Syria has Syrias Vibes. Calvin James, a half Dublin / half Donegal cancerian, ex social care worker and house DJ, first visited Syria as a medic in 2016. Realising that not many big NGOs operated inside of Syria, he decided to take matters into his own hands. Together with his brother Andy, they set up Syrias Vibes to help civilians affected by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Calvin first visited Syria in ‘happier times’ and had been visiting Iraq and Kurdistan since 2012. “I guess I was as horrified as everyone was watching what was unfolding in the region,” he explains.
Not one to just set back and watch, Calvin decided to make a difference. Every three months, Calvin goes to Syria and stays for a month. But Syria is a far cry from the green fields and warm pubs of Ireland. In a war-torn country, experiencing death as a volunteer is very eye opening. “I’m still trying to get my head around a lot of it,” Calvin says. “When you’re there, you’re pretty focused and accept that bad things will happen. You put a lot of faith in the team around you and you plan every movement meticulously.”
But even planning doesn’t save you from seeing some pretty fucked up shit. With kids dying, mates dying, body bags, amputations, wounded ISIS prisoners, and car bombs, you are really just one wrong step away from death. Calvin has been able to block out those thoughts for now - “It’s only when you come home and are away from it for a while that you start to think about how mental it all is.”
And what is even more mental? The scale of this war isn’t even getting much coverage. Sure we can put that down to, as Calvin says, “Donald Trump proving a great distraction to what’s really going on here,” or maybe people and the media are just so inundated with news that this doesn’t seem significant. “The situation in Raqqa didn’t receive half the coverage of Aleppo. There’s huge operations happening in Syria at the moment in the North East and, in the West, Idlib is under siege.” And with the constant phrase of “Stay Woke” being played over and over, are we really “woke”? Or can we only be really truly aware of causes that directly affect the first world?
The refugee crisis hit an all time high recently and as Calvin says “It’s an absolute shit show to be honest.” There is almost a fear around the word ‘refugee’. As if it is dirty. “People’s attitudes towards refugees are ridiculous. They are terrorists, rapists, coming for your jobs. It’s crazy.” But it doesn't stop there. Attitudes towards ‘economic migrants’ are as toxic as ever. “I’ve been in a lot of African and Middle Eastern countries where there are just no opportunities. If people visited parts of Nigeria, Sudan and Mali, they might understand.”
It doesn’t end there - far from it. Child Slavery in Syria has gone through the roof. “It’s estimated that there are still 3,500 Yazidi held captive by ISIS and their associates. We see returnees in the Bajed Kandala camp every week. Whether it's through escaping, liberation or negotiations at extortionate prices through mediators,” says Calvin.
And how can you put a price on a child? But when these kids come back, it isn’t always warm welcomes and normalcy. These kids come back a fraction of what they once were and a lot of work is needed to integrate them back into society. Calvin has worked with kids who have lost their mother tongue and have been brainwashed. “Most of the young girls have experienced serious trauma, like rape, and some were sold off or ‘married’ up to 20 times.”
It’s hard for Calvin to put a figure on how many people he has helped. “The clinic in Qamishlo saw over 20,000 people in 2016. The mobile clinic in Kurdistan sees maybe 40 people a day; the Bejed Kandala camp clinic sees upwards of 120 a day. But yeah, we’ve helped hapes!”
Safe to say that Calvin’s work is much needed, especially because NGOs are not willing to put a half decent effort in. And while Calvin sees that with big NGOs “they have a commitment to keep their staff safe and you can’t promise that in Syria”, there is also other issues at play when it come to working in places like Syria. “In the north, the borders are closed with Turkey, Iraq and ISIS territory cuts off Rojava from the rest of the state. The country is also under sanctions so there’s no international banking, Western Union or anything, so it’s difficult to get aid, money and people in.”
With all these restrictions and safety issues, there is no need to wonder why Calvin is the only one in his organisation that goes out and works with local staff on the ground. But to be fair, in his words, “I’m OK with all of that.”
We’re sure there are moments when Calvin is less than “OK with all of that”. On the July 27th, 2016, a bomb went off 800 metres from Calvin. “I was incredibly hungover as we just came off a two week stint on the Manbji front and I had popped my Frontline cherry. We went for beers the night before, I had maybe four cans, but the other lads weren’t too much into drinking so they had half a can each; Dusty Bin here polished it off. Around 9am we woke to the sound of a truck bomb. I’ll never forget the bang from it.”
With 50 dead, 300 injured and a hangover, it was safe to say it was a shock. “A man dropped a 10 year old boy in my arms. He was dead. I ran to an ambulance and we took off for hospital. We all knew he was dead, but we still went to hospital, in complete silence.” The shock was surely something they had never experienced before. The next three days saw Calvin and the guys digging in 50 degree heat looking for survivors. A true less than “OK with all of that” moment.
Calvin runs events in Ireland to raise most of the funding for his Syrias Vibes campaign. “We want to be a catalyst for anyone who feels helpless with the situation and wants to do something about it, but doesn’t know where to look. We've had a great response with people putting on gigs, fashion shows, quizzes, running marathons for us, it's endless really.” So, if you’re looking to raise money for Syrias Vibes, they have an absolute banger incoming on November 17th in Index with John Daly, Jon Hussey, Doug Cooney, Handsome Paddy and loads more.