Peter Kassig is a former U.S. Army Ranger who deployed to Iraq in 2007. I met this 24-year-old Indiana native while taking an entry-level Arabic course in Beirut last year. Since then, Peter has gone on to help Syrian refugees in a Lebanese hospital and recently started his own aid group called Special Emergency Response and Assistance — SERA.
SERA’s main focus right now “is providing Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Syria with medical assistance, medical supplies, and clothing for refugees, and non-perishable food as well as cooking fuel, cooking stoves,” and other supplies, according to its Facebook page. It wants to specialize in bringing in critical supplies to people in particularly dicey circumstances, which is an understatement when used to describe the refugee landscape within Syria.
There are estimates that there are over 2.5 million internally displaced persons within the country, and nearly 500,000 who have left.
The group recently finished its first week-and-half-long operation inside Syria.
With just over $2,000 raised from donations, SERA set out to supply Syrian refugees in the north of the country with blankets. But the group soon realized that was not a pressing need when compared to the increasingly dire food situation. So SERA purchased two cooking stoves, 20 45-kilogram propane fuel tanks, a ton of rice and other food, and loaded it all into a truck its members drove across the border into Syria. They delivered it directly to the people in a Syrian refugee camp, according to Kassig’s debrief on the operation.
“We learned first-hand through this process just how difficult it is to get supplies into Syria,” Kassig wrote, expressing frustration with delays. “Innocent lives were lost in the days we were in the area of Qah Refugee camp attempting to deliver aid.”
While pledging to improve their effectiveness, Kassig wrote that he was inspired by the people in the camp: “I did not meet a single man woman or child who could not muster a smile and a message of strength and hope that was nothing short of earth-shatteringly humbling.”
I asked Kassig a few questions about SERA and why he came back to the Middle East after his time in the Army.
What drew you to Beirut?
Originally, I came to Beirut on my spring break from [Butler] University last spring. I was interested in what I could learn about the Syrian crisis firsthand and what I could do to help and raise awareness about the crisis amongst my peers back at home in the United States. I was also interested in learning more about the Middle East in general from a civilian perspective. I wanted to better understand my role in the conflict in Iraq and its impact on the Middle East in general from a personal perspective and from the perspective of the Arab world. I hoped to gain insight into potential paths forward with regards to developing a new and improved relationship between my generation in both the Arab world and in the West.
What have you been doing during your time in Lebanon?
I started by travelling as much as possible throughout the country and focusing my efforts on volunteering on a small scale in a Palestinian refugee camp in South Beirut. I wanted to try and understand the full scope of the level of need and what role I could potentially have in meeting that need. I also volunteer in a hospital in Tripoli, Lebanon, offering my services as a trauma medic to Syrian refugees who have been wounded in the fighting in Syria. From these experiences I began the development of my NGO, SERA, which stands for Special Emergency Response and Assistance. I divide by time between my personal volunteer efforts, my organizations relief operations, which include the distribution of aid materials such as medical equipment and children’s clothing, as well as food and cooking materials in both Lebanon and Syria.
Tell us about your group, Special Emergency Response and Assistance. What does it do and why did you start it?
I designed Special Emergency Response and Assistance around a belief that there was a lot of room for improvement in terms of how humanitarian organizations interact with and cooperate with the populations that they serve. SERA is focused on the distribution of aid materials to populations with an acute and immediate need. We administer aid in the form of food and cooking materials, medical supplies, and clothing.
The idea is for SERA to supplement the efforts of larger organizations by focusing on delivering aid materials that can do the most good for the most people over the longest period of time possible. I believe that how and why we do what we do is equal in importance to what we do. It’s about showing people that we care, that someone is looking out for those who might be overlooked or who have slipped through the cracks in the system for whatever reason.
I started SERA because I felt that we could fill a niche as an organization that had not been filled. There are a lot of other wonderful organizations out there but we feel that by working directly with the people who are in need at a grassroots level allows for us to establish an invaluable personal relationship that not only allows us to effectively distribute material goods but also allows for an opportunity for an increased level of cooperation and an exchange of ideas between people from diverse backgrounds and experiences and that this enhances our ability to accurately meet needs. The personal connection is key.
Does SERA team up with other organizations to help Syrian refugees?
Yes. Part of our operational philosophy and founding principles is that there should be no wasted energy or redundancy in the operations we carry out. I believe in working as closely with the population in need as is possible. This allows for us to maximize our transparency and effectiveness of our operations based on the respect for and appreciation of the fact that people have the best understanding of what they need and many times, simply lack the means to carry out the ideas that they already have.
What would you like to see SERA doing that it isn’t already and what do you need to make that happen?
I would like to see SERA responding to a variety of needs throughout the region in as short amount of time as possible. Our aim is to be a rapid response organization that can help to fill gaps in supply chains, or assist those who have fallen through the cracks. I would love it for SERA to be able to impact conditions on the ground in places like Lebanon and Syria in a more comprehensive and efficient way.
To make this a reality we need to make sure we maintain our focus and our drive internally, we also need to make sure we maintain an operational tempo that allows for us to have good visibility on the conditions that the populations we serve are facing. Of course we definitely need more funding. Right now we have very little and so our operational scope is very small. We have the ability to serve much larger populations in a really effective way but we need a stronger budget to be able to conduct these sorts of operations.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
That is a good question. I believe that if you are passionate about something and you put the necessary effort into making it work (such as SERA) that it is ultimately up to you how long you can keep it viable. The work speaks for itself to some extent I think. I certainly plan on continuing to try and serve those who are in need for as long as I live.
The truth is sometimes I really think I would like to do something else, but at the end of the day this work is really the only thing that I have found that gives my life both meaning and direction. In five years, I certainly hope to have seen SERA grow into an international relief organization capable of helping hundreds of thousands of people around the world. I would also like to be able to say that I was able to give something back to everyone who helped along the way.
This work is important for the message that it sends to people back home, that one of the best aspects of the American way of life is our ability to come together in the face of adversity and to stand beside those who might need a helping hand. In five years, if I can look back on all of this and say that our organization is able to truly help people, that I was able so share a little bit of hope and that I never stopped learning then I will know this all stood for something.
If people want to help SERA, what’s something they can do?
We can accept donations at a temporary account at:
Epworth United Methodist Church
6450 Allisonville Road
Indianapolis, IN 46220
Checks should be made out to Epworth United Methodist Church. In the memo line, people can put either “SERA Relief Effort” or “Peter Kassig Relief Effort.”
It’s not a religious thing, but my hometown neighborhood set this up for us in the meantime as a transparent and monitored donation system. SERA is a fully incorporated NGO, but our 501c3 [federal non-profit tax status] is still pending.