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.

Syrians are going hungry. Help Now

Worn down by a decade of conflict and now soaring food prices, Syrian families are in the grip of hunger.

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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.