Syria crisis

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Searching for safety: lessons from Syria's refugees

What is life like for Syrian refugees in Lebanon? Oxfam conducted research to find out how safe refugees feel and to understand the challenges they face. For Oxfam researcher Nour Shawaf, it was a humbling process.

I thought I knew it all, I thought I had seen it, I thought I had read about it, I thought I had heard all their stories… After all, I am Lebanese, I have Syrian and Palestinian friends, I have been interacting with refugees on a regular basis for the past four years, I speak their language and I follow the news closely! Why would I not know it all?

Well I was definitely wrong. I knew nothing at all.

“Every time we went to a place the war would follow us.” She personified war and it scared me. My imagination took me beyond the discussion. I dropped my papers and just listened to her. The young woman sitting in front of me was my age. She had experienced multiple displacements and the war was following her. This was not just another research exercise, and this young woman talking to me was not just another story.

While carrying out Participatory Protection Research for Oxfam in Lebanon to explore the perceptions and expectations of refugees from Syria over the past, present and future, my own perceptions and expectations were altered. The stories refugees from Syria told left me completely shocked.

Reality struck me hard, especially when people started describing their routes from Syria to Lebanon. I had heard about the “mountain.” It is the word all refugees from Syria use to indicate they have come into the country through unofficial borders. But never had it occurred to me that the ‘mountain’ was a “death plateau.” People talked about walking for hours and days, being left by smugglers in the middle of nowhere, walking in the snow or under the sweltering sun, and having to leave their belongings en route to carry children and elderly on their backs when they could no longer walk.

Bekaa Valley informal refugee settlement in winter. Credit: Sam Tarling/Oxfam 

They went through the “mountain” looking for safety from the bombings, the shelling and the airstrikes. There are neither bombings nor shelling nor airstrikes where they are now… but they have still not found safety!

The rampant fear and the deteriorating living conditions are obstacles that prevent them from feeling safe. Their inability to meet their basic needs, obtain legal statuses and avoid arrests, deprive them from the sense of safety they are longing for.

Though this came as no surprise to me, experiencing it along with the refugees who volunteered to participate in the research shifted my perspective. They explained to me the range of factors they had to worry about. If they leave home, they have to worry about the checkpoints. If they stay home they have to worry about raids. If they find a job they have to worry about inspectors along with different forms of exploitation. If they don’t find a job they have to worry about meeting their families’ basic needs.

In their own words, their quest to find safety is costing them their dignity: “When you are displaced you start ignoring your dignity to find safety”. When an older Lebanese woman made the aforementioned statement, she summarised everything the refugees were trying to tell me in one sentence. The times may have changed, but the experience of displacement remains the same.

A portrait of Jemaa Al Halayal and his two-year-old daughter, Lebanon. Credit: Sam Tarling/Oxfam

Despite the dire conditions and the lack of better prospects, Ahmad told me: “We won’t lose hope”. Ahmad is a 22-year-old Syrian refugee from Homs. He fled his hometown at the very beginning of the war. He had always dreamt of becoming a Computer Engineer. Although his dreams have not unfolded so far, he is striving to achieve the best given the current circumstances. He says: “Even if you are a refugee, you must have a message, a mission. I want to serve my country, my people. I hope I can spread a positive message.”

As part of our research we invited participants to take photos. The above photo was taken by Ahmad (of his former home), as it reminds him of his past. I sometimes tend to forget that Ahmad was not a refugee before 2013 and that he led a different life. This photo is my constant reminder.

People like Ahmad are what keeps me going, that much I know!

Posted by Nour Shawaf, Protection Research and Policy Advisor for Oxfam in Lebanon

 

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As Syria conflict drags on, sustainable Oxfam project provides clean water in Salamiyah

One of every two Syrians has a story of displacement to tell. Half the population has been pushed by the relentless war out of their homes to safer, quieter locations. But for many of these people, safety doesn’t mean an end to their woes.

Before the war, Kousay*, 14, lived with his family in Rural Idlib. For the past three years, he has been staying with relatives in Salamiyah, in Rural Hama. “My father was a butcher. Now he is out of work. So I had to leave school and find a job,” said the young boy, who earns about $35 per month working in a car repair shop, and is the sole bread-winner of the family.

Salamiyah, located 33 kilometres south-east of the city of Hama, had a population of 150,000 before the conflict. With Syrians displaced from Homs, Rural Hama and other areas, the city now hosts three times that many people. East Salamiyah city gets its water from the Al-Qantara pumping station, which is situated in the west of the city, and is under control of armed groups.

Top-Left: Kousay*, 14, is one of the 35,000 residents in Salamiyah who have benefited from an Oxfam water treatment unit which was originally installed in June 2015.  Top-Right: After being displaced to Salamiyah with his family from Al-Hassakah in 2015, 12-year-old Marwanalso* benefited from the Oxfam water treatment unit. Bottom: In June 2015, Oxfam installed a water treatment unit to provide clean drinking water to an estimated 35,000 residents in Salamiyah - Rural Hama. In June 2017, Oxfam provided the local water establishment with equipment to maintain the unit. Photos: Dania Karah/Oxfam

This pumping station has been in a conflict area since 2013, and the water has been cut off frequently by parties controlling the area. According to the Salamiyah municipality, the water was deliberately cut off from the main source 24 times during the last eight months, forcing people to rely on water trucked to the area, as the only other source was a few boreholes containing unusable sulphurous water.

To alleviate water shortages, in June 2015 Oxfam installed a water treatment unit on one of the boreholes using a Reverse Osmosis system to provide safe drinking water for an estimated 35,000 residents in East Salamiyah, including almost a third who had been internally displaced. The Reverse Osmosis system removes the hydrogen sulphide gas, the bad smell and the solids from the water to produce clean drinking water to be pumped to the city's main water reservoir.

While the conflict raged on, it was important for this project to be sustainable, in order to guarantee the water flow. In June 2017 Oxfam provided the local water establishment with equipment such as spare parts, and pipes, to be able to maintain the unit. The main aim was to improve people’s access to safe and adequate drinking water. The system can operate up to 20 hours per day, providing 50,000 litres of water per hour depending on the available electricity and fuel.

With their limited income, Kousay’s family of five used to buy water from private water tanking at €3/£2 per 1M3 = 1,000 L once per week to avoid the undrinkable sulphurous water provided by local boreholes. Almost one-third of their monthly income went into this expense. ‘’When we came first to As-Salamiah, we only had hot water which has a distinct rotten egg smell, but since this unit start to operate the situation became better. [Now] drinking water reaches our house once a week,’’ said Kousay.

Marwan*,12, was displaced from Al-Hassakah when the Syrian government lost control of large areas of the city to ISIS in 2015 and now lives with his father, mother and four brothers and sisters in Rural Salamiyah. Their family is relatively lucky, as the father is still around and can support them. “We found a small house with no furniture in Salamiyah, and my father works in a nearby factory,” said Marwan.

At first, Marwan*’s family had to rely on trucked drinking water, which they needed to buy twice a week. Now, they can rely on the clean water provided by the Oxfam system.

*Names changed to protect identities

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Fatem and Khalil: One Syrian family’s journey to Europe

The majority of Syrian refugees who have reached Europe have had to take dangerous, sometimes fatal, journeys across land and sea. But this is a different story, one which shows that there are other ways of providing sanctuary to those fleeing the horrors of war.

Fatem recalls the fear she felt when war broke out in her hometown of Raqqa. “We were living in the heart of the conflict,” she says. “Every time we kissed each other goodnight we thought it could be the last time.” Her husband Khalil couldn’t work after the fighting started. Money became so tight that Fatem, who was expecting their first child, couldn’t even see a doctor. But the final straw came after the birth of their baby boy, Ahmed, and the couple realised that there was no milk in the shops to feed him. ”That was the moment when we clearly realised we couldn’t stay in Syria any more,” says Khalil. He decided to go to Lebanon to find a job and a home – his young family would then follow him. The most precious thing he took with him was a photo album showing happy memories – their wedding, their parents and their beautiful house. 

Fatem, and her husband Khalil and their two children arrive in Rome. Photo: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam

Khalil had to sleep on the streets on his first night in Lebanon. It was a sign – nothing in this country would be easy. For four years the family struggled to make ends meet in their adopted home, a small country with the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, and a place where 70 percent of Syrian refugees live below the poverty line. For Khalil, finding work as an electrician, plumber and painter was difficult, so he still had to borrow money to feed his family, which had grown with the birth of baby Mohamed. Their home was a small, dark room in a town in Mount Lebanon, an hour from Beirut. It was cold and the children often got sick.

One day, Khalil learned from a neighbour that there was a way of travelling to Italy, safely and legally, with a humanitarian visa. After much research, the family met with the Italian organisations working on the “Humanitarian Corridors” programme, an initiative which aims to prevent both dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean and human trafficking. At first, Fatem was sceptical –she never thought they would be selected. But after a couple of interviews they got the good news.

Khalil and Fatem couldn’t sleep the night before their flight to Italy. They’d been counting down the days for months, their suitcases waiting in a corner of their tiny home. Torn by their situation, they shed tears of joy and sadness. They were leaving behind those with whom they had spent the past four years – their cousin’s family, who had welcomed them into their home during their first month in Lebanon, and their neighbours, most of whom were Syrian, and who’d also fled their homeland. Above all, they were moving further away from Syria.

The journey took 24 hours, starting in Beirut and ending in the Tuscan town of Cecina. When they arrived, two social workers from Oxfam brought them to their new temporary home – a flat with a garden. The family learned that they would get money for six months to buy food, medicine and other essentials. They would have WiFi in the apartment and get Italian language lessons. And they would receive help in applying for asylum and looking for work. At the end of the six months, the family would be considered self-sufficient.

“I never imagined we would end up living in Italy. I thought the war would only last for two or three years, but the situation just gets worse,” says Khalil, as he tunes into an Arabic television channel to get the latest news from Syria. “I hope people in Europe don’t think we are terrorists or extremists. We are here because we are running away from them, from the conflict.”

Fatem adds: “We want a future for our children. That is why we are willing to learn a new language and adapt to different customs.” When asked if they would like to go back to Syria when the war ends – if they would like this story to end where it began – Fatem replies: “Of course we will go back. But if a long time passes and my children feel established here, we will only go back to visit. The stability of our family comes first.”

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Behind the five million ‘Syrian refugee’ tags are individual stories of love, loss, and hope

A smile lights up her honey-colored eyes. Delicate gold droplets dangle from her small ears. Her name—Warda—means rose in Arabic. She could have been a carefree 18-year-old law student in London, an aspiring actress in Paris, or a trendy blogger in NYC.

Instead, Warda lives in a tent in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. She is pregnant with her second child and lives with her 23-year-old husband Hassan. Warda is dressed in black from head to toe, in mourning for her mother who was killed 10 days ago in Homs when a missile flattened the family home. Her earrings are her last personal belonging.


Behind her smile is a storm of grief, questions and hopes that never let up. The young woman is one of five million Syrians who have fled their war-torn country and are registered as refugees in Syria’s neighboring countries—a number that is more than the population of Ireland. Half of the pre-war population of 22 million has been uprooted. A quarter has crossed borders in search for safety. Warda was 13 when she left her home area in Homs governorate. She has not seen her father since.

“Last time I saw my mother, she came to spend a month. But she left before my first child was born,” says Warda, scrolling through photos on her mobile phone. She shows me a picture of her mother Hanane, beaming as she stands next to her on her wedding day. Warda was dressed in white, her hair in an elaborate up-do, her eyes lined with kohl. “We got married here in the camp. There was dancing and singing. Life has to go on,” she says.

But her life is anything but normal. Her son Jaafar is now 13 months old. Like so many Syrian children born in Lebanon, he has no official papers, and hence no nationality. Jaafar is neither Syrian nor Lebanese. Would his own country even allow him back in after the war?

The lack of documentation for newborns resulting from the amount and cost of red tape is one of many challenges Syrian refugees face in neighboring countries such as Lebanon. They have little-to-no access to the job market, they contract debts to complement the little humanitarian aid they receive, they don’t have full access to education, and they live with the constant fear of deportation.

Yet those who have turned towards rich third countries have either found closed doors when they attempted to travel, or have risked their lives on rickety boats to reach the shores of Europe. Five million refugees now live in limbo, waiting for an elusive peace to go back home or for an improbable plane ticket to Europe or North America. That’s half a million people spread across dozens of cities around the world. In Lebanon, one in five inhabitants is now a refugee.

Not far from Warda’s tent, in another informal settlement built on privately-owned agricultural land, Abou Imad, 53, sips tea while waiting for the young men and women of his family to come back from a day in the fields. Bent in two under the baking sun, they would have harvested onions or planted potatoes for less than $10 per day. Next to him, his two youngest girls sit quietly. Though they had a spot in the local school—the Lebanese government having opened public schools to around half of the Syrian children—they stopped going because their father can’t afford the bus ride. “What will happen to this generation?” he asks. “That’s what worries me most. They are growing up to be illiterate. We, the older generation, have nothing left to lose. But them?”

Abou Imad thought he had seen it all. A soldier in the Syrian army that fought in the Lebanon civil war (1975-1990), he went on to become a truck driver criss-crossing the Middle East and delivering goods to US-occupied Iraq in 2004. In 2010, he settled in his hometown of Raqqa, but little did he know that the terrorist group ISIS would drive him out of what became a few years later the heart of its self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria.

“Look at this woman. Dressed like this, she would not have been able to stick her head out of the door. They would have killed her,” he says pointing to his new daughter-in-law, Ahlam, which means dreams in Arabic. A fresh-faced, raven-haired young Syrian woman wearing a red dress, she left Raqqa a few months ago. She took a perilous journey through Iraq and Jordan to reach Lebanon and marry Abou Imad’s son. Now a refugee, she has been embraced by her new family, and can live without the threat of extremism.

But Abou Imad’s heart stayed in Syria and he wants to see his homeland even just one last time. “You see how big the ocean is? Even the smallest fish, after travelling far and wide, will come back to rest under that same rock it was born under.”

The names in this story have been changed to protect the security of the individuals.

We are providing lifesaving aid to displaced people in the Middle East, and we’re helping families meet some of their basic needs as they travel beyond the region to seek safety.

The entry posted by Joelle Bassoul (@JoBassoul), Oxfam Media advisor, Syria Response, on 3 April 2017.

Photo: Warda, with her child Jaafar and husband Hassan, lives in a tent in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley after leaving her home in Syria. Credit: Joelle Bassoul/Oxfam

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The horrors in Aleppo continue to mount

Published Oct 14 2016

 
A child watches as a military jet flies over the ruins of the Al Mashad neighbourhood in Aleppo. In neighbourhoods on the frontline where people still live, there is little or no water or electrical energy supply. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam
 
As battles rage in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, the situation is dire – and becoming increasingly intolerable for residents caught up in the ongoing conflict.
 
250,000 people are trapped in rebel-held East Aleppo with no access to aid and facing constant attacks from the air. The bombardment of hospitals, schools and civilian areas is appalling. There are daily reports of civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure. Food and fuel are scarce and expensive, leaving many vulnerable to the risk of water-borne diseases. 
 
WHAT OXFAM IS DOING IN ALEPPO
 
 
Oxfam has supplied and installed a generator in the Suleiman al-Halabi pumping station, which can supply enough water for a million people in Aleppo. Photo: Oxfam
 
Oxfam is on the ground in Syria, helping to provide clean water across battle lines in Aleppo, as well as elsewhere in the country. 
 
Oxfam has installed a generator in the Suleiman al-Halabi water pumping station, which supplies most of Aleppo, to power the station when the national grid is down. Oxfam has also equipped three wells in West Aleppo to produce around 500,000 litres per day and installed eight water purification units – though four of them are currently being repaired after sustaining damage – on the Qweik river to also produce 500,000 litres. 
 
Oxfam also has desperately-needed 3,500 hygiene kits ready to be distributed in East Aleppo, but with the continued fighting the convoy cannot currently access the opposition held part of the city.
 
Oxfam is also working with Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, providing clean drinking water, sanitation facilities and vouchers for hygiene supplies. 
 
VOICES ON THE GROUND 
 
People still inside East Aleppo have been revealing how the horrors continue to mount. Residents of Aleppo are reporting the use of ‘bunker busting bombs’, which create large craters in the ground, making even underground shelter unsafe. 
 
People on both sides of the city, opposition-held East Aleppo and government-controlled West Aleppo, are now relying on water from wells or delivered by trucks, which are unreliable and sometimes contaminated sources.
 
Speaking to Oxfam, an East Aleppo resident, Basma* (35), said: “The water network is damaged in some areas, to the point where you can see [bomb] craters filled with water. We are still managing to get water through different means, from local wells. But it’s not safe to go out in the street”.
 
Nassim* (65), another resident of East Aleppo said: “One of my children went missing five days ago. I spend my day looking for him. Food is scarce. Fetching water from the local wells is another daily challenge, as going out is dangerous and the water quality is an issue. You can’t be sure if the water is safe or contaminated”.
 
 
“UNBEARABLE” 
 
Walid* (35), from West Aleppo, said: “Queuing to get water is a time consuming struggle, and buying water is becoming expensive. You need to pay more to get water first from truckers. Winter is coming and we have no electricity, and fuel is not available. The situation is becoming unbearable. If it remains like this, I will leave Aleppo with my family.”
 
Tayseer* (40), in East Aleppo, said: “We stored bread before this crisis. We have nothing but bread now. You can’t find any shops open. People are sharing their food supplies with each other. We no longer have spices, so we are just boiling the grains that we have. I’m not concerned about myself or my wife, just about my children.”
 
Nahla* (25) recently fled from East to West Aleppo: “I can’t send my kids to school. And we have no running water, we depend on water trucking. I have no money and no income. Prices are very high in the market. Others in the community have helped me with bread and a bit of food. I can work in cleaning or sewing but I don’t know where to start to look for a job. I don’t know what to do or what will happen tomorrow.” 
 
22-year-old Sham* in East Aleppo: “I don’t have enough food to feed my two brothers and two sisters. Even if we have money, there is no food in the market to buy. We are afraid of sending them to school after the recent attacks. No place is safe now. We don’t know what to do, we feel trapped in our basement.”
 
Souad* (55) lives in a public park in West Aleppo: “I fled East Aleppo with my grandson. His father stayed in East Aleppo. We are unable to reach him. We just want to hear his voice to make sure he is okay. I have no income and everything is expensive. We are relying on people to help us and on aid workers to provide water and other necessary services. We lost our dignity during this crisis. All I want is to go back home, take care of my garden, and have my grandchildren around me.”
 
MARIAM’S STORY 
 
Mariam (64) saw her world fall apart when her only son, a father of four, was shot last year in East Aleppo. 
 
Mariam, her daughter-in-law and the children – three boys, aged 11 and twins of 8, and a 4-year-old girl – moved from place to place, driven by the continuous fighting in Aleppo, until they ended up in a small room, with mouldy walls, and inappropriate sanitation.
 
“I lost my beloved son. My four grandchildren became orphans at a very young age. My heart is broken. I have never felt as weak as I do now. Our only breadwinner left us and now the burden of being ‘the man of the house’ has been placed on the shoulders of my 11-year-old grandson. Finding food and drinking water is a difficult task.” 
 
One of Mariam’s neighbours, who has several water tanks, has been providing water to the family. As for food, they rely on help from other people and some charities. Food prices in East Aleppo have shot up, especially since the area was besieged by government forces. For example, one kilogramme of sugar costs 3,000 Syrian pounds compared to 350 in Damascus.
 
“I was able to plant some plants in the backyard. When we run out of food, we boil some roots to curb our hunger. As for the water, my grandson has to go fetch it, though it is so dangerous for him to go out.
 
“I used to think that losing my child was my biggest tragedy, but seeing my four grandchildren and their mother feeling thirsty and hungry is definitely worse.”
 
WATER AS A WEAPON OF WAR 
 
Oxfam is calling for an immediate and complete ceasefire in Aleppo. At the very least, a pause in the fighting is necessary to deliver food, water, and medical help, as well as evacuate the sick and wounded, and assess damages.
 
Hospitals have recently been hit by airstrikes. Oxfam is urging all warring parties to ensure that international humanitarian law is upheld and civilians and civilian buildings, including schools, hospitals, homes, and water services, are not targeted to advance military and political objectives. 
 
All parties should refrain from using basic services such as water as a weapon of war. 
 
HOW YOU CAN HELP
 
 
* All names have been changed to protect identities.
 

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