North Africa, West Asia

Where are the people of Syria?

To mark the fourth anniversary of the uprising, the people of Syria tell their stories. 

Ben Finch
19 March 2015

Four years ago today protestors across Syria staged a 'Day of Rage' as the agitation of the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East.

In a country that knew little about political dissent the protests were small, numbering from a few hundred to a few thousand. The reaction of Bashar al-Assad’s government was to blame events on forces hostile to Syria, to lock up activists, and to shoot to kill.

Now there are over 210,000 people dead, half of whom are civilians, over 30,000 detained or disappeared, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and 11.4 million refugees, half of which are children, according to the UN.

$5 billion of funding was directed to the Syrian crisis in 2014, only 58 per cent of what was needed. 

Khawla’s son ran to the farmhouse to tell her one of their cows was having difficulty calving. Her husband, Ahmed, was sick so she left him and her baby daughter, Aya, and went to the field. Bombs fell, her house was flattened and Ahmed and Aya were dead.

With no husband, no income and a family to look after, Khawla’s father decided she had to remarry and leave her children with her brother-in-law. “I lost my mother when I was just four months old,” she says. “I never recovered from my mother's loss and I didn’t want my children to have to live through the same. I didn’t want to give my children to anyone. I don’t need to get married, I don’t need a man.” 

She managed to find work in Daraa and rented a small apartment. She says she was sustaining a basic but good, life. “Then my brother-in-law told me it wasn’t a good idea, that I should get married and he would take the children. My father said it was normal. They were leaving me with no choice.”

Khawla decided to take her children to the border instead and now lives in Azraq refugee camp, and as a result has been cut off by her family. To earn a bit of money she volunteers through CARE by cleaning the offices, toilets and kitchens. “I have been volunteering since the first day I came here,” Khawla says. “I can’t imagine doing anything else now. I feel like I belong here. But I dream that Syria will be at peace and we can go back. It’s not easy to live in a place that’s not home.”

48 per cent of Syrian school age boys and 38 per cent of girls do not go to school in Jordan. The situation is worst in Mafraq, where 90 per cent of teenagers are not in education. 

Firas fled Daraa, a city in the south of Syria, after his brother was killed. “I would defend my home to my last drop of blood,” he says. “We left for my three children, and my house is not as expensive as the martyrs I have lost. They assassinated my brother in the heart of my house in front of his wife and children.” Firas’ brother had been working with Assad’s regime.

When they arrived in Jordan Firas started working illegally as a storeman in Zarqa’s tax free zone. Refugees are not allowed to work, but many have to in order to survive. He was caught and jailed for five days, but unlike most, he wasn’t immediately deported back to Syria, and was sent to Azraq refugee camp with his family.

However, the family still faced a big problem. Firas’ wife, Aisha, had given birth to Shifa while in Jordan. Shifa is stateless; there is no way to register her birth with Syrian officials and she cannot be registered in Jordan, and without papers, Shifa is not eligible for aid. There are no nappies available for her, no blankets, and she is not being fed properly.

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Shifa, held by her sister, Rawan, with her other sister, Manal, in the background. Mary-Kate MacIsaac/CARE. All rights reserved.

“We can’t find the milk that is suitable for her,” Aisha says. “What should I do? Should I leave her to die?” An aid worker explains: “The milk is available but Shifa isn’t registered, so she can’t have it yet.” Unicef also encourage mothers to breastfeed, rather than rely on formula.

Firas has tried to register Shifa every day to no avail. If and when he finally manages to, it will take another fifteen to twenty days for the papers to arrive and for her to get the help she needs.

The UK has taken 4,435 Syrian refugees. Germany has resettled 72,680.

Adel dreams of designing computer games. Before he left Syria he had just entered his final year of school, and has managed to complete his exams in Amman, but he can’t get into university.

He says: “I always wanted to study computer engineering. But I can’t because universities in Jordan didn’t accept my certificate from the Syrian Coalition. So I applied for four Jordanian qualifications, but I’m not sure I’ll get a good grade now. I’ll have to go to college but the costs are too high.”

There is one school that would accept Adel’s qualifications, al-Quds, but “the cost is the main problem, I can’t afford it. Are there scholarships that cover the cost for Syrian refugees?” he asks.

In order for the family to be able to live in Amman, Adel’s brother works illegally selling clothes on the streets. He provides for eight people, his mother’s family and his own who live in the same flat, and he rarely earns more than 200 JD in a month, equivalent to about € 200. They have received a one off payment of 130 JD and $16 per person per month from the World Food Programme. After stopping payments in December due to a lack of funds the WFP was forced to halve the amount it hands out. If Adel’s brother is caught he will probably be deported, leaving his family with no income.

Because of their situation the family think they need to leave Jordan. Adel has been to the German and Swedish embassies to ask about resettlement, with no luck. Adel says: “We really need to emigrate. My father is thinking of it a lot and has started to talk about taking the boat across the Mediterranean. It’s very dangerous, people are drowning but we feel like we may have no choice.”

UNHCR has only received 8 per cent of the funding it needs for 2015.

One way for refugees to earn an income is to volunteer for an NGO. Randa cleans CARE’s offices in east Amman. She was a kindergarten teacher in Syria and feels ashamed of being a cleaner and has asked not to work in front of the refugees who attend the centre.

Since she left the razed suburb of Ghuda in Damascus, Randa has been the sole provider for her two primary school-age children. She is divorced and her first husband, though also in Amman with her two other sons, does not provide any support. She has not seen her second husband for three years. He is one of the disappeared.

“I used to receive monthly cash assistance from the Jordanian Red Crescent,” Randa says. “But then they told me it would be stopped. I used to receive food vouchers but this also stopped so I approached CARE and asked for financial assistance. They helped me with one-time cash assistance; I told them I don’t need a one off payment but regular assistance. So, as you see, I am now working for CARE, but some day this will also stop.” The maximum amount of time a refugee can volunteer for one organisation is three months.

Sometimes Randa has no money to buy food, let alone cover the rent. She has written to UNHCR to see if her food vouchers will be restarted but has not had a response. “Can I tell you something?” she asks. “Mothers have their children to look after, and if there is no husband and they can’t work then there is nothing to protect them from the high cost of living in Jordan. How are they to provide a future for their children if they can’t pay the rent?”

Syrian refugees are treated as non-insured Jordanians by the healthcare system. They must pay for their own care.

At the start of the war, Marwa’s eldest son was called up to join the Syrian army. Rather than fight, the sixteen-year-old fled Damascus, then Marwa’s husband disappeared. After two months with no news she followed her son with her four other children and $2,000 in her pocket.

Every three weeks Marwa has to buy medication for her seven-year-old son, Ibrahim. At three months he contracted meningitis, which left him with severe learning difficulties. He can’t talk, needs to wear nappies and can be violent. The medication to calm him down and reduce his outbursts costs 130 JD.

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Ibrahim with Bara’ Muayad Attily, one of CARE’s case managers. Mary-Kate MacIsaac/CARE. All rights reserved.

Marwa’s eldest works 13 hours a day illegally; she receives a small amount from the WFP and even though they only eat plain rice and peas every day, with meat once a month, they have run out of money. Before the value of the food vouchers was cut she had been able to buy extra food to sell at a small profit so she could afford the medication. “The medicine really helps, we see a lot of improvement in Ibrahim when he takes it,” she says. “When it stops he can’t sleep, he destroys the house and he hits his brothers and sister. But the last time we went I couldn’t afford it.” So far the family haven’t received any financial assistance. The waiting list for a needs assessment at CARE is over seven months long.

“I just wish they would give me assistance for my son,” Marwa says. “I have noticed that no one will help me but Allah. I hope I can do this by myself.” Marwa has had to borrow money from her neighbours. She says that her neighbours always expect something in return for their help, and use Ibrahim as a bargaining chip. “They control me through my son, they exploit me through him. They always ask me to do something for them.”

Syrian refugees need to spend an average of 107 JD more than they bring in per month. 33 per cent of female-headed households are in debt to their landlords, 9 per cent are at risk of eviction.

Every one of Abid and Khalsa’s seven children has a cough, because their house is damp and they are afraid to play outside, because in Aleppo children weren’t allowed to in case a shell hit.

Their escape was traumatic. The army shelled their car while they were travelling with their neighbours and they had to bury the dead by the side of the road, one man and one child, and carry on.

“We don’t have the money for our needs,” Abid says. “We take 117 JD in vouchers per month for nine people. We can hardly manage…We have to borrow money from our neighbours to buy nappies.”

The family are in debt to their neighbours and are months behind on their rent. “And the house is so cold,” Khalsa says. “During the snowstorm we borrowed a heater from our neighbour, but they had to loan us money to pay for the gas. We only have these clothes we are wearing. I can only afford to change the nappies once a day.” They have only received a one-off cash assistance of 150 JD from a local charity and have been waiting nine months to have their needs assessed.

It has been three years since any of the children were in school. There is no space for them in the overcrowded system. Abid says: “Khadeja is always telling me that she wants to go to school. I’ve been visiting the local schools for two months now and there is nothing. They tell me to wait and come the next day, week and month without anything ever happening.” Khadeja had been in the fifth grade. 

The stress of living with such a small income is taking its toll. Abid and Khalsa both look 15 years older than 39. There are rumours that the food vouchers will be stopped again, leaving them with no money. Abid says: “We hope its just rumours, if it happens then we will only have Allah to help. All we need is help.” 

Abid’s daughter, Khadeja, with her brother Mohammed. Mary-Kate MacIsaac/CARE. All rights reserved.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for refugees to flee Syria. Jordan has closed its borders twice in the past six months. Refugees now need to apply for a visa to enter Lebanon.

“When the shells exploded, when the aeroplanes attacked, the death was random. Those who were innocent and those who weren’t were killed,” Mohammed says. 

It took his family seventeen days of travelling to reach safety from Aleppo. The final stretch to the border took 24 hours and cost them $500. “But when it is safe we will go back because nothing compares to Syria, even if we return with only the clothes on our back we wouldn’t care. Nothing can replace home.”

Before the war Mohammed had been a lorry driver. Now he volunteers in Azraq camp’s hospital canteen to support his wife and nine children. They have two shelters to house the family. His two youngest are in kindergarten, but, at the time of the interview, the new term hadn’t started for the others.

The shelter is split into a kitchen, a living area and a bedroom. Every room is slept in. Om-Hussein, Mohammed’s wife, says that all she needs is an extra pan so she can cook kabsa, the children’s favourite.

Mohammed’s fifteen-year-old son, Hussein, has a leg full of shrapnel and is receiving treatment in the camp. The children are still getting over the trauma of life in Aleppo. When they first arrived at the camp they would scream if a plane flew overhead, crying for the lights to be turned off in case they were targeted. “That was common in Syria, if there were lights on then the house would be bombed,” Mohammed says.

Mohammed is an eternal optimist, and it is an attitude his family share. The children don’t cry at the sound of a plane anymore. Maybe they are just happy to be alive, but Mohammed has been travelling since his youth: “I saw people in much harder circumstances,” he says. “I’ve learnt that what matters most is our lives and safety. Anything other than this we make ourselves.”

 

Some names have been changed in order to protect identities.

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