Syria crisis anniversary: Nine lives after nine years

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.


*Name changed to protect identity.