The Islamic month of Ramadan is a month marked by fasting in daylight hours and by general acts of ‘goodwill’ to earn ‘sevap’ or merit with Allah. It is because of this effort to earn ‘sevap’ by doing good works, especially in this month of Ramadan, that Muslims, in general, will be, could be, or should be, engaged in their own acts of goodwill.

In order that there is no confusion with this Islamic month of Ramadan, and with our on-going distribution, which rather than being a futile effort to garner favour with Almighty God, is a demonstration, of the Love of God, that we take a short hiatus in our distribution.

Our monthly distribution is done as we visit each encampment once, spread over  the last two Monday’s of the month. When we miss a month, the people will need to wait until the end of the following month before we vis it again.

Undoubtedly, in the course of the two months since we were there, some people will have moved, some new people will have come, some encampments will have been abandoned, others established, some will shrink and others will expand. We have no idea, beforehand, what we will encounter.

Therefore, we knew in advance that this recommencement of distribution would be somewhat challenging.

Additionally, J., our American co-worker and key individual in this ministry has returned to his homeland. Thus, we are recommencing this ministry without the one individual with the longest history and deepest knowledge of the work, people and places.

Now, if that isn’t enough to ensure that it would be an interesting and, er… stimulating time, we have also changed our computer programme that we use to record and administer the distribution of aid.

Anyone who has had experience with changing to a different computer programme knows how fraught such a project is, with such a change being liberally laced with unexpected, inexplicable and intransigent problems.

Sensible people who plan well, would never schedule a combination of tasks like this to transpire simultaneously. It is a recipe – with an almost certain outcome….

The old computer programme had worked adequately for J., especially as he had worked with it from the beginning, he was fully au fait with the programme, and knew where to go, what do and how to do it.

But I am not so experienced – it is more a mysterious ‘black box’ for me – not knowing where to go, what it does or how it works.

But there was a more basic and fundamental problem for me – the screen of the laptop that we used in the field was, um… of the more ‘affordable’ variety and hence sported a TFT screen. One aspect of a TFT screen is, in bright sunlight, it is rendered virtually unreadable.

Oh, and while I am complaining, the text was so small that my ageing eyes found it virtually impossible to read even when I could actually see the screen.

Then there is one more serious consideration. The database was just that, a very simple, basic database. In preparation for a coming distribution, I understand that J. would go through the database manually, counting the people to establish the number of bags we would need. He would calculate the total for each encampment and then, manually, select the encampments we would visit with a goal of evenly dividing the task into two equal days-worth of distribution.

When questions were raised as to how many nappies, how much milk or baby formula or sanitary napkins, again, this was all a manual task, pouring over the data and doing date math and making lists.

All very labour intensive.

Interestingly, these are all tasks that a database should be handling automatically – repetitive, math based calculations with summary totals – this is the bread and butter of what a database does.

So, in an attempt to solve the above perceived problems and in spite of common sense which dictates that you do not re-start a work (especially a re-start that is known before hand to be somewhat fraught with surprises), I accepted the inevitable complications and compounded the situation by introducing a new computer programme.

Where conventional wisdom is to do things in series, I, rather naturally it seems, pressed ahead to do them concurrently.

To configure the database to do that which we require involves the creating ‘scripts’.  A ‘script’ is simply an assemblage of instructions to the database in a special database language and in a format that the database understands.  These scripts therefore  direct and control the database to do, well, what you want it to do. This includes, but is not limited to, date math, summary totals and really, whatever else you need. A script is written once, and then, either automatically or at the push of a button, it provides the results of the script whenever you want it. Any number of scripts can be crafted to meet various real-world needs.   It also means that someone who does not know what scripting is, let alone how to do it, can easily get the results they want from a database.  We all know how to push a button.

Now, to put things in their proper context – you might say ‘to make matters worse’ – let me confess up front and declare that I am not a database ‘scripter’, that is one who is qualified or experienced and hence able to write various ‘scripts’ within the confines of the scripting language and limited by the scripting syntax.  What I bring to the party is the basic knowledge that scripts exist and are powerful.  To this I add a willing heart, tenaous approach, dogged determination and a willingness to learn and read as required.

Now, writing a script is not computer programming, but it is a distant cousin, twice removed. It is similar in that you must use its’ own peculiar language and if you miss a punctuation mark or reference the wrong entity, it will not work – or worse yet, it may work but produce inaccurate results. Straight out failure is preferred over questionable success.

As the Elder of the church had already been gifted an iPad, I decided to use a database for the iPad. The pluses of the choice to use an iPad are: it uses a touch interface, has a long battery life, is light and easy to carry, is reasonably robust and well built and has a good screen to use in the field. And as it has already been gifted, the cost of the hardware is zero.

If the ‘gifter’ is reading this, let me say a massive ‘thank you’ and ‘God bless you’.

To build this database, my chosen programme was FileMaker Pro. This is a serious, full featured, and, I dare say, expensive database programme.

Thankfully, they have a one month free trial, so you can actually use the full-bodied programme to see if it is possible to achieve that which you desire with it, BEFORE you purchase. In the free month trial period, I was able to cobble together a version of what we could use. Hence, there was sufficient confidence that, with work, I would be able to produce a useable tool for the task with this programme. And so, after much to-ing and fro-ing, the bullet was bitten and the programme purchased.

In some of the reading I did concerning database design and app design, they talked of building your first database/app and then expunging it from the face of the earth and doing it all over again from scratch.

That advice, it seems, is born out of practical experience.

Mind you, I didn’t take that advice. I hasten to add, however, that if I had the time, I would definitely record what I learned from the final design, then delete it all and rebuild it from the first table upwards. But, alas, I don’t have the time, and as it does work, albeit not elegantly nor efficiently – I will continue to refine, fix, re-write and otherwise use it. Ultimately, it is a small database, and not very demanding – even poorly written scripts should perform well enough.

As I worked to write the scripts to manipulate the data to get the results we require, I learned through trial and error (much error) what worked and what didn’t. And so, within the time frame with which we were working, whilst not elegant, nor from a scripting perspective very clean and efficient, the end result does work. It performs the majority of the ‘donkey work’ and ‘manual calculations’ we require and now are all accomplished either automatically or by the push of various buttons.

One of the initial problems, and I’m not sure we ever really mastered it, was the data conversion. We had all the data in the old system and we needed to bring that across to the new. We also had to break out various data bits which were lumped together in one field previously, and put them into separate fields in the new. All these are standard data conversion tasks and challenges.

But in the process, it is always possible to mangle and/or lose some data. Mitigating this, was the fact that at the end of the day, it is a small database and all we were really concerned about were the ‘active’ records.

In the past, I had been involved, in a minor capacity, in some data-conversion projects where the decision had been made to leave the historic data alone and only convert the ‘active’ data.

At the time I wondered why, reasoning that, ‘surely it would be bether to have it all ready and available’.

Now I understand.

The labour required to bring records ‘you may never access’ was greater than the potential benefit. Better to ‘update’ the old records on a individual basis as and when needed.

I built the database, built the various scripts to calculate the total number of people in a household, the number of bags of food stuffs that would be allocated, the number of nappies, and ‘if’ we are currently distributing milk or formula, the amount we would be providing. There was a script to make summary totals of all live encampments with a tool to aid distribution planning. So far so good.

I even built a search function that was intended to facilitate the searching for someone who was once ‘active’ on the system and is now ‘dormant’ and so the old record (in the old format) should still be there……

Well, come the day, delayed by a week by political events in the country,  and in the time available, the database was as ready as I could make it. I wouldn’t call it a finished, ‘ready’ programme, after all, I spent the evening before the morning after, creating a script which would provide a running total of bags distributed against the number we loaded on the lorry. This would be helpful as we grappled with the ‘surprises’ we would encounter as we went about the distribution and so, we would be able to know how many bags remain, without attempting to count a mountain of white bags in the back of the lorry.

I suggest, with a certain generosity of heart, that this first version of the database may be what is described as a ‘beta’ – I daresay those in the know might prefer to call it an ‘alpha’. Enough to say, we were using it ‘ready or not’ and knowing that in the using, any problems, conflicts, deficiencies, and lacks would only then become apparent.

And so, on the day, we loaded the lorry with 200 bags of food stuffs that we had prepared the day before. We also loaded the van with nappies and sanitary pads and then we headed out…

At the first encampment, we knew the majority of the Syrian refugee field workers had moved to a new encampment and hence the majority of names that we would call, well, the people wouldn’t be there. The plan was to change their location to their new encampment – they are still ‘active’ as far as distribution goes, but now at a new locale.

That proved to be far more time consuming and not as intuitive as I had hoped.

Once we distributed what we could there, we headed off to where the former occupants of this encampment have relocated to. Their new locale is in a barren field some fourteen or fifteen kilometres away.

On arrival, we parked up on the narrow, asphalt, road, and I positioned the van with the back towards the back of the lorry so we would have one point of distribution – the bags of food stuffs from the lorry, and nappies and sanitary napkins from the van.  T. with the iPad, was sitting in the shade of a large tree between the two vehicles.

Now there is a reason T. was running the iPad.

Fundamentally, I am challenged in two practical areas: my hearing is impaired to a degree (so I can not clearly hear what people are saying) and I can not spell (regardless of the language).

Consequently, when someone says their Arabic name, obviously in Arabic, I am unable to clearly hear what was said and even if I had heard it clearly, I remain at a loss as to know how to spell their name… I am not your first choice to be doing this particular task.

To compound this tension, a database is, by nature, well, pedantic. They are extremely literal, and can not see the similarity between ‘Ahmed’ and ‘Ahmet’, nor the difference in a typing error between ‘el Hac’ and ‘elHac’.

To do this task well, you need reasonably good hearing and especially the ability to convert what you hear into consistent and reasonably accurate spelling.

As we went through the distribution, we needed to search for individuals on the database. Using the tool created just for that purpose… well… for whatever reason both then and throughout the day, it steadfastly refused to return a viable response…

The searching and failing to find results was compounded by the verbal accompaniment of the elder’s wife joined by the lorry driver adamantly declaring that we have given to them in the past and they are on the system. We searched in vain….and, at the end of the day, if we can not find them on the system, then, functionally at least, they are not on the system – even if they were on the old system.

My plan all along, especially on this of all days, when we knew there would be problems, was simply to ‘re-register’ the people if we couldn’t find them. They may be registered twice, but we only distribute to ‘active’ records, so a dormant record will receive nothing and a record we can not find, well, by definition, they will receive nothing, as we can not find the record to provide anything – no functional danger of double distribution…. Later, without the crowd, without the searing sun, in a cool room, we can search for and resolve any duplicates that may be thusly created.

My goal was to enable the day’s work to progress at a reasonable rate….

From that encampment we went to another, only to be told as we pulled up and stopped, that we no longer distribute to Syrian refugees accommodated in buildings… so although my database said there were people there for distribution, there weren’t. The guiding protocols having now been more clearly explained, we departed.

Just on from there, there was another encampment. This encampment sometimes is and sometimes isn’t. The last time we did food stuffs distribution it wasn’t there, just a barren patch with the marks and signs where once shelters had been erected. But, now, here it was again, reconstituted. But, as it is newly reconstituted, it is not reflected in the database as a ‘active’ encampment, and our loading of the lorry was done without this particular encampment in mind nor on the list ( practically,  no provision for them was loaded on the lorry).

There was some rather, er… active discussion as to validity of the encampment – well it is a valid encampment, it just has not been recorded as yet…. So, it tops the list for next week, to record and distribute – we, therefore, summarily left without distributing anything at this time.

So, we went on from there to the next encampment.

On our arrival it was crystal clear that the majority had left. Of the dozen or so tents that were previously there, only four were standing and one of them was being used to dry some herb or plant of some kind. Many of the former tents had been collapsed and were lying where they had once stood.

We disembarked, but there was no one to be seen. As we remained standing under the unforgiving Antakyian sun, people, slowly, began to appear…. And so we, again, updated the database of those who had moved on (now dormant) and distributed the goods to those there…..

But as time passed, more people drifted in.… And one family, who were on the database, and a large family it was too, took their allotment and then trudged off, carting their bags, away from that encampment and towards the nearby encampment which we were intending to visit next…

Hmm…

Finishing up there, and moving on to the next locale, there seemed to be a greater degree of confusion – there were more people milling about than usual and things became a bit more chaotic.

When it came time to leave… a dispute broke out… we were told that there is a family who we never give anything to and it is ‘unfair’. Mind you we do not just drop goods, we only provide material if someone is registered, that is to say, we have seen their ID papers, the living souls so detailed and often where they call home in the encampment and only after they are duly recorded on the computer, do we then distribute aid. From thereafter, if there is a bonafide family member present, we will entrust the goods to that family member. If someone has not received anything in the last few visits it is either because they are not registered, or not present when we come – we do not automatically leave goods behind on people’s verbal assurance that ‘they are still there’

Anyway, it was in the course of this rather robust discussion that it was brought to our attention that we had just given two allotments of food stuffs to a single family (unfair, UNFAIR! they vigorously declare). I don’t know how they managed to get two allotments, but the family who had managed to do this defended their actions by saying the extra was for relatives living in nearby town of Kirikhan (not for themselves, not cheating, not unfair, but for other Syrian refugees also in need)…..

Well, that is a definite no-no. We have protocols in place and this was in clear breach. We provide assistance, on the basis of IDs and verifying the individuals and we limit what we do to those living under canvas as being the most needy of the masses of those in need.

In any event, the question of what were we to do with this ‘double portion’ was bandied about for a bit and then it came to me. For me it was clear, for you see, I’m a bit of a Pharisee at heart. We have protocols in place, we have principles that guide what we do, we strive, above all, to do things right in the eyes of God and the eyes of man. This was not an extraordinary situation calling for mercy or grace or compassion. Therefore, I said, either he returns the extra he received, or we will mark his name and there will be no future distribution to him and his family.

The extra bags were returned.

Then the missing family arrived, the ones that we, reportedly, had never given to as they were never there and it was ‘unfair’, well, they came and were duly processed and given their allotment.

Whilst this protracted, shall we call it ‘energetic discussion’ was going on, and under the sweltering summer sun, and at 13:00, my blood sugar was rapidly diminishing. As a diabetic, I find I can manage my condition well between taking my tablets on time in a consistent manner, daily exercise, and oh, yes, eating on time. I was now officially late – not by choice but by weight of events. However, late is late whatever the cause, and my blood sugar was dropping.

I was aware the meal was late, not by the clock, but by my body. My energy levels were dropping, activity levels were diminishing, mental acuity was impaired…. And still the, er… discussions continued…

Yes, I ate something in the van, I generally carry something with me for just such contingencies…however, I tend to resort to it when I must, and on this day, this too, was a bit on the late side.

We, finally, tore ourselves away and departed that locale and on to our next destination which was our designated lunch break. We drove past an encampment that we were not prepared to stop at this week, they are on the list for the following week. There was a nice, large, solitary, shade tree by the road, suitable for our impromptu picnic, but I deemed it too close to the encampment just passed, and I didn’t want to have to fend off their queries and entreaties, so I drove on to another, large, solitary tree further down the road. These shade trees are kind of rare, so their location sticks out in my mind.

After a revitalising lunch, blood sugars rising to a more happy level (maybe too high, I do not know), we carried on to the next encampment.

This was planned to be the penultimate encampment.

On arrival we saw that once again, things had changed and there were new people there. The on-going problem of people who ‘were registered somewhere previously’, but we couldn’t find them, continued. Again, the best answer, well, actually, the only answer, was to re-register them.

A quick head count was done of the new people there and using the new database tool, we knew how many bags remained on the lorry and, consequently, it was decided that this would now be our last locale of the day, there not being enough to go to the last place. The former ‘last place’ now heads the list for the following Monday and that list is getting longer and longer…

So, at the conclusion of this first day of the recommenced distribution, the intended number of bags of food stuffs were distributed. Maybe not according to the original plan, but to bonafide recipients. New encampments were identified and our plan for the next week was refined…. And next week is proving to be a very intense day with thirty additional bags added to the planned 212 bags that were currently listed for distribution.

We have agreed to limit a days distribution to 250 bags of food-stuffs. This upper limit is 50 more than what we set out with today and with many we were ending the day in the late afternoon. The intent is, if we have a need for more than 250 bags, to then shift to going out three Monday’s in the place of two and spreading the load that way.

Setting an upper limit is encouraging as there is a limit to how many bags we can prepare the night before distribution, how many we, with limited numbers, can load on the lorry on the morning after, and how many we can physically process in our distribution in the fields.

I do not know about others, but this no-longer young man, has some physical limits to what he can do.

Oh, and the scripts that didn’t work as planned need to be revisited. The data needs to be checked for any inconsistencies and the forms need to be tweaked according to wishes of the one using the app. A revision of the database/app is required.

It was a ‘good’ first day – not without its own little dramas and excitement, but, all in, a good first day.

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