The ongoing civil war in Syria has created the largest and most complex humanitarian emergency of our time. More than 80 percent of Syria’s population—or 13.5 million people—are in desperate need of aid as the brutal government of Bashar al-Assad wages an unrelenting campaign of violence against its own people and battles insurgents that include the terrorist group known as ISIS.
Alex Mahoney’s job at the U.S. Agency for International Development is to help save the lives of those stricken by this humanitarian crisis. Despite harrowing, life-threatening conditions in Syria and neighboring Iraq—where residents also face a threat from ISIS—Mahoney and his team are working with the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations to deliver food, safe drinking water, improved sanitation, emergency medicine, shelter and other relief items.
Mahoney has important skills that have been critical to effectively organizing and delivering urgently needed aid; deep knowledge of relief work and the situation on the ground; the ability to motivate his team for a heart-wrenching and dangerous operation; and steady authority with U.S. and foreign officials.
“Alex and his team are telling the people in these war-torn places, ‘The world has not forgotten you. We bring hope,’” said Carol Chan, deputy director of USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance. “In the humanitarian world, we can’t necessarily end a crisis. Alex looks at what wecan do.”
Since 2011, Mahoney has led a team of more than 360 disaster experts in the Middle East and U.S. who, with the help of the United Nations and numerous nongovernmental organizations, delivers humanitarian assistance to 4 million people in Syria and an additional 3 million people displaced by ISIS forces in Iraq.
When the operation started, Syria had not agreed to allow for U.S. assistance, and other nearby countries were not yet on board. Mahoney’s team had to work with neighboring countries to get aid into Syria with backpacks, small trucks and even donkeys.
The logistics of moving aid across borders into Syria are complicated enough, but the operational difficulties are compounded by the fact that U.S. government personnel are not permitted to enter the country.
In Aleppo, Mahoney’s team anticipated an effort by the Assad’s troops to encircle a large part of the city and deliberately cut residents off from food and other critical supplies. Mahoney worked with USAID partners to provide two months of supplies as a contingency measure to help the beleaguered population.
“If I had to explain what he does in simple terms, it’s leading the response for the largest, highest profile work the U.S. is doing around the world,” said James Fleming, the Asia, Latin America and Eurasia division director of USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. “His team helps alleviate suffering and mitigate the social and economic impact of the crisis by delivering life-saving assistance to innocent people.”
Recognizing the danger from a failing dam near Mosul in Iraq, one of Mahoney’s teams recently worked to develop a plan to help the region in case of a breach, which could inundate Mosul and parts of Baghdad with floods worse than the New Orleans disaster after Hurricane Katrina. The plan includes a warning system to help residents escape quickly if the dam fails.
“If we don’t prepare the communities, hundreds of thousands of people could die,” said Mahoney, who has done humanitarian work for 20 years, including a stint at the American Red Cross.
Gregory C. Gottlieb, an acting assistant administrator at USAID, said Mahoney is a good advocate for humanitarian principles and people in need.
“This is not an easy thing to do when you’re not the ‘big guy’ in the room. He’s sitting at the same table as guys with stars on their shoulders and he has to stick up for everyday people in the midst of these crises,” said Gottlieb.
Mahoney said his team is highly motivated by their humanitarian mission.
“Knowing we’re making a difference really matters and knowing we’re working with real heroes doing the work on the ground definitely motivates us to keep going,” Mahoney said. “The work makes you feel proud at the end of the day and demonstrates the best side of the American people and the U.S. government.”
“We’re not perfect, but it’s truly one of the bright spots of our government—our willingness to help,” he said.