Humanitarian Assistance Meets the Challenges of the Coronavirus Pandemic



As 2020 drew to a close, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) reported that COVID-19 cases among the 6.6 million Syrians displaced by a protracted conflict continued to rise. The U.N. said that estimates of 19,200 cases in the northwest and nearly 7,700 in the northeast were well below the actual number. Global Communities has been providing humanitarian assistance in Syria since 2014, and cross-border operations are now based in Türkiye for northwest Syria and Iraq for northeast Syria. Teams in both areas made key decisions in the early weeks of the pandemic that ensured the disruption of aid was minimal and the delivery of lifesaving services was not disrupted at all.

Global Communities quickly pivoted in northwest Syria to continue supporting internally displaced persons (IDPs) with food, water and sanitation, as well as protection services for girls and women. In December, families in Atmeh camp were able to redeem fuel and heating stove vouchers at their door rather than at redemption locations, to promote social distancing and reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Programs in northeast Syria also continued with safety adaptations during the pandemic, where Global Communities'  mobile protection teams were able to teach over 1,283 boys and girls aged 5 to 13 and 1,310 caregivers about health precautions for COVID-19, resilience and confidence, good hygiene, and healthy food, along with providing recreation and psychological first aid. Protection teams also distributed 2,000 dignity kits for women and girls with hygiene and sanitary items, as well as 3,000 hygiene kits for vulnerable households with COVID-19 personal protective equipment and 5,000 self-instruction recreational kits for children aged 5 to 12 with educational toys, materials for arts and crafts, stationery, drawing books and short stories to ease the impact of the closure of schools and safe spaces and to support parents and caregivers.


Photo by Global Communities Syria

The very real risk of the rapid spread of COVID-19 complicated an already challenging situation for participants in the INSPIRE program in northeast Syria. In 2020, the program adopted a block-by-block food assistance approach to over 15,000 individuals in two main areas of Washokani and Nowroz in Hasakah governorate. This approach ensured that the displaced population received lifesaving food assistance while curbing the spread of COVID-19 by controlling the size of crowds and enforcing social distance within the distribution points. Even in a pandemic, there were large and small successes.

One such case involved an 8-year-old girl with severe burns on her face who refused to go to school after other children began bullying her. The team taught her how to protect herself from bullying and through group counseling sessions, taught her school peers about treating people who are different with respect. She also received a silicone burn mask and was able to shed her shyness, fear and isolation. Training continued online after virus precautions were put in place.


In Idleb, the Child Protection team turned to WhatsApp groups and a YouTube channel to raise awareness, disseminate information, life skills and parenting skills sessions. The Hygiene Promotion team created a network of 281 WhatsApp groups to remotely reach 18,000 internally displaced people in Atmeh with COVID-19 related awareness messages.

As COVID-19 spread, Global Communities and partners faced another challenge in northeast Syria - ensuring the continuity of projects directly tied to providing adequate food for thousands of IDPs. Nevertheless, a bakery rehabilitation program resulted in two bakeries brought online and work scoped out for 14 others.

Another 600 farmers received agriculture kits, bringing the total for the program to 1,200, and a rehabilitated irrigation system brought water to 1,500 hectares of farmland. Food insecurity in northwest Syria was eased somewhat when Global Communities and its partners rehabilitated five bakeries and two mills,  and  distributed wheat, flour and yeast to bake 4.5 tons of bread and feed 116,078 people a month.


individuals were provided block-by-block food assistance.


WhatsApp groups were created to remotely reach 18,000 internally displaced people with COVID-19 related awareness messages.


people were fed per month when 5 bakeries and 2 mills rehabilitated to distribute wheat, flour and yeast to bake 4.5 tons of bread.


When the coronavirus reached Yemen in 2020, the country had already been called the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. Six years of brutal armed conflict left millions of displaced Yemenis in a state of extreme food insecurity bordering on famine. Then, restrictions imposed to stop the spread of COVID-19 put livelihoods in further jeopardy.


Photo by Global Communities Yemen

Global Communities had been working in development in Yemen since 2004, but the escalation of conflict around 2014 required different programs to meet the changed needs of the Yemeni people. Through the USAID-funded Yemen Emergency Food Assistance programs, lifesaving food aid reached 4,297 vulnerable households in south Yemen, 8,417 of the most vulnerable communities and 59,000 internally displaced persons over three years, through the end of 2020. Market baskets of food and cash vouchers to buy food were a lifeline for many, including 4-year-old Al Bara'a, who was evaluated as malnourished in October. By January, the six members of his family were food secure, eating a healthy, varied diet and the young boy was growing again.

Clean, safe water is essential to fighting the spread of disease. When the pandemic hit, Global Communities was already operating the USAID/OFDA-funded IMPACT-Yemen program and was able to rehabilitate 33 irrigation projects that provided water along 93.5 miles of irrigation canals. IMPACT-Yemen also trained 50 hygiene promoters to share information with fellow Yemenis about the health benefits of hand-washing, clean water storage, good nutrition and control of insects that carry disease. A total of 1,100 households received health education and hygiene kits containing soaps, toothbrushes and toothpaste, feminine hygiene products, towels and other necessities.

Through the USAID-funded Yemen Communities Stronger Together (YCST) project, Global Communities is working to support locally led efforts to strengthen social cohesion and promote peaceful resolution of differences. To address water scarcity, one of the most conflict-prone issues, YCST plans ten projects that will increase water supplies, improve sanitation, expand the electricity grid and improve schools for 96,500 people. Last year, two water enhancement projects were completed that supply water to 6,500 people in Al Mafad District in Abyan Governorate and 1,990 people in Ras Al-Aarah Community in Lahj Governorate.

Conflicts can occur over other life-or-death services as well. YCST's stabilization and conflict prevention team worked to resolve frustration and blame about the lack of power supply at Al Ma'afer Rural Hospital. The situation was dangerous and untenable, as when the unreliable power went out, doctors performed surgery by flashlight, women in labor were turned away because equipment could not be sterilized, and newborns could not receive lifesaving care that should have been routine.

Describing the conditions, Dr. Nada AbdulJalil, head of obstetrics, said that "mothers' and newborns' lives were in great danger, as we were unable to use our medical devices, doctors used flashlights during critical emergencies."


The community blamed local authorities for the situation. However, with the help of YCST, Al Suwa'a local authorities and their community worked together to resolve conflict over lack of services and selected the hospital for improvements. The hospital's sanitation and sewer systems were rehabilitated, a new septic tank was constructed and a solar power system was installed to help electrify the hospital. Once all projects are completed, it is expected that the lives of 300,610 persons will be positively impacted.

"YCST saved the patients of the great danger that the obstetrics department used to face during cesarean surgeries," Dr. AbdulJalil said.


vulnerable households in south Yemen, 8,417 of the most vulnerable communities and 59,000 internally displaced persons received lifesaving food aid over three years, through the end of 2020.

Story by Jackie Frank