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Dr. Amir Ali, a Kurdish physician and philanthropist, stands atop a pickup truck full of food, clothing and toiletries that he and his friends assembled for Syrian Kurdish refugees at a camp near Erbil. With the Kurdistan Regional Government overburdened with trying to care for over 153,000 Syrian refugees and the United Nations and other non-governmental organizations unable or unwilling to assist, efforts by regular Kurdish citizens like Dr. Amir are an important lifeline. (Todd Epp/For The Republic)

TODD EPP: Syria - what desperation looks like

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By Todd Epp

For The Daily Republic

I am one of probably few Americans who have actually been to Syria. When journalists report about gassings and bombings in Damascus' suburbs, they may be places I've visited.

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It was 2003 during the throes of the second Gulf War. I was visiting Damascus because I had a client in Damascus that my law firm was representing.

At the time, Damascus didn't strike me as all that different from Amman, Jordan, or the large cities in the West Bank of Israel/Palestine. It was sprawling, a bit seedy and with the typically insane traffic you find in the Middle East. I stayed in a modern hotel where the help all spoke English.

With the exception of one person I met, the Syrians treated me warmly. They even expressed regrets about the Americans dying next door in Iraq. And the falafel sandwiches were the best I've ever had in the Middle East.

At least Damascus seemed to be a reasonably well-functioning city, with some women and girls with covered heads and others dressed in the latest fashions from Europe. School children walked home from school, seemingly without any cares. Middle-aged women who headed large businesses told me they never felt the sting of gender discrimination as Syrians.

And there were lots of posters of the Assads, young Bashir, the current thug in charge, and his old man, the "original gangster," the late Hafez. I thought I was back in Maoist China, there were so many posters of these two butchers.

Zip ahead 10 years.

While in Kurdistan this winter, I helped my Kurdish physician friend, Dr. Amer Ali, distribute food, clothing and toiletries that he and his friends had gathered for Syrian Kurds in a makeshift refugee camp outside Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq. Probably a thousand or so in this camp, they are part of the 153,000-plus Syrian Kurds that Kurdistan is trying to help who have escaped Bashar Assad's brutal war on his own people.

Through muddy streets in an abandoned housing subdivision we drove, a small caravan of Dr. Amer's Ford Explorer and a friend's pickup trip stuffed full of items -- canned foods, toothpaste, donated clothing, bottles of water -- a veritable mini-Wal-Mart on wheels.

As soon as we were spotted, people of all ages, but particularly children and women, began to follow us. Once stopped, Dr. Amer climbed atop the pickup truck, first trying to check the refugees' papers to see if they were refugees; then, if so, giving them an item or two each.

Within minutes, the scene turned to chaos.

Dr. Amer was pushing and kicking people away while some of the men in the group tried to grab boxes or sacks full of whatever they could get their hands on.

My friend yelled at me in the Explorer and some American and English teachers who were helping to open up the back of the SUV. He wanted us to start distributing aid to help take some pressure off him.

At first we also handed an item or two to people in the queue. But as I expected, the queue dissolved into a massive push to the Explorer's tailgate, a gaggle of grimy hands all trying to grab what they could from the back.

As a former journalist and seasoned traveler to Third World locations, it takes quite a bit to scare me. And I was scared.

I thought I was going to be crushed. Then I thought I might get stripped of my camera, my iPhone and my wallet -- which had my U.S. passport inside it. Then I thought I might get beaten up or worse.

So I took a defensive position next to the tailgate, using my girth and weight as an immovable object to try to keep the looters at bay. I tried to think of it as trying to block out a throng of rebounders in a basketball game. The last thing I was going to do as an American was hit or kick anyone and cause an international incident.

Nonetheless, despite my heft, one man carted off a case of ramen noodles. I was not happy.

Finally, Dr. Amer came to his Explorer, said "Enough!" and we whisked away from the rabble. He later commented that this was an "easy" delivery because most of the men weren't there, since they were either working or looking for work. "At night it's a whole lot worse," he said.

It was bad enough.

The American in me who thinks things should be calm and orderly was offended at how "ungrateful" the Syrian Kurds were for our assistance.

But here they were, Syrian Kurds living in houses with no heat, electricity, windows, doors or even roofs, in the cold, in the wet, in the mud.

The Kurdistan Regional Government was trying its best to help. Only Dr. Amer and his group seem to help them on any sort of ongoing basis.

This is what utter desperation looks and feels like. I'd be a little on edge, too, if lived there.

And then I thought of this: As bad as this scene was, it's far worse in Syria, where the government gases, shells and bombs its own civilians to death. For a Syrian refugee, a bad day near Erbil, Kurdistan, beats any day inside Syria.

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