Sadly, news of people forced to flee their homes in Syria is in the headlines once again.
When similar stories came out of Aleppo, a group of women in Newcastle decided to do something for Syria.
Sarah Melling, one of the women behind this response, tells their story.
What hit me most was the doctor’s despair.
He was working in Syria with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) during the siege of Aleppo. His letter on the BBC website told a harrowing story.
His team was evacuating the most vulnerable people from a former old people’s home in the besieged city.
The home had become a refugee camp in a sea of smashed concrete that used to be a thriving city.
Some of the people they found were disabled or mentally ill and some just had nowhere else to go.
As the Red Cross and their partners the Syrian Arab Red Crescent arrived to rescue them, they sat among the bodies of other patients who had already died. There was no heating, medicine or fuel.
Then some soldiers arrived with six children, one just seven months old. All had been orphaned in the past few days and left alone in the rubble with nothing to eat.
They carried the children and old people on stretchers through deserted and damaged streets, helping those they could, but passing the bodies of those for whom it was already too late.
“I feel so very sad, today,” the doctor wrote.
“Please, there have to be some limits to this war.”
What could I possibly do?
I read the letter at work and cried at my desk.
The doctor wasn’t asking for support or donations or help: the letter simply told the facts. But its tone affected me.
I thought: “If this person has finally reached this point, then it can’t get any worse.”
I have two children, aged one and two at the time, and I when I got home that night, I couldn’t look them in the eye. I wanted to do something to help the children caught up in the conflict.
So I locked myself in the bathroom (the only way to get peace and quiet in my house!). Then I fired out a text message to about a dozen of my closest friends suggesting we organise a fundraising event.
They all felt as strongly as I did. One of my best friends, Anna, is a professional cook who runs her own business and puts on dining events in Newcastle.
She immediately got in touch with her contacts and very quickly we had our ideal venue and a host of top chefs on board. Our fundraising event, ‘Something for Syria’, was born.
What a group of Geordie girls can achieve
Anna and I joked from the beginning that it’s amazing what a group of girls can achieve when they’ve run out of hen-dos and weddings to organise.
But we had to make it happen quickly.
Anna and I both have demanding jobs and I have a young family. We chose a date with the venue that gave us two months to get sorted.
We thought we could pull off a dinner for about 40 people, getting everyone to pay £50. This was our starting idea but it snowballed in the best way.
Our group was all women, 13 of us in total, with a mixed bag of skills. From a barrister and a tattoo artist, to a full-time mum and a human rights policy writer, we all had something to offer.
We called ourselves the One Good Deed Committee. We thought that if everyone just did one small thing, it could turn into something really powerful.
Start with the longest shot
We started with Anna’s mailing list and then an article appeared in a local newspaper about four weeks before the event. Plus we all did loads of social media.
Between us all, we covered a huge number of people. We didn’t struggle to sell tickets.
People could see what we were doing was for a brilliant cause and would be a quality event – the two most important factors.
Anna secured all the chefs and between them they managed to get suppliers to donate everything from produce to easels.
We didn’t need to spend money and allowed all the proceeds to go to the Red Cross.
Everyone on the committee asked people for prizes. Our philosophy was: start with the longest shot and work down from there!
Often a connection led to another connection, someone knew someone, this person should speak to that person. It was a lot of networking and hustling.
And it paid off with some fantastic artists donating pieces.
Something for Syria: on the night
Anna and I were definitely nervous.
She concentrated on the food and the service and I looked after the art auction and prizes.
It only dawned on me on the night that I had never actually been to an art auction before, never mind organising one.
But early on we had enlisted the help of a retired auctioneer who was a total professional and guided me through what needed to happen.
The whole committee was fired up because people kept saying how great the venue looked and how good the prizes were. And then the food was just delicious.
What stood out for me is being blown away by people’s support and that actually, if you just ask, you often get a yes.
There is a saying in Newcastle: “shy bairns get nowt”, which basically means “shy children get nothing”. That’s a pretty good rule to follow when you’re putting something like this together.
Pride in what we achieved
We set out to raise £15,000 from Something for Syria.
Instead, we raised over £32,000 to help build a bakery that will feed the hungry in Syria.
It has made me thankful that I have such an amazing group of friends who allowed Anna and me to boss them around for weeks!
I hope our story makes another group of girls (or boys – that’s fine too!) get up and do their own Something for Syria.
If you play to your strengths, anything is possible.