Ashley’s Mercy mission to the Middle East

The Al Azab familyof eight children and their parents made a cow shed into their temporary home. Picture: Mercy Corps

The Al Azab familyof eight children and their parents made a cow shed into their temporary home. Picture: Mercy Corps

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IT was the height of a famine that would go on to claim a million lives – starving children stared back helplessly from television screens, some barely more than skeletons.

Watching the crisis unfold on Live Aid in the mid-1980s, a little girl named Ashley Proud, below, experienced perhaps her first humanitarian impulse.

Mercy Corps' Ashley Proud

Mercy Corps' Ashley Proud

She could not have known then that Bob Geldof’s, below right, crusade would lead her to a career alleviating suffering across the world. Thirty years on and she plays a key role in Edinburgh-based Mercy Corps, which helps people around the world through conflict, crisis and ­natural disasters.

Based in Beirut, Lebanon, the 36-year-old from Marchmont designs humanitarian programmes that reach more than one million refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. As a Middle East programme adviser, she travels widely in the war-torn region to identify the most pressing needs of those driven from their homes, or what is left of their homes.

Ashley says: “Live Aid was a big deal, and the first time I realised that people lived in such different conditions.

“It had a really big effect on me and I remember being really shocked little kids were dying. I always had that big desire to help people but this was a huge moment in my life.

“Syria is a huge crisis, affecting the whole of the Middle East region. Lebanon has one quarter of the [Syrian] population. Of the five million people in Lebanon, one million are refugees.

“I find out what their needs are. When you are displaced, you often don’t have anything with you, so we give them ­normal stuff like cooking and bedding.” Before Ashley decided on a career in international development, she worked designing recruitment tests for the Ministry of Defence.

But everything changed when she took up a volunteer project in Rwanda, a ­country which saw one of the most notorious genocide campaigns in recent history.

Ashley earned a degree in international law from ­Edinburgh University, focusing on refugee law and international humanitarian law.

She has been working in Africa and the Middle East ever since and is now helping to deal with Syria’s intensifying refugee crisis.

The number of people forced to flee their homes has just ­surpassed a record three ­million people, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees has confirmed.

It comes amid reports of increasingly horrifying ­conditions inside the country – cities where populations are surrounded, people are going hungry and civilians are being targeted or indiscriminately killed.

Most remain in countries neighbouring Syria, with the highest concentrations in Lebanon (1.14m), ­Jordan (608,000) and Turkey (815,000).

Competition for sometimes scarce resources can spark ­tensions between refugees and the people living in the ­countries where they have sought sanctuary.

Ashley adds: “Because of this, one of the issues we deal with is conflict management between refugees and their host community. There are not many resources to go around, not enough housing or electricity, and there are tensions.”

On one occasion her team helped bring together Turkish and Syrian girls in a bid to encourage friendships and tackle misunderstandings.

It was here Ashley and her colleagues met a Syrian girl who had not left her house for six months after her brothers were killed.

Her team also deals with child protection issues, helping children get access to education, and work closely with local community groups. The problems in the Middle East are not likely to change any time soon, with the Islamic State (IS) seizing large swathes of territory in eastern Syria and across northern and western Iraq in its bid to create a vast caliphate, while Gaza is still a powderkeg.

While acknowledging the vast scale of the problem now facing the Middle East, Ashley does not regret her choice and considers her job rewarding.

“It’s a really great job, but it’s not easy to be away from your family and friends, and ­living in a different country,” she says.

“My parents are really supportive. They do worry but I think they believe in what I do.

“It is great that Mercy Corps has been able to help so many people. We are reaching 1.7m people in Syria and another.”

Mercy Corps workers inevitably confront risks in war zones across the world, but Ashley stresses that the organisation has “good security” and does “everything possible to keep its teams safe”.

In fact, it was working for another organisation, in Sudan, that Ashley felt her life may be in danger.

Her team was threatened by a soldier after one of the drivers accidentally ran over his foot.

She recalls: “He wasn’t too happy. He threatened to kill all of us. And I was in charge of what we should do next. Soldiers in Sudan are not very well trained and they are often young and on drugs.

“I moved everyone to the UN compound, and we went through a traditional justice system and they judged that the soldier was in the wrong, but we had to give him a cow as a goodwill gesture.

“Things like that happen in our line of work.”

Corps has roots in early crises

THE organisation was established in 1979 as Save the Refugees Fund in response to the plight of Cambodian refugees fleeing the famine, war and genocide of the Killing Fields.

Mercy Corps was formed in 1982, shifting quickly from providing relief assistance to focusing on long-term solutions to hunger and poverty.

With the largest humanitarian presence next to the UN, it has a network of experienced professionals in more than 40 countries.

Of these, 93 per cent of its field staff are from the country where they work.

Mercy Corps, based in Sciennes, helps more than 19 million people each year recover from disasters, and deal with poverty. It responds immediately to urgent needs for food, water and shelter, and aids long-term recovery.

To make a donation call 08000 413 060 or visit mercycorps.org.uk.