Arwa Damon is an award-winning journalist and CNN’s former Senior International Correspondent. After 18 years reporting from the world’s hotspots, she left the network last year to focus on the non-profit she founded: International Network for Aid, Relief and Assistance (INARA). Her group helps people suffering from wars and disasters. Recently, Arwa spoke to CNN from the INARA office in Turkey as the organization provides help in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake. She discussed the things she saw while reporting on the war in Ukraine, the aid that is still needed one year later, why she founded INARA and what she is currently seeing (and not seeing) in the global response to the earthquake in Turkey and Syria.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The war in Ukraine is about to hit the one-year mark. Can you tell us about what you saw and experienced while reporting there?
“I was on the Ukraine-Poland border. I think what struck me most, I remember standing there very distinctly, watching these Ukrainian families coming across the border. It was a scene that I’d seen so many times before, exhausted mothers dragging along children who are barely able to put one step in front of the other. The constant click, click, click of the wheel spinning around on the little suitcases that they’re carrying. Then these faces with these almost blank expressions of just shock and exhaustion. As I was watching this in real time, my mind just superimposed on top of it all the other images I’d seen from other war zones, from Syria and from Iraq, and it was the same exact image. And then I was struck by the difference though, because when those Ukrainian families got across the border, there were piles of clothes waiting for them. There were warm cups of tea, there were buses lined up to take them somewhere. There were volunteers with signs offering rides, and part of me was so heartened and warm to see this outpouring of support and part of me was so devastated that same outpouring of support was not afforded to other populations.”
“The way people responded to Ukraine is the way that we should be responding to people in crisis. That should be our standard. That should be the norm.”
What kind of support has INARA provided to those who have been impacted by the war in Ukraine within the last year?
“We focused a lot on mental health. One of the first projects that we did was kind of recognizing that with all of these volunteers on the ground, with all of these frontline individuals that existed out there – there’s a bit of sensitivity when it comes to dealing with people that have just been through the trauma of war, especially children. There are certain basic do’s and don’ts that aren’t necessarily obvious. We have a wealth of experience dealing with pediatric trauma unfortunately. So one of the first things we did was tried to get information out to those frontline workers who were offering training or distributing brochures in different languages just to make sure that they were aware of the basics needed, in terms of dealing with children that have been greatly traumatized. Also –and this is pretty important– differentiating between what is a normal traumatic response and what are some key indicators that there is going to be a potentially deeper underlying longer lasting problem.”
“INARA’s main kind of baseline for these types of interventions is, ‘what are the gaps?’ We know, from our own experience, that the main gap we end up filling is not at the beginning of the crisis or the war. We know that those gaps, that we end up filling, emerge when the media spotlight moves away when the funding has dried up and when the NGOs are not present on the ground.”
“We’re building a safe space in partnership with an organization from Mariupol. They specifically highlighted a problem where a lot of those families that have fled from Mariupol, they were female-led households. The men had stayed behind; they were either fighting or volunteering or had had been killed. And the mothers needed a safe place to be able to leave their children so that they could go find work. What we’ve done, and what we’re still doing is building these safe spaces that both act as areas where the children can get social support, mental health support, but also where the parents can just leave their kids for a longer duration of time.”
As the war closes in on the one-year mark, has INARA’s work increased?
“The work itself has picked up, but again, what we know is that our work, specifically as INARA, is going to pick up even more down the line. We’re still going to be there when everybody else leaves. That’s just the way that we operate. That’s who we are. That’s our DNA. We stay. We’ll keep filling in the gaps.”
“Definitely our work is going to pick up in Ukraine.”
For ways to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine, you can contribute to Impact Your World’s campaign here.
What’s INARA’s overall focus and mission?
“The whole concept and premise for INARA is very much based on my own personal experience reporting for CNN from the war zones for well over a decade and a half. Constantly coming across children who needed medical treatment, but they were unable to access it. That is, generally speaking, for one of two reasons: One is that the parents don’t know that certain organizations are actually providing the treatment that their child needs. The other is because no organization is providing what the child needs. INARA was specifically built to fill in those gaps and create that network for the families so that we end up connecting the donors, whether it’s individual or larger donors, to the family – to the treatment. We do this through our caseworkers, and we do this through the whole program that we’ve built.”
Arwa and Youssif
“It started out with the story of this little boy named Youssif that I covered for CNN and back in 2006 and 2007. Gunmen poured gasoline on his head when he was standing outside of his house playing and then set him on fire. To date, no one really knows why. Youssif’s father had gone door to door, NGO to NGO, ministry to ministry trying to find someone who could treat his little boy and then he, by chance, ended up at CNN’s doorstep. I remember the first time he brought Youssif into our office. He was eating rice. But his face was such a hardened mask of rivers of scar tissue that he couldn’t open his mouth and so he would eat by taking a few grains of rice and just pushing them through his lips. He was very angry. He was very sullen. And we were all very deeply impacted by this little child.”
“The story went out and CNN’s phones began blowing up. My email was blowing up. I mean, the support was coming in from around the world. It transcended boundaries and nationality and religion and everything. Long story very short, one of the best moments of my career was when I was able to call Youssif’s family and say, ‘Your little boy’s going to get help. You’re all going to America.’ His case was picked up by the Children’s Burn Foundation, and then CNN viewers were donating to cover the cost of his medical treatment.”
Arwa on how INARA got started
“Fast forward to 2012 and I’m covering Syria and it’s very depressing and it feels as if no matter what we do, no matter how many people die, we’re not really shifting the needle at all in terms of this horrendous trajectory. We can all see the country going down. It just became this ‘I need to do more, I need to do something.’ I was remembering all these other stories and I was remembering all these other times when we couldn’t always report the story of the child that was injured, but we would just figure it out amongst ourselves. It became, ‘Well, why not create a charity?’ We’re just going to figure it out for these families because we can figure it out.”
“There’s absolutely no logical reason in my mind why a child who has been injured by war or conflict or anything to do with that should not get the medical treatment that they deserve. And so INARA was born. Now we do medical treatment. We have this whole holistic treatment plan where we also have in-house mental health professionals. So, the child comes in, they get assessed for medical, they get assessed for mental health, we build up their treatment plan simultaneously. We also have family therapy sessions.”
How has INARA been affected by the earthquake in Turkey and Syria?
“I’m talking to you from Turkey right now. INARA’s Turkey office is located in Gaziantep, which is very close to the epicenter of the earthquake. Our staff all live in Gaziantep. Our offices and that whole area was impacted by the earthquake. That’s where all of our beneficiaries live. That’s where all the children who we treat live. That’s where all their families live. We also had a number of staff who are over in Antakya, which was very badly hit. Luckily, thankfully, all of the staff are physically okay. But many of them are deeply, deeply traumatized.”
“You also have to remember and recognize that our staff in Turkey are all Syrian refugees themselves, barring one or two. So, it’s this very deep, intense, compound trauma.”
“When it comes to our Rapid Response Program, we don’t just focus on children. It’s that same concept of, ‘Where are the gaps? How do we find them, and how do we fill them?’ So specific to our response for Turkey and Syria, it’s really looking and trying to find the populations that other organizations are unable to reach and then we’re doing very specific targeted distributions of aid. We don’t have the generic basket that goes out. It’s very much needs-based.”
“We also need to talk about what’s happening in Syria, or not happening in Syria, because mainly you see this outpouring of support for Turkey and it’s incredible and all of these international rescue teams are coming in and all of this aid is coming in by land and sea and air. And just across the border, like the shortest distance away, people died because there weren’t enough diggers and if there weren’t diggers, there wasn’t enough fuel to run the diggers and the aid wasn’t coming in and the hospitals were destroyed.”
“We’re partnering with organizations that work in Syria. The need there is so big for everything that we’re just doing basic humanitarian assistance and partnership with organizations that are already there.”
How different has it been for you going from reporting on wars and disasters full-time, to now, running this foundation and helping full-time?
“It’s very, very different. Yes, I am running INARA right now, but it’s still a pure volunteer thing. I’m still storytelling. I’m still doing journalism, just in a different way. But yes, being here as an aid worker versus a journalist is a very different dynamic.”
“The one thing I do like about doing the aid thing is that it gives me more time to just sit with people. When we’re here as reporters, we’re out there and yes, we’re being respectful to people’s pain and sorrow, but ultimately, our job is to show the world what that is. So we want to get in, we want to get what we need to get and we want to file it and get it on air. Being here on the aid side of things allows me more time to just sit and talk to people.”
“Now my brain has this different level of intensity it’s trying to deal with because we’re not just trying to plan for tomorrow. We’re trying to plan, ‘What are we going to do in six months? What’s our long-term game plan here?’ because we’re here to stay.”
“We’re like the little NGO that just gets it done. Give us a problem, we’re gonna figure out how to solve it. You need help, we’re gonna figure out how to get it to you.”
You can make a difference for the victims of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria through Impact Your World’s campaign here.