The brutal four-year civil war in Syria has claimed more than 220,000 lives, displaced 7.6 million people from their homes, forced 4.2 million others to flee to neighboring countries and created a massive humanitarian crisis.
As team leader for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Syrian food assistance program, Rob Thayer has worked closely with the United Nations World Food Programme and international and local partners to provide food assistance to millions of hungry and desperate people—those caught in the dangerous cross-fire within Syria and those now living as refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.
“Rob has been the go-to guy on Syria since the beginning,” said Dina Esposito, director of USAID’s Office of Food for Peace. “When I think about Rob and his team, I think about the life-saving assistance that has been provided to some four million people.”
The United States is the largest food donor in the Syrian crisis, having provided more than $1.1 billion in food assistance so far, including monthly household food rations, supplementary nutritional food for children, more than 90,000 tons of flour for its innovative flour-to-bakeries program, and food voucher debit cards for refugees who have fled to neighboring countries.
Delivery of the aid has not been easy, with the U.S. relying on international and Syrian non-governmental organizations to distribute food inside the country, a task complicated by the continuous fighting and upheaval from the civil war and the rise of the extremist rebel group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.
There have been attacks on the trucks and workers delivering food, border crossings that are open one minute and closed the next, roads blocked due to fighting, hundreds of checkpoints, a shortage of fuel for bakeries, and a multitude of factions that sometimes impede the aid and its distribution.
Colleagues said Thayer worked to get the food assistance program up and running under difficult circumstances. He now stays in daily contact with the field teams, international organizations and trusted partners inside Syria to understand what is happening on the ground so that adjustments can be made.
“Rob has anchored the emergency food response on behalf of USAID and the U.S. government,” said Matt Nims, deputy director of USAID’s Office of Food for Peace.
Jon Brause, director of the of the UN World Food Programme’s U.S. Liaison Office, said Thayer understands the dynamics of the displaced population inside Syria as well as the daunting security challenges.
“He has been involved in many big disasters. His first goal is the humanitarian response, and while he understands the politics involved in each situation, his goal is to get assistance to those in need,” said Brause. “He is someone who you would want with you in the trenches.”
One highly innovative effort initiated by Thayer is the flour-to-bakeries program through which the U.S. government supports flour and yeast purchases from neighboring countries, and enlists humanitarian partner organizations to deliver these bread ingredients to bakeries across Syria. Bread is a pillar of Syrian society, not only for dietary purposes, but also for social and cultural reasons, and is ubiquitous at mealtime.
Under Thayer’s direction, a successful 2013 pilot in a particularly hard-to-reach area of Syria gave rise to an expanded project that currently delivers 550 tons of flour and yeast weekly to more than 100 bakeries. It helps keep bakeries open and bakers employed, and provides 300 million daily bread rations to Syrian families.
“The flour assistance program was unique and Rob figured out how to make it work,” said Nims. “The program has filled a very important need.”
Thayer said the flour-to-bakeries program supplements other forms of food assistance and helps expand the reach of U.S. aid. “Because we are serving bakeries, which bake bread daily, we are serving entire communities on a large scale rather than just households,” said Thayer.
The son of a Foreign Service Officer, Thayer spent 12 years working overseas and said he has found that even in difficult political situations or times of war, such as in Syria, there is often common ground when it comes to providing assistance to a suffering population.
“There are exceptions, but for the most part, everybody understands the principle that people need food and humanitarian assistance,” said Thayer. “Humanitarian assistance is a great opportunity for our government to show good will and to experience good will.”