War in Syria – 2013
Following the meetings in Los Angeles and Bangkok, there really was nothing much on my plate. I had completed the global circumnavigation with ease, most of my flights being upgraded. The war in Syria was in its second year by now with Vince and company managing the WV response. At the moment, my calendar was empty, but it would fill up quickly.
At some point in April of 2013, my relationship with Vince had turned for the worse. To this day, I am still not sure what had happened. The only suggestion was that he had felt I had stabbed him in the back over something, but that was never identified. Raising this issue with my boss, Killen with hopes of resolving as an attempted phone call with Vince had him hanging up on me. Up until this time, we had been working well together with me assisting the team remotely.
Vince was due to end his deployment soon as well, so I was asked to help find his replacement. I made a couple of suggestions, but OCS felt that an external consultant would most likely be better. This started to get heated as it was out of protocol with HR and the Region by not including them in the process. Deciding it would be better to lay low on the Syria issue and replacements, I focused on possible future tasks in the region with Sean.
On April 22 I received a pre-deployment notice from Alan, who managed all of our deployments. I was told that I would possibly be required to replace Vince so that he could go on R&R followed by possible work in Lebanon. With this notification, Vince started to send me all of the work that had been done up to this point. This allowed me time to get familiar with what WV was doing on the ground.
The decision to send me over came relatively quick. Within 24 hours of the April 22 pre-deployment notice, I found myself at the airport. The day before, Paula and I had decided to spend the day at the beach. Watching the parrots playing in the trees and flying around was something to see.
On April 24 at 0600 I departed San Jose for some unknown place (at the time) called Gaziantep, Turkey. My route took me via Dallas, London and Istanbul. Prior to the trip, Mark had informed me that the hotel in Gaziantep would hold his room for me as he was leaving a few hours prior to my arrival. Since the hotel was full, this was a good solution.
Arriving at 0300 on April 26, I was happy that Mark had made the arrangements for me to have his hotel room. The unfortunate thing was that the Ibis hotel did not realize these arrangements had been made, leaving me without a room on my arrival. I arrived at the hotel at 0400 dead tired after 4 flights in 26 hours. The hotel said I could wait in the dining area until some arrangement was made. By 0500 a temporary room was made up for me, giving me just enough time to shower and change before meeting the team at 0600 in the dining hall.
This day would be a whirlwind day combined with jet lag and dealing with whatever issues Vince was having with me at the time. I knew that Vince had a flight out early the next morning, so my baptism to Syria was with fire. We departed the hotel at 0700 and made our way out of Gaziantep to a small border town called Karkamis, with the Syrian town of Jarabulus on the other side.
I am not sure to this day if this was Vince trying to set me up to fail, but whatever, I succeeded considering. Arriving in Karkamis, the first thing was that our interpreter, Rasha, decided to take Vince aside and mention my tattoos. Not being completely awake, I was not dressed to cross the border into Syria in a short sleeve shirt. So, Vince gave me a rain jacket to wear as to cover my arms, not the most comfortable in 30+ degree weather. You would have thought this would come up before we left the hotel.
Over the next 12 weeks, I would become very familiar with the Karkamis border crossing. The first time across was definitely an eye opener. The border check point was full of traffic and cars with aid items stacked high and wide.
When we passed the blue doors and entered the border check point, we met our Syrian contact, Ali. Ali, would take our passports to passport control. Here we waited about an hour while the Turkish authorities did their checks. Once we had our passports back, Ali took us through the next door to the “neutral zone”. This is were we met the first of three additional checkpoints. The first was with the Syrian Free Army, who checked our passport documents and let us pass. The second was manned by Daesh (ISIS), who also checked our documents and our bags. This was the first time I the infamous black flag.
The final checkpoint was Al Qaeda, who at that particular time, controlled Jarabulus. Interesting about Jarabulus, it would often switch hands between the two terrorist organizations with control of the Free Syrian Army. The only thing they would not control was the actual border. Fortunately Mark and Vince had worked up an Armed Actor Profile that would have made the CIA proud. Born was the World Vision Intelligence department of OCS! We knew everyone in the who’s who of who and where they were.
There was not a lot to Jarabulus after we had crossed the international border, for all intents and purposes, illegally. I say that as we never received an entry stamp into Syria, only exit and entry stamps for Turkey at Karkamis.
Being my first trip across, this was really the Coles notes version of what to expect in Jarabulus. There would be more interesting times ahead over the course of my deployment. We visited a school where we were working on a WASH project to help reopen the school. Following that, Vince and Ali took me around to meet the various council members and local Sheik. The sheik had provided World Vision staff with a “Blood Chit” in the event we were harassed in our work.
After a quick visit to the home of our guide, Ali, we returned to the border to start the return trip to Gaziantep. It took about an hour to get back into Turkey, but future trips would not take as long once we were in favor with border patrol.
It would be nice to get some sleep back in the hotel and continue the adventure the next day. Vince asked me several times before he left if I was up to this deployment. I am sure he was hoping I would back down so he could stay. But I am not one to back out of a great challenge and opportunity. The next few weeks would prove that and would help build the brotherhood between Vince and myself into something strong.