AKs and Lollipops: Inside the Syrian Conflict

In the winter of 2013 I had the privilege of travelling into Syria to see the country for myself. I saw the situation on the ground, was able to speak with rebel fighters and refugees, and I tried to help in any way I could. After 10 months of writing and editing, my experiences and my thoughts on the conflict have been published into my first book.

AKs and Lollipops has grown from the notes that I kept during my brief time inside war-torn Syria. There are personal stories from the people I met, first hand accounts of the war and its effects, and photos from the regions that I visited. Unlike media portrayals of the war, I had no objective or agenda to push. What I wrote was honest and uncut.

I shant deny that AKs and Lollipops is a subjective account. I know the first rule of journalism is that you are meant to be fair and objective, but so much of Syria’s war is anything but. On the cover you will find the Green, White and Black of the flag that anti-Assad forces have adopted, and I have no shame in saying that these are the people that have my support.

Whilst I was in Syria it was the soldiers of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that treated me like one of their own. I slept in their homes, shared their food, and travelled with them around the country. Anyone that has been travelling can attest to the incredible generosity that strangers often provide, and even in the bleakest of climates, the people of Syria were no different.

Wherever I went, from soldiers’ homes to refugees tents, I was greeted with smiles and offers of food, tea or cigarettes. What little these people had they were more than willing to share. This is testament to the character of the Syrian people, that even at a time such as this, where the world seems to have forgotten about them, they have not forgotten about the world.

For the average UK citizen, attempting to imagine what life has become for Syrian people is impossible. Even when I was able to walk in their shoes, albeit briefly, it was still not enough for me to come to terms with the tragedy that has been unfolding these last four years. A country which was once the jewel of the Middle East, boasting exquisite architecture, culture, and history, is now nothing more than a graveyard of ambition, hope, and people.

Nobody knows when the conflict is likely to end, but it is widely believed that it will get worse before it gets better. As the stalemate deepens, every inch that is able to be prised away from the opposition will come at a heavier price. It is 21st century trench warfare with neither side able to deliver the knockout blow. It may be because of this stagnation that the barbarity of this conflict only seems to increase with each passing month. Amidst it all, caught in the never-ending crossfire, are those struggling to continue to live.

Like the international action, aid to the Syrian people has been woefully inadequate. Hundreds of billions of pounds of investment will be needed to bring the country back to its former glory, and still Syria continues to regress day after day. The average life expectancy has dropped by two decades, diseases that were eradicated from the country have returned, and a whole generation of children have been deprived of the education they deserve.

It is often said that Syria represents the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, and it is plain to see why. For 70 years the world has not seen destruction and suffering on such a level, and yet little seems to be happening to try and stop it. Those in need of humanitarian aid in Syria now number more than the total combined population of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

It is my hope that AKs and Lollipops goes some way to highlighting the plight of Syria’s people. Refreshing our collective memory that there exists a world away from the headlines and news reports where real people are forced to exist in such a hellish climate.

It is only due to the lottery of life, the privilege of birth, that you and I are sat here and not elsewhere in the world. I no more deserve the position I have found myself in than the children in Syria deserve theirs. I wake each morning to the sound of an alarm on a mobile phone, they struggle to sleep peacefully every evening as rockets, shells and gunfire punctuate the night. After night, after night.

All of the money that I make from book sales will be donated to charities dealing with the Syrian crisis. AKs and Lollipops is available in paperback or kindle formats and can be found here on the amazon store.

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Do What You Can For The Life You Can Save

It was in February 2014 that I first heard about Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save, and I have not looked back since.

I was, unfortunately, stuck at home living with my family in South Wales, in a similar position to many university graduates; hunting for a job, lacking any money, and with no real direction.  Despite the fragile state of my finances at the time, having to rely on Job Seekers Allowance whilst I sought employment, The Life You Can Save (TLYCS) really struck a chord with me, and I took the pledge immediately after I finished reading all the information on the site.

Charitable and voluntary work have always been activities that I have taken great pleasure involving myself in. Following my time in university I embarked on a six-month voluntary placement in Ankara, Turkey, in order to help out at a youth centre. Whilst there I was also able to establish a small aid giving project of my own that helped Syrian refugees who had had their lives devastated by the conflict raging across the border. It was named Do What You Can, which has since become a mantra that I try to follow in whatever I do. Following those experiences I knew that helping others was a duty that I had to perform.

As well as participating in such activities I have always been fascinated by the concepts and theories behind such actions. Why do we do what we do? Is there such a thing as true altruism? I experimented with a few things myself during my time in university, participating in small projects of my own in order to see what was possible. Monthly donations to charities, participating in charity fundraising events, and giving out roses to members of the public on Valentine’s Day free of charge. It was always a case of “what can I do to improve this world?”

No doubt my time in university laid the foundations for the work I was to do later in Turkey and in Syria. The seed had been planted, and as the years progressed it began to sprout and grow. Signing up to TLYCS can be seen as simply the next step in this process.

So, back to 2014. My measly weekly income of £57.35 did not go far, but what little income I did receive, I made sure that I honoured my pledge. 3% of anything that went into my bank account would then be donated to my chosen monthly charities. For a good few months, times were very tough. I was lucky in that I had a caring family who were able to support me through my unemployment, as without them I would have struggled tremendously. Eventually I found a job, and life became slightly easier again.

This job brought with it greater income, and as well as making my life easier, it also meant that my chosen charities were receiving more money from me each month. A true case of “everyone wins.”

As the year progressed, circumstances changed, and big changes occurred. I left the family home in Swansea, Wales, bought a one way ticket to Brighton on the south coast of England, and began to start living the life I wanted to live. A new job soon followed, as did a house with some incredible housemates. By the end of 2014 I had found myself in the most open, liberal, and progressive city in the UK – a place I had fallen in love with when I was at university – and was working in the non-profit sector for a renewable energy charity. (Check us out if you get the chance, we are called Renewable World).

As 2014 came to a close my life was coming along nicely. But more important than how content I was with my own existence was the fact that in the 12 months of that year I had been able to give a total £268.02 to my chosen charities. A figure which doesn’t seem like a lot, but when it represents 3% of my entire earnings for the year, you can understand how difficult my own situation was at times.

For Christmas of that year I requested, and received, a number of books on charitable giving and philanthropy. Once I had looked through these I knew that it was time to progress once again.

Though 3% of my earnings for 2015 would be a higher amount than what was given in the 12 months previously, I didn’t feel it was enough. In the spirit of Do What You Can, I knew there was greater potential to do more. It was for this reason that as well as reaffirming my own pledge I then actively recruited friends of mine to take the pledge themselves. Knowing the tremendous difference that donations can make, and as this personal project was very much related to TLYCS, I chose to call it The Lives We Will Save.

I set about recruiting, and by mid-January I was joined by 7 of my friends. All of them had taken the pledge and had committed to giving 2, 3 or 4% of their monthly income. At the time of writing, the 8 of us have just received our first pay checks of the year, and true to our pledge we have all donated a percentage to the charities listed on TLYCS. The total amount donated in January alone has already surpassed the £200 mark.

This is just the beginning of something that I hope will grow and attract more like-minded people over the next 12 months. Individually I was able to make a small difference by donating my own money, but collectively, as a group, the members of The Lives We Will Save are set to make an even greater difference. By the end of February, the group will have already given away more than I did in the entire 12 months of 2014. As the months pass I hope the group will expand in numbers, with more people coming on board and wanting to be a part of something that truly makes a difference.

As an initiative, TLYCS is truly incredible. It is moral, admirable, and open to absolutely anyone, no matter where they live in the world, and no matter their financial situation. As Singer himself has said, we as humans have a duty to help our fellow man and woman, I aim to dedicate my life to this cause, and if I am able to persuade a few comrades to join me along the way then that is even better.

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