Syria and Refugee Crisis

  • Every three seconds, someone flees their home because of violence, poverty or disaster. Millions of refugees – many of them children - are trying to survive on the move. Oxfam is working tirelessly to give vital support to those who’ve lost everything.

Almost ten years of war and now COVID. Syrians fear the worst.

Najwa (48), who lost her son to war and now raises his three children, stands in her partially damaged kitchen in Harasta, Eastern Ghouta/ Rural Damascus.

By Dania Kareh, Oxfam in Syria Media and Communications Officer

It was my first visit to the outskirts of Damascus since the country went into lockdown to contain the potential spread of the coronavirus. As our car moved closer to Harasta – a town to the northeast of the city – life seemed perfectly normal from afar. However, in the midst of a pandemic, things are often not what they seem. For millions around the world who’ve been trapped at home by COVID-19, it’s been a deeply unusual time. But when you’ve lived through over nine years of war, even the deadliest of diseases seems like just another detail. 

In March, when the first infection was reported, a curfew was imposed, borders were closed and travel was restricted between different parts of the country. Only essential shops were allowed to conduct business: shops selling medicine and food. By mid-May, however, many restrictions were lifted with no telling as to what might happen.  

As I walked through Harasta’s markets, I saw crowded food shops and street vendors spreading their goods on the pavements, forcing people to walk in the streets.  There was no evidence of anyone attempting to socially distance. It was as crowded as ever.

I met Najwa who lives in Harasta with her family of five. She lost her son in the war and now raises his three little children, relying solely on relatives’ handouts. “We survived the constant fighting, we survived a mortar that hit our building and destroyed our kitchen, we survived the lack of food and water, we survived the long months we had to spend under besiegement when many basic items were not available. At some point bread, sugar and tea were a dream to get. Don’t you think we will survive this virus?” she asked me. Her demeanour cynical. 

Livelihoods gravely affected

While all over the world there are coronavirus related job losses, it’s much, much worse for this war-torn nation and its people, who have been suffering for almost a decade. A crisis within a crisis. As a result of the lockdown, many people, who already live hand-to-mouth, have been unable to make a living. To add insult to injury, prices continue to dramatically increase, making it almost impossible for vulnerable people, who have no alternative resources, to survive the pandemic.

When the first case was announced in Syria, people rushed to stock up on food amid fears that authorities will impose strict measures, but not Najwa’s family.

We didn’t even bother to think about storing food since we barely afford our daily bread. We might not die of the virus, but we will definitely die of empty stomachs.

~ Najwa

A race against time

The curfew meant people only had a limited set of hours where they could purchase essential items. As a result, queues became a daily scene around the country, especially in front of bakeries. What was once readily available everywhere at an affordable price became a rarity. “Bread has become a luxury we can’t afford. You should see the congestion around distribution cars. It’s terrible,” said Najwa.

“This has pushed many women to make bread in their houses, relying on primitive ovens. I cannot afford to buy fuel for the oven. I’m using pieces of fabric and clothes instead. You have to be innovative in such a crisis,” Najwa added.

Najwa making bread in her home

A long battle ahead

In a country with an exhausted economy and decimated healthcare facilities, it’s not only about fighting the virus itself but about withstanding its aftershocks. Oxfam, in collaboration with local partner Syrian Society for Social Development (SSSD), is continuously stepping up efforts to support vulnerable families by providing soaps and cleaning materials, to help people maintain good hygiene practices. We are also increasing the supply of clean water, as well as distributing cash assistance to help people and families struggling to put food on the table.

No one really knows when the pandemic will be over, but what we do know is that it can engulf entire communities. People must get the help they need. It could literally mean life or death to many vulnerable communities in Syria.

Photos: Dania Kareh/ Oxfam

Between war and coronavirus, the double crisis for Syrians is too much to bear

Louay (45) feeding chickens he and 434 other families received from Oxfam. He lives with his family of six in Hamouriyeh/Rural Damascus. Photo: Dania Kareh/Oxfam.

By Dania Kareh, Media and Communications Officer, Oxfam in Syria

Edited by Roslyn Boatman, MENA Regional Media and Communications Advisor

“I often wonder what childhood memory my kids will take with them when they are grown? Is it the memory of piles of rubble they stumbled over so many times on their way to school? The nights they had to go to bed with empty stomachs? Or memories of our destroyed neighborhood?  All of it will be a reminder of a happy childhood they should have had, but didn’t,” says Louay, a 45-year-old father of four, close to tears.

Louay and his family live in Hamouriyeh, an agricultural town in Rural Damascus, once home to nearly 14,000 people who suffered through several years of brutal war and displacement.

“We haven’t been able to have a normal life during nine years of violence and now the coronavirus crisis is exacerbating all of the other issues we had before it came. This is too much to bear.”

Othman Akeed, an Oxfam team member, delivers a fodder bag distributed to one of the families as a part of a poultry kit distribution in Rural Damascus. Photo: Dania Kareh/Oxfam.

The difficulty of living in a double crisis

Even before coronavirus hit, four out of five Syrians lived below the poverty line. For millions, the almost decade-long war has been a time of fear, confusion and huge loss; of livelihoods and belongings, homes and family members and, for too many, the loss of dreams.

Now, the coronavirus has brought a double humanitarian crisis to Syria, bringing even greater challenges to people’s lives and pushing them into extreme measures of survival.

Louay says that to cope, his family has had to cut back on the number of meals they eat each day.

“I’ve worked as a carpenter ever since I was a boy. It was once a thriving business, but not anymore. Since the war began, and now with coronavirus, things went from bad to worse. Who would think about buying furniture now with the increased prices, when most households can't even afford their basic living expenses? People cannot afford to buy items unless they are daily essentials.

“When costs are increasing, you buy fewer things. We need to forget things like meat and fruit now.” Louay turned to farming to help make ends meet. He owns a small plot of land and by planting a part of it, he hopes that he will give his family some returns by the end of the season.

Marwan (52) lives in eastern Ghouta with his family. He and 434 other farmers have benefitted from Oxfam’s seed distribution response to help them retain their lands and livelihoods. Photos: Dania Kareh/Oxfam.

Livelihoods gripped by the pandemic

For Marwan, a farmer from Rural Damascus, the situation is no different

“Two months ago, we started to feel the impact of the coronavirus crisis. Our income was dwindling, and food prices continued to skyrocket. What we earned from last season’s harvest couldn’t cover my family’s basic expenses, even rent, and setting some money aside was something we could no longer do. Purchasing new seeds, after prices have increased dramatically, was out of the question, and so, for us, preparing for next season’s harvest was out of reach,” he told Oxfam.

Marwan lost his house during the violence and is now leasing an apartment with his family. Rent is expensive, and as prices continue to rise, his livelihood, like so many others, is at stake.

Millions of Syrians need humanitarian assistance

Oxfam has delivered chickens, tomato and aubergine seedlings, and cucumber and courgette seeds to around 2,200 people in eastern Ghouta. For Marwan, the seedlings and seeds have saved his family. “Without them, our only option would have been to sell some of our land to survive,” he says.

All over the country, the situation for Syrians is sharply deteriorating. Millions of Syrians like Marwan and Louay need humanitarian assistance for clean water, food, shelter, healthcare and more.  For hundreds of thousands of families, it is life-saving.  It is vital that families across Syria continue to receive the assistance they need.

Without access to this crucial aid, thousands more will be forced to abandon their livelihoods, bringing them closer to financial ruin. We must ensure we do everything we can to ensure Syrians are protected and supported, otherwise dignified and safe lives will fall further from their grasp.

This disease knows no borders and does not discriminate. For the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, the worst is yet to come as the coronavirus begins to establish itself and spread quickly through communities powerless to stop it, without access to water, sanitation or healthcare.

Together, we can save lives.

Life under lockdown - How Syrian refugees are protecting each other against Covid-19

"Some people thought flies could carry and transmit Covid-19 or that garlic, herbs and licorice-root tea could cure you of it… Others asked whether it was just the elderly who were at risk,” explains Aysha, a Syrian refugee at Za’atari Refugee Camp.

“There were so many rumours circulating a few weeks ago that it was hard to tell what was true and what wasn’t.”

As Covid-19 continues its relentless spread, refugees at Za’atari camp in Jordan are petrified at the thought of it hitting their community.

Photo: Adeline Guerra/Oxfam

Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees like Aysha embarked on harrowing and dangerous journeys in search of safety. Almost ten years later, the  Za’atari Refugee Camp remains home to tens of thousands of people.

As the global Covid-19 pandemic continues its indiscriminate spread, proving no country or community is immune, researchers and experts continue to sound alarm bells about the devastation that could be unleashed if the virus spreads in refugee camps - places simply not built to weather a crisis of this nature.

Over the last few weeks, in an effort to protect against Covid-19, Oxfam’s programming adjusted - in an effort to ensure refugees are equipped as best as possible, Oxfam immediately kick-started online and offline hygiene awareness campaigns, community information sessions and a sophisticated phone tree network to disseminate messages and updates to as many people as possible.

“We’ve created a number of different chat groups on various platforms to spread awareness on the virus,” Aysha says.

“We stop rumours in their tracks, answer questions, listen to concerns and steer people in the right direction about everything from hand washing and hygiene to physical distancing. We also make sure that people only share material from reliable and valid sources.”

Aysha is one of hundreds of paid volunteers who are part of Oxfam’s Cash for Work programme designed to give refugees work opportunities, training, and a source of income.

The programme recognises and builds on existing skill-sets in a number of different areas that range from environmental caretakers and cleaners, community outreach workers, recycling workers and technical engineers. It was set up to fill a long-standing gap that made it difficult for refugees in the country – especially women – to access permits to work outside the camps.

As one of 18 community engagement workers trained to mobilise, engage and raise awareness throughout the Za’atari community, Aysha’s job these days is more important than ever.

Syrian refugee youth taking part in a hygiene awareness session co-organized by Oxfam/UNICEF well before any confirmed cases reportedly reached Jordan. Photo by: Nesma Alnsour

“We anticipated it eventually hitting here even though the virus still felt like it was far away, it seemed like only a matter of time", says Mohannad Abu Siam, Oxfam’s Senior Community Engagement Officer.

“We knew we needed an outreach strategy that could reach the most people in the least amount of time and we got to work immediately,” he says.

“We were on our phones, coordinating meetings, scribbling on white boards, organising phone trees, running community information seminars – including a partnership with UNICEF to run hygiene awareness sessions at schools and youth centres throughout the camp.”

Today, over 400 volunteers are part of a sophisticated messaging network that’s estimated to reach tens of thousands of refugees every day, cascading key updates, fielding questions and methodically tracking information that helps inform outreach material.

Oxfam’s Senior Community Engagement Officer, Mohannad Abu Siam leads one of many hygiene awareness sessions with students at Za'atari Refugee Camp. Photo by: Aisha Shtiwi

The nationwide curfew measures that have transformed the entire country have also changed life at Za’atari.

“Given how widespread the misinformation was about Covid-19, it’s rewarding to know I’m helping our community. The message to stay home was hard at first but given what the camp looks like these days, I think we got through,” Aysha says.

What was once a bustling five-square-kilometre refugee camp full of lively markets and street vendors, selling everything from wedding dresses to local cheese has since been transformed to a labyrinth of deserted streets, closed-up store fronts and an unfamiliar quiet has flooded the camp - no longer are the streets full of young and old making the best of unfortunate circumstances.

While she sits in her small caravan responding to community messages coming into her phone, Aysha’s two young children are glued to online classes.

“Students are now learning from home, meaning we get an additional ten hours of electricity during the day and then another two in the evening.”

Aysha describes the challenges of adjusting to these unprecedented times. Her frustration never articulated, but discernible in her voice.

“I lost my husband to the war. I’m the one that takes care of the kids, our home and the one that works. The most important thing to me is my kid’s education. So, I’m doing my best. I’m trying to help them with their homework, but this remote-learning system simply isn’t the same”, she says.

Despite it, she deliberately makes a point to express her gratitude.

“My work means everything to me, it’s not just a livelihood opportunity or just a job, it has given me a sense of purpose, ownership and agency. It’s so gratifying to be able to help raise awareness and connect with the community in these times of need.”

When asked how she feels about the future given the pandemic and the new normal that has become life under curfew, Aysha hangs onto a similar optimism.

“I think it’ll pass. It’ll pass, and we’ll soon be back to our normal lives where Za’atari’s streets will be buzzing once again the way they used to be. For now, I’m just glad that everyone is taking it seriously. I’m glad they’re following the curfew rules and staying home. And I’m so glad to help be a part of helping spread that message.

Ultimately, its precisely that that’s going to get us through this.”

Words by: Eiman Zarrug (based on an interview conducted by Aisha Shtiwi)

**This initiative would not be possible without the generous support and funding from the European Union (EU), the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and UNICEF.

**Contents of this piece are the sole responsibility of Oxfam and don't necessarily represent views of the donors.


This disease knows no borders and does not discriminate. For the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, the worst is yet to come as the coronavirus begins to establish itself and spread quickly through communities powerless to stop it, without access to water, sanitation or healthcare.

Together, we can save lives.