Goodwill is shown in Angus to help support Syrian refugees

Irene Gillies (left) pictured with a donor at Brechin Cathedral.
Irene Gillies (left) pictured with a donor at Brechin Cathedral.

The desperate situation of the millions of refugees who have fled the civil war in Syria has touched the hearts of many in the UK, with national and international charities doing what they can to help.

Churches have been at the forefront of some of the aid operations in Scotland to help alleviate the plight of families and individuals who have made the dangerous journey up into the mountains on the Syria-Lebanon border, escaping the worst of the fighting but still exposing themselves to the harsh environment as well as warring factions.

Brechin Cathedral has been one such collection point and, organised by elder Irene Gillies, has just sent off its second consignment of goods to Scottish charity Edinburgh Direct Aid (EDA).

Irene organised a successful and well-supported collection at the end of last year which saw a variety of items including clothing, toiletries, tools and school equipment transported by EDA to camps around the town of Arsal.

The charity was set up in 1992 by Denis Rutovitz in response to the humanitarian crisis that was unfolding at the start of the Bosnian War.

Irene said: “Denis is a lovely man. He got a group together and collected clothing and other items.

“People gave them old bread vans and he went to Bosnia and out to the hills where other agencies wouldn’t go. He has also been to Pakistan and Syria.

“Wherever there’s a conflict Denis has been.”

It was during this conflict that Irene, a retired district nurse and midwife, began to support the charity’s work, although she quickly became far more involved than she may have anticipated.

She said: “I got involved in the 90s and I went over myself in 1994.

“I’d heard an item on the radio about the need for clothes so I gathered a whole lot of stuff which they said the Red Cross were collecting but the charity hadn’t heard about it and was not interested so I didn’t know what to do with it.

“Later I was at a nurses’ choir practice in Edinburgh and someone suggested Edinburgh Direct Aid so I called the charity and about six weeks later I was in a van on the way to Bosnia.

“My family were horrified. I’d got to the stage where they had moved on and I thought I’d try something different.

“I was the only mature lady on that trip and there were a lot of younger people who had given up their time.

“I’m glad I did it and I wish others could have that experience.

“I went over three times with Denis’ charity.”

Entering any war zone is by nature probably one of the biggest risks any civilian can take and Irene modestly admits that the EDA parties did have “a few scares”.

She continued: “One time the lorry toppled off the road over an embankment when we were in the mountains but luckily the trees caught it – two weeks later an army Jeep went over at the same place and no-one survived.

“We were shot at in the mountains too and Denis was actually shot and injured two weeks after that happened.

“On another occasion someone invited us in for coffee and there was flak going over and we were scared, although the family just took it in their stride. We were fortunate that nothing really happened to us.”

Tragedy did strike EDA in 1993, however, when a number of volunteers were driving medicines and supplies into Sarajevo with the city still under siege.

One aid worker, Christine Witcutt, from Wishaw, was killed by a sniper as she travelled into the city.

A day care centre for children with special needs was later set up in her name in Srebrenica.

The items collected at Brechin Cathedral, which came from all over Angus, were sent to Edinburgh at the weekend where they will be added to items from across Scotland and shipped to the Middle East.

Irene added: “The central part of the cathedral and down the left hand side was packed.

“We got more paracetamol, toiletries and nappies this time and people have been very generous.

“Phil Jamieson from Brechin has a furniture van and he takes the goods down to Edinburgh. But people can still donate as I’m in Edinburgh regularly.

“Donations are taken to a camp on the Lybian border with Syria which has about 3000 people.

“There’s no school so the children haven’t had any education for about three years but Denis’s aim is to feed and clothe them and keep their education going.”