in medical provision in the humanitarian sector, for now operating in Lebanon.
TEMPO: We heard that INARA came from your experiences as a journalist covering war zones. How so?
Arwa: It started in 2007 in the kitchen of CNN’s Baghdad Bureau. I was watching Youssif, a five year old Iraqi boy sullenly push one grain of rice at a time through his lips that he could barely open. Masked men had doused him in gasoline and set him on fire when he was standing in front of his house. His entire face was a mask of hardened rivers of scar tissue.
Youssif’s father Wisam had spent nearly a year going from hospital to hospital, pleading with government ministries, desperately knocking on doors to no avail. He had found us, CNN, by sheer luck. We covered the story and the outpouring of support that came in was overwhelming. It transcended race, religion and ethnicity. It came from across the globe.
Youssif ended up being treated by the Children’s Burn Foundation in Los Angeles. For me at the time, surrounded by the sheer inexplicable sorrow that is the war in Iraq, his story critically served as a reminder that the kindness of strangers exists, and that led to the first thoughts about starting a non-profit that could engage that generosity.
In the years that followed, as the region grew more violent and chaos spread, I came across more and more cases of children that were falling through the cracks, of parents who did not know how to access pre-existing help. The need to start INARA became a compulsion. And the need for an niche organization like INARA became undeniable.
TEMPO: Is it difficult to take off the reporter’s hat and do charity work?
Arwa: It’s not a case of throwing off one hat for another. I think the way that INARA grew and evolved is an extension of that “reporter’s hat”. My career has often focused on the humanitarian cost of war. I started INARA because, through my journalistic work, I saw a fundamental need for this type of organisation. Desperate parents were floundering when it came to navigating the vast eco system of pre-existing help and did not know how to access it. And sometimes the help just didn’t exist. And I realized that I could do something about it. That there is a way to help.
Juggling the two was very challenging at the start and still can be at times depending on what’s happening. But now thanks to my brilliant team, I can focus on further expanding our network and ensuring our vision for the future becomes a reality.
I still oversee our operations on a regular basis, and I am across all major decisions. I continue to fund the bulk of our operational costs so that we can keep our pledge to donors that 100% of their money goes to the children. This is an especially important commitment for me.
TEMPO: Is there criteria you use to give support? Is it difficult selecting who to give to?
Arwa: We do have criteria that we developed after conducting an extensive needs assessment in Lebanon. This helped us to acknowledge actual gaps in medical assistance that existed and needed to be filled. We take on cases of children who need lifesaving or life altering medical treatment due to injuries that were caused by war or circumstances brought on by war (from living as refugees), the majority of those we are treating are severe burns or reconstructive surgery for gun shot or other conflict wounds.
We are currently focusing on Syrian or Palestinian refugees from Syria, which are the greatest population in need. This is not to say that we are limited to this group and if other refugee children are in need, we will assess them against our criteria.
Children are referred to us through a broad network of I/NGO’s, humanitarian organisations which work with the refugee population and medical professionals. Our reputation is growing and families also come to us through word of mouth or via existing cases.
TEMPO: What results has INARA achieved?
Arwa: So far we have helped around 60 children and the impact has been incredibly heartening. To see the relief on the parents’ faces when they finally realize that their child is going to get help, when they realize that they can rely on us and that we have their best interests at heart is incredible.
Even more so is to see that changes in the children as they go through the medical process. Many of them are understandably severely traumatized by what they have experienced. They tend to be introverted and shy. Often their injuries force them to be confined to their homes either because its a physical disability or because they don’t want to be seen in public. Slowly through the medical treatment and other support that we provide they are able to – as best they can – overcome their injury.
To see them smile, laugh, start to enjoy life as a child truly deserves is one of the best moments any of us can go through.
TEMPO: What are the challenges you face?
Arwa: Well, the challenges of starting something up are many and complex and at times unexpected. We have a solid team, and we also have a great community support system whose expertise we are able to tap into. Our aim is to be a sustainable, well-functioning, transparent, nimble organization that can effectively continue to grow and spread.
TEMPO: How can INARA grow?
Arwa: We receive online donations through our website where we pledge 100% of the money goes to the children. We have had donations from family and other foundations where the donors can choose if they want all the money to go to the children or if some can be allocated to cover our operational costs. We have received some small grants and are continuing to apply for others. I have also personally contributed a sizeable amount of money to our operational costs. Right now we have a great blueprint to set up in other countries, but our limiting factor when it comes to expansion is funding.
TEMPO: What are your plans to grow INARA?
Arwa: In the short term we are working on expanding to Turkey. Our long term aim is to be global. I believe that in today’s world there is no reason why a child who has suffered such violence at the hands of adults and governments that failed them should not have access to medical care.
TEMPO: What’s your message to those who wish to support your cause?
Arwa: Many people feel overwhelmed when they see the scope and scale of the disasters brought on by war in the Middle East and rightfully so. All have suffered horrors of war beyond the scope of many of our imaginations. All have beautiful spirits and all have been robbed of the innocence of childhood.
Fifteen-year old Fatima lost her hands in an explosion. But when we took her to doctors, they discovered that some of her bones had solidified into her hands and, after a number of costly operations, they will be able to restore use of her fingers. She had resigned herself to a life where she would be constantly relying on others. Now once she goes through all her surgeries she will regain her independence. She wants to be an Arabic teacher.
Adnan was shot in the spine. Through physiotherapy and a specialized walking equipment he now has regained a degree of mobility. He has a beautiful eye for photography and wants to be an engineer.
Alaa whose jaw we helped rebuild wants to be a nurse. And Youssif, the Iraqi boy who is the inspiration for INARA, he is no longer an angry child. He is thriving and still wants to be a doctor working with burn victims like himself.
These children have known nothing but war. Cruelty and evil have stolen their childhoods from them. We can create a counterbalance to that by showing them kindness and compassion. We owe this to them.
And beyond that by not turning our backs on the most vulnerable victims of war, in a world where it truly feels like humanity has failed itself, we are not just impacting their lives, but the lives of those around them today and in the future.
Want to support their cause? Check out their website as well as their on going Ramadan crowdfunding!