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.

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.

Syria crisis anniversary: Stitching lives back together

This coming Sunday (March 15th) marks nine years since the start of the conflict in Syria. The crisis continues to cause tremendous human suffering to people both inside and outside the country.

Since the conflict started in March 2011, hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost. Homes and schools have been destroyed, neighbourhoods lack clean running water and sanitation, and people lack the means of making a living to feed their families. 2 in 3 Syrians – over 13 million women, men, and children – continue to find themselves in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.

Asmaa, 40, a dressmaker, sits in her little shop in AlBwaidieh, a rural area in Deir Ez-Zor, Syria. Credit: Dania Kareh/Oxfam

No one ever thinks it'll happen to them...

Our work in Syria includes providing people with support to help make a living and grow food, such as the distribution of seeds and assets to farmers, cash for work programmes, and supporting women and men to gain new skills through training.

One of those who has benefited from our help is 40-year-old Asmaa, a dressmaker from al-Bwaidieh, in Syria rural Deir Ez-Zor district.

Asmaa said: “Before the war, I was known to friends, family and customers as an incredibly talented dressmaker. I built myself a career to the beat of the needle and the bob, and my designs made for an excellent source of income for me and my family. I even had my own shop where I would work the day away.

“But all that changed seven years ago when my town of al-Bwaidieh, in rural Deir ez-Zor, was sucked into the violence. We had to leave and couldn’t carry much. I hid my most prized possession, my sewing machine, beneath a bundle of hay and even said a little prayer that it might be there when I returned – if I returned that is.

“We headed for Qamishli in north eastern Syria for safety. There, we lived through what would become our worst days. For nearly four years we worked random jobs, none of which were sustainable or provided enough to keep us from having to rely on others to make it through this war. It was a struggle; a real struggle for me, my brother and my mother.

“Oh, how I wished I had my sewing tools on me so that my family and I could live in dignity. You see, no one ever thinks it’ll happen to them until it does. Humans, we think we are immune… to war, violence, displacement. But it could happen to anyone, and it happened to us.”

Now it's all about survival

Asmaa continued: “Our entire lives have changed; taken a turn for the worse. We spent all our savings, sold our jewellery and whatever else we had just to survive.

“We returned to our home only recently, and the first thing I did was look for my sewing machine. And there she was, waiting for me in the same place I had left her.

“Strange how sometimes the smallest things become so dear to us. Such is life when you are living in a warzone: a sewing machine becomes so much more than just a tool; it is a means to an independent life, to self-sufficiency.

“Now, we are stitching back together the pieces of our lives. I still long for the old days, when I first started my career. Back then, people wanted the finest garments in town; now it’s all about survival.”

What we are doing - with your support

In Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, we are helping more than 1.5 million people with life-saving clean water, sanitation, essential clothing items, cash and vital food aid, supporting people to grow nutritious food, protecting them from violence and abuse, as well as helping refugees make a living.

#9YearsofWar

Syria crisis anniversary: Nine lives after nine years

On the ninth anniversary of Syria’s conflict, families continue to brave through a humanitarian catastrophe.

The violence has seen hundreds of thousands of people killed and displaced millions more. It continues to drive the largest refugee crisis in the world, with 6 million people displaced from their homes within Syria and more than 5 million refugees living in neighbouring countries including Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, the majority in extreme poverty.

Violence continues to rage in the country’s northwest, threatening thousands more lives and further compounding a crisis now entering its tenth year. This year must be the war’s last.

Our aid workers have listened to the stories of numerous Syrian refugees now living in often challenging conditions in Lebanon and Jordan; and of those who have remained in Syria, often fleeing themselves or seeing the communities around them so drastically affected.

Here are nine stories of hope, and of despair, as Syrians reveal how the war has turned their lives upside down.

Badria sits on the floor of her Tripoli home after making tea. She still wears her wedding ring. Credit: Sahar el-Bachir/Oxfam

“I miss our home in Ma’ret al-Nohman. It was small, but it had a garden with three olive trees around it. I used to plant herbs and vegetables in it, and never had to worry about electricity or water the way I do in Lebanon.  When our neighbourhood in Syria was bombed, my husband decided that it would be best for us to flee - all 25 of us. Lebanon was safer, we were told. Little did we know that our entire life was about to turn upside down. We thought it would only be for a month, but a month turned to eight long years. My son, who was 12 at the time, had to drop out of school to support our family. He took a job at a restaurant, working long hours. His entire life has changed, as have the lives of his siblings. The first few months were a complete turnaround for us, we found ourselves harvesting olives in exchange for a home in north Lebanon: our labour for a roof. It wasn’t much but at least we were safe, and we were together. But that only lasted for a season. As soon as the last of the olives were picked, my husband took off with his third wife. Now, there is only Oum Jomaa and I and our children. Oum Jomaa is my husband’s first wife. We decided to move to the city together in hopes that we would make a better life for ourselves. My four children and I eat, sleep, and prepare our meals in the same room. We share an apartment with Oum Jomaa and her children. We can’t afford a place of our own. Our life didn’t take a turn for the better. The city is a hard place to live. My youngest son sells napkins and gum on the streets, and both he and two of his siblings are out of school and we are heavily in debt. I thank God though that we have a roof over heads. Many of our Syrian brothers and sisters are either homeless or live in makeshift tents. This has been our life for the last nine years. We are exhausted. Our home in Syria was destroyed and many of our friends and family have left.” Badria, 43, Tripoli, North Lebanon

Mohamad holds his cricket bat in a Beirut field as he waits for the refugee and Lebanese children he will be coaching for the day. Credit: Sahar el-Bachir/Oxfam

“It’s been too long since I’ve heard from friends back home. I don’t know what has become of them and I don’t know what will become of me.  Seven years since arriving in Beirut, life has not gotten easier. Legal work in this country is near impossible for people like me – which is what I did before in Syria - as obtaining a work permit is a bureaucratic nightmare, so much so that even a Syrian organization I once worked with refused to sponsor me. But we must persist and must fight for our dreams. I arrived in Beirut on Thursday August 8, 2013 at 10:30 pm. I remember everything vividly: how I crawled on the floor of my home in Barzeh, north of Damascus, to reach the phone so that I could tell my family that I was still alive, the sound of bullets now behind me, the smell of the bus station on the Lebanese side of the border when I finally made it there, the sound of my younger brother’s flip flops as he paced upon my arrival, the look on the face of the police officer standing on the border crossing who, at first, didn’t want to let me in because I was a Palestinian refugee from Syria and Palestinian refugees, well, we were seen as the other of the other, and were no longer allowed entry, how I told him that I would only be in the country briefly to visit family and maybe apply to university to continue my studies, how he signed my papers, and how two hours later, I was in the city with 500 Syrian Liras (around €4/£3) in my pocket. All these memories are etched in my brain. The city is a difficult place to live when you have big dreams; dreams that even the war itself failed to destroy. But Beirut was also the place where I first got to stand on stage; where I got a small acting gig in a movie that made it all the way to international film festivals – a very proud moment for me! You see, I want to be an actor, a star! I am told I have an innocent face, but I am always cast as a mean officer type of guy. I also want to be a famous cricket coach. Even though the game is not super popular in Lebanon, I love it, and spend hours coaching Lebanese and refugee kids. I really think it might pick up! My journey has been difficult. I only pray that I am not asked for my papers when passing a checkpoint. My life is still so uncertain.” Mohammad, 35, Palestinian refugee from Syria, Beirut

Oxfam helps vulnerable refugees like Fathi make a modest income while gaining valuable skills training at Za'atari Refugee Camp. Credit: Nesma al-Nsour/Oxfam

“I still remember how nervous I was before my first-ever performance in Syria. I was in my early 20’s and I was so intimidated by the enormity of the crowd. It was both exhilarating and nerve-wracking. I’ve always loved the Oud but from that day on, performing became an extension of my life. For over a decade, it seemed like the only thing I knew. Nine years ago, that all changed. The war changed everything.  Suddenly, survival, safety and escape became priorities. We had no choice but to leave everything behind – including the music. I went from being a proud composer and performer to a refugee. Someone recently showed me a picture of our house in Syria. What was once a beautiful space always filled with family and friends, sat around trays of sweets and bottomless cups of tea, strumming fingers on instruments and playing or listening to our favourite songs –has since been reduced to rubble. Only pieces of the concrete structure are left upright. My heart aches when I think of everything we lost. It’s easier to avoid reminiscing. Even the music. I don’t actually remember when I stopped playing but I did, for years. It took me six years to pick the Oud up again. I still remember the immediate comfort and relief that took over me when I realized you can’t abandon musical instruments or leave them behind. I’ve spent the last two years sharing my love of music with my students at the refugee camp. We have regular classes and seeing them grow brings me so much pride and joy. They’ve since become my closest friends, an extension of my family. While the future remains uncertain, and while it’s too painful to think about the past, my present is spent making sure I give us all regular music classes to look forward to.” Fathi, 43, Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan

Oxfam helps ensure women at Za'atari Refugee Camp, like *Zahra, are empowered to become leaders in their own communities, whilst earning a decent wage and gaining career training. Credit: Nesma al-Nsour/Oxfam

“I’d wake up early every day and spend hours tucked away in our garden consumed by the smell of the rose bushes and jasmine trees that filled our yard, pen in hand, journal in lap and a hot cup of tea by my side. Every Friday, my girlfriends and sisters and I would hop into one of our cars, let the road lead us on what felt like endless journeys full of laughter and adventure. I lost it all to the war in Syria nine years ago. I lost my friends, my mother and my husband. It was devastating. Lost that garden, the friends and the endless road trips. I never imagined how much personhood was attached to official documentation like an ID card and a passport. Losing those in the blast that destroyed our home, destroyed our sense of self at the same time. I sold all my gold jewelry to pay a trucker enough to drive us to the Jordanian border searching for safety. There were so many families waiting when I arrived. Lives packed into bags. Fear-filled eyes were everywhere. That and the weight of the silence – broken occasionally by the cry of a cold child or the tired whimper of a hungry baby as we waited to cross. My youngest is six years old now. The camp is the only life he’s ever known. He still physically reacts when he hears planes overhead. Fear is a disease. My heart aches when I think of the life I had, the beautiful etched pillars resembling ancient ruins that stood outside our home, the road trips, the friends. When the memories become too much, I’ll sit outside my caravan, close my eyes, imagine the smell of the roses and that jasmine and let my finger trace thoughts into the sand the same way they did in my journal in our beautiful garden those many years ago.” Zahra*, Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan

Oxfam helps people like Ibraheem in Arbin by rehabilitating water networks and ensuring families have food. Photo: Dania Kareh/Oxfam

“For days, the sound of the bullets hitting the walls, was all we could hear. That’s when we realized that staying in our home in eastern Ghouta was no longer an option. My family of six and I made the decision to flee in 2017 and left everything behind. We returned a year later to find that what was once our home was now just a pile of rubble. We took a nearby abandoned, half-damaged apartment in Arbin. It’s only a five-minute walk, but it feels lightyears away from the life we once lived. We barely have mats covering the floors, or any furniture at all. I’m a public-sector employee and the 60,000 Syrian Pounds I’m paid per month (approx.€50) is barely enough to cover my family’s basic expenses. It breaks my heart to know that I lost years of hard work and money on making my now lost house a home. A home that we no longer have. I’m always wondering will I be able to restore the life we once had before the war? I guess some dreams don’t come true that easily.” Ibraheem, 48, Arbin, southwestern Syria

Oxfam helps people like Fatouma across 17 towns in rural Aleppo by repairing water pumping stations, helping water to flow to thousands more households. Credit: Dania Kareh, Islam Mardini/Oxfam

“It was a little after midnight, sometime in 2015, when we left our village of Arran, just north of Aleppo, and made our way to a faraway camp. We stayed there with other families who had also fled their homes and conditions were extremely poor: no latrines, poor sanitation, and barely enough food to fill our children’s stomachs – a long way from what our lives used to be. We once had cattle and a small farm. It was a modest way of life, but we didn’t need anyone. We lost so much to this war. My two sons left a few years ago. The day I said “goodbye” is still etched into my memory. I gazed into their eyes and something inside told me that it would be the last time I would see them. I didn’t think I’d live to tell the tale. I am 65 years old now and the war in Syria has been unlike anything we have experienced before. Our entire life changed the day we woke up to find that our village was overrun by ISIS militants. They forced us women to change the way we dressed. They forced us to have a male guardian accompany us on our every move. It was hard and one night I decided enough was enough, and that’s when we left. Three years ago, and after the ousting of ISIS, we returned to our village, but it has been a difficult journey since. Our cattle were stolen, most of our possessions too. Water is scarce; we have to walk long distances to collect drinking water from shallow, unprotected wells. We have been rebuilding our lives since, little by little. We are now saving some money to buy two sheep and maybe start a small dairy farm. It’s hard, but I am sure, we will stand on our own two feet again, someday.” Fatouma, 65, Arran, north Aleppo

Oxfam helps people like Seeham by installing irrigation pumps along the banks of the Euphrates River, helping to restore livelihoods in the agriculture sector. Credit: Dania Kareh/Oxfam

“I would compulsively count every few minutes as we escaped: ‘one, two, three, four, five...’ and could only breathe again once I got to number nine. Nine children, nine children alive. That was all I prayed for as we escaped our village of Bugros in Deir Ez-Zor in early 2016. The journey was eerily silent; the only sounds I remember were that of tired breaths and beating hearts. We were all just trying to get to safety as quietly, and as fast as possible. It is a difficult time to look back on. It was a difficult decision to leave our home after ISIS militants took over lands, crops and cattle. The day we fled, we had no destination in mind. We didn’t care where we’d end up so long as we were safe. We didn’t mind sleeping out in the open. There were many children and elderly. A few months ago, we returned to a home that has been all but destroyed and lands scorched. So far, we have managed to farm a third of our land. Recovering from war and rebuilding the life we once had is a long, arduous journey. But the sight of green shoots springing up everywhere among the ugly, blackened ground gives me hope.” Seeham, 40, Bugros, rural Deir ez-Zor

Asmaa, 40, a dressmaker, sits in her little shop in AlBwaidieh, a rural area in Deir Ez-Zor governorate. Photo: Dania Kareh/Oxfam

“Before the war, I was known to friends, family and customers as an incredibly talented dressmaker. I built myself a career to the beat of the needle and the bob, and my designs made for an excellent source of income for me and my family. I even had my own shop where I would work the day away. But all that changed seven years ago when my town of al-Bwaidieh, in rural Deir ez-Zor, was sucked into the violence. We had to leave and couldn’t carry much. I hid my most prized possession, my sewing machine, beneath a bundle of hay and even said a little prayer that it might be there when I returned – if I returned that is. We headed for Qamishli in northeastern Syria for safety. There, we lived through what would become our worst days. For nearly four years we worked random jobs, none of which were sustainable or provided enough to keep us from having to rely on others to make it through this war. It was a struggle; a real struggle for me, my brother and my mother. Oh, how I wished I had my sewing tools on me so that my family and I could live in dignity. You see, no one ever thinks it’ll happen to them until it does. Humans, we think we are immune… to war, violence, displacement. But it could happen to anyone, and it happened to us. Our entire lives have changed; taken a turn for the worse. We spent all our savings, sold our jewelry and whatever else we had just to survive. We returned to our home only recently, and the first thing I did was look for my sewing machine. And there she was, waiting for me in the same place I had left her. Strange how sometimes the smallest things become so dear to us. Such is life when you are living in a warzone: a sewing machine becomes so much more than just a tool; it is a means to an independent life, to self-sufficiency. Now, we are stitching back the pieces of our lives together. I still long for the old days, when I first started my career. Back then, people wanted the finest garments in town; now it’s all about survival.” Asmaa, 40, al-Bwaidieh, rural Deir Ez-Zor

Oxfam helps people like Ahmad through cash-for-work programmes, helping people earn money that provides an opportunity to look after themselves and their families. Credit: Islam Mardini/Oxfam

“I was once a proud blacksmith, and our family-run shop made for a good income. But all that changed when the war broke out. There is nothing worse than having to make the hard choice to risk your life for food. But that is a choice I had to make, for the sake of my family, the sake of my two children. When our town of al-Zahraa in rural Aleppo was besieged, food became a hot and scarce commodity; supermarket shelves were getting emptier and emptier and whatever was left was getting more and more expensive. Many families in a desperate bid to survive, including my own, had to sell everything. I even resorted to peddling to survive. And then, the nearby fields were all we had. I would sneak around in the early morning before the shells started falling to collect herbs that we would later boil and serve as food. They were such difficult days for us and I thought, with my dwindling business, that I had seen the worst of it. But I was wrong. One day, in 2016, I was hit by a shrapnel and spent 16 days in a coma. I didn’t think I’d make it, but I survived, and by God’s grace so did my family. Our journey has been long and hard: from living a normal life, from me providing a good income as a blacksmith, to peddling, to nearly getting myself killed… this is life in a warzone. Today, I am a proud beekeeper. I started with just one beehive and used the money I made from the first to buy a second one. Though life can be uncertain, these bees give me hope.”  Ahmad, 39, al-Zahraa, rural Aleppo

What we are doing - with your support

In Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, we are helping more than 1.5 million people with life-saving clean water, sanitation, essential clothing items, cash and vital food aid, supporting people to grow nutritious food, protecting them from violence and abuse, as well as helping refugees make a living.

#9YearsofWar

*Name changed to protect identity.

Recovering Post-ISIS: What it's like to be a woman in Mayadin, Syria

By Aline Yacoubian, EFSVL Policy Officer, Oxfam in Syria

This is to all men, women and children fighting for survival.

Two years after the ousting of ISIS from Mayadin, east of Deir ez-Zor in Syria, the situation is dire. As I travelled through the town, I couldn’t fail to notice the devastating impact of the conflict. The intense fighting has left it in in total ruin. Among the shattered buildings, destroyed water and electricity infrastructure and broken streets – you can sense life is slowly returning. Hanging laundry lines amid rubble and ash, poorly stocked shops opened in the remains of buildings and children playing with whatever makeshift toys available, from empty tin cans to metal pieces left behind.

Mayadin witnessed a major turn of events as ISIS grasped control over the town in mid-2014, making it their ‘safe haven’ and financial capital. For three years, people in Mayadin lived under ISIS’s rule of terror. Though thousands fled from Mayadin, some people could not escape. I stood in the middle of what once was the second most populous town in Deir Ezzor and sensed the emptiness. Before ISIS, Mayadin was known for its agricultural production, filled with vast acres of fertile, green lands and rich livestock. Located on the western bank of the Euphrates River, Mayadin was once the breadbasket of nearby towns and it thrived on its wealthy agro-economy.

But all that changed under ISIS, particularly for the women there. They were forced to stop school and work. Hawra* is among the many women who was forced to quit school and marry. “I had a real passion for education. I had big dreams of becoming a nurse. Now, I channel that passion into growing our garden’s orange trees. That’s all I have left,” Hawra told me.

Hawra, working on her family’s farmland in Mayadin’s Anneba, rural Deir Ez-Zor. Credit: Dania Kareh/Oxfam

The constant fighting under ISIS and continuous bombardments paralyzed the productive economic sectors of Mayadin, with burnt agricultural lands and demolished irrigation channels. Combined with drought, water has become scarce, and safe, clean water has become a commodity. Two years after ISIS, there has been some improvement. Agriculture production is slowly gaining momentum, but the farming communities in the town remain distressed. Mayadin inhabitants are at the brink of food insecurity due to dwindling production, shortage of functional bakeries, and high food prices.

The destroyed waste management systems have further added to the struggle, with serious health concerns on the rise, such as Leishmaniasis, a skin disease caused by a microscopic parasite spread by sand flies, widespread in Mayadin today. Medical facilities are almost non-existent, and access to healthcare has become rather impossible. Khansa, a 34-year old woman shared her story of how expensive healthcare has become as most inhabitants, who must travel to the city of Deir Ezzor, around 40 kilometres, to access medical services. “Travelling to and from Deir Ezzor city costs around 3,000 SYP (approx. USD $3), and the doctors charge around 2,000 SYP for a regular check-up. I don’t have that kind of money, so I only prioritize my son’s doctor visits,” she explained. Khansa used to work on her family’s farmland. Their land was destroyed under ISIS. Today, only a small portion of their land is suitable for farming. “We live off of debts throughout the year and pay them off during the agricultural seasons when we sell our produce,” she continued.

Khansa, 34, stands in her family’s farmland in rural Deir ez-Zor, holding her son. Credit: Dania Kareh/Oxfam

Conversations with women in Mayadin were bittersweet. Bitter to hear what they went through. Sweet to hear how they made it and their willingness to survive. These women are very resilient. “You are probably wondering how I am still smiling. This is what makes me want to fight for life,” said one woman, carrying her 10-day old baby wrapped in wool blankets to protect from the cold.

Despite the hardships, I sensed the women’s urge to rebuild their lives. Though living in Mayadin has become a game of survival, its women have become warriors. Of all the stories heard, the most beautiful are the stories of persistence. You can see it on their faces – these women can turn tides. They don’t give up, they pull through despite everything. They believe in second chances and silver linings.

#9YearsofWar

*Name changed to protect identity.

Cycle of despair: The Syria crisis is far from over

This month marks nine years since the conflict in Syria erupted – and the horrors that its people have suffered in that time are truly unimaginable. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed. Millions of families have been forced to flee. Hundreds of children have been maimed.

Rafik's house inHamourieh/ Eastern Ghouta has been destroyed. Photo: DaniaKareh/Oxfam

Today, more than 6.5 million Syrians are living in poverty, a third of the population doesn’t have enough to eat and 15.5 million people have no access to clean, running water. On average, every second person is unemployed, while poverty and desperation has forced children into child labour and early marriage. Almost 12 million people need humanitarian assistance while close to 6 million are displaced within their own country.

Imm stands at the entrance of her shelter in the Bekaa Valley. Photo:Adrian Hartrick/Oxfam

The conflict also sparked the world’s largest refugee crisis. Around 5.6 million Syrians have fled their homes to seek refuge in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon and Jordan. Right now, refugees are slowly emerging from another harsh winter of snow, rain and freezing temperatures in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. There, they live in makeshift structures with little more than plastic sheeting to protect them from the bitter winter winds.

Despite their desperate living conditions, they have no choice but to stay. After all, the crisis in Syria is far from over. A five-hour drive north from the Bekaa Valley, across Syria’s northwest Idlib region, the UN estimates that a staggering 900,000 people have fled renewed violence since December. As shelling and violence intensifies, this number is rapidly approaching 1 million.

Oxfam is working in Syria, where we have reached more than 1.2 million people with aid including clean water, cash, essential clothing items, and support to help make a living and grow food.

We can’t bring an end to the fighting but we can help to save lives and give hope to those trapped in this ongoing cycle of despair.

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