Survival, Resilience, and Determination in Syria
For seven years, the people of Syria have suffered a devastating civil war that has left a staggering 13 million people — about 60 percent of the country’s pre-war population — in need of humanitarian assistance. Almost five million Syrians have been forced to flee their homeland to cities and refugee camps in neighbouring countries, with an additional six million displaced inside Syria’s borders.
The EU and its member states are the leading providers of international aid to those affected by the Syrian war: more than €10.6 billion has been mobilised for humanitarian, stabilisation and resilience aid to Syrians inside the country and in neighboring countries. To date, EU’s humanitarian assistance has reached millions of people with healthcare, food, safe drinking water, shelter, emergency medical treatment and other critical aid.
The Syrian refugee crisis shows no signs of abating. But in the midst of the fear, poverty, and despair, there are also tales of survival, resilience and a determination to lead a normal life.
One of the top priorities for humanitarian organisations responding to Syria’s crisis is to provide food to vulnerable families who are caught up in the conflict — especially those living in extremely difficult conditions. Funded by the EU, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) is trying to reach three million people in Syria with vital food assistance.
Yaser stands by his shop in the Bustan Al-Qaser district in the devastated city of Aleppo, Syria. Although most people fled the area during the fighting, the 50-year-old chose to remain in the neighborhood where he ran a business for 35 years.
“We were stuck between a rock and a hard place; there was no way out,” Yaser says. “I would not want any human being to go through the kind of hardships that we did.”
Alaa, 9, drinks water at a collective shelter in Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city. Funded by the EU, the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, provides over 10 million people in Syria with safe drinking water — either by trucking or through water disinfectants and the rehabilitation of wells.
A severely ill child is evacuated by emergency workers from the besieged city of Moademiye during an aid operation by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), an EU partner. The group has also managed to deliver food and hygiene items for more than 12 000 people in the besieged city near the Syrian capital, Damascus. About 10 000 people also received medicines and other medical items.
A Syrian girl sits on top of her flimsy makeshift shelter in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. The country hosts nearly one million registered Syrians and Palestinian refugees, accounting for nearly 25 percent of Lebanon’s population — the highest concentration of refugees per capita in the world. The EU humanitarian response to Syrian refugees in Lebanon has for the most part been in the form of cash assistance to help people with basic necessities, as well as providing healthcare, shelter, water and sanitation.
A Syrian boy at school in Labwe, a town in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. Gruppo di Volontariato Civile (GVC), an EU partner, rehabilitated the school, allowing nearly 400 Syrian refugees to attend classes in the afternoons.
A young Syrian, living in a tented settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley and suffering from a muscular disorder, receives physiotherapy from a member of staff from the EU-funded organisation Humanity & Inclusion (HI).
Fixed and mobile teams provide injured and disabled refugees with physical therapy, mobility devices, orthotic braces and prosthetic limbs, and psychosocial support. HI also supplies hospitals and clinics with rehabilitation equipment, and physical therapy sessions for patients.
Louai, his wife Imane, and children have sought shelter in a dark, disused garage by the side of a dusty road in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. They share their living space and one bathroom with eight other people, and like so many other Syrian families here, they are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Even the very basics — sufficient food, medicine and warm clothes during winter — are no longer a given.
“I have looked everywhere, but have been unable to find any work,” Louai says. “And life in Lebanon is very expensive.”
With their savings dried up, Louai’s family is one of thousands of households in Lebanon that are receiving cash assistance from the European Union.
Jordan hosts more than 655 000 registered Syrian refugees — over half of them are children. The vast majority lives in cities and towns, while the rest reside mostly in two refugee camps.
One of these, Zaatari, is the world’s second largest camp with close to 80 000 residents. First opened in 2012, the sprawling camp situated in the rocky and arid Jordanian desert has grown to become Jordan’s fourth biggest city.
Two young Syrian refugees outside their house in the Zaatari camp, a maze of dusty streets, corrugated-iron shacks and makeshift shops lining the main street named the Champs-Élysées. School enrolment rates have steadily risen and over 20 000 children and young people are now attending classes, according to the UN children’s agency, UNICEF.
Refugee women and girls face a number of challenges: lack of proper medical care, poor access to reproductive health services, unwanted pregnancies, unsafe deliveries and sexually transmitted diseases.
To address these issues in Zaatari camp, the EU funds a fully-fledged maternity hospital in the camp, run by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in coordination with Jordanian authorities. Thousands of children have been born here since operations began in 2013.
Following a 2016 terrorist attack, the Jordanian army declared the northern and north-eastern border with Syria as closed military zones. As a result, some 50 000 people, mostly women and children, were left stranded in a remote border area known as “the berm” with limited access to food, water and humanitarian aid. Humanitarian access to the area remains difficult due to security risks and border closures, and international aid organisations have been unable to resume the delivery of humanitarian assistance with any regularity.
Children paint as part of an art session in an EU-funded women’s centre run by its partner organisation International Rescue Committee (IRC). Meanwhile, their mothers receive vocational skills training so that they can access job opportunities.
A recent UN report has found that more than 90 percent of registered Syrian refugees in urban areas have fallen below the Jordanian poverty line, with over 67 percent of families living in debt.
Often referred to as Syria’s lost generation, at least three million children have dropped out of school since the war started in 2011. Across the region, the EU and its partners help tens of thousands of children get back to school.
“Children who have missed years of education need extra support to transition back into school,” says Jenny Hobbs, an EU education expert in Jordan.
“In the region, we support a range of programmes, including psycho-social and financial support so that families can help their children get back into formal education.”
Turkey hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees in the world, the majority of which live outside official camps with limited access to education, healthcare and other services. The EU has invested almost one billion euros into the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) programme, the largest humanitarian relief programme in EU history.
Thanks to the partnership between the Turkish government and the EU, over a million refugees receive cash assistance to cover their essential needs in Turkey. One of them is 35-year-old Syrian refugee Huda, seen here shopping at a supermarket in Gaziantep province in south-east Turkey.
The ESSN programme provides refugee families with debit cards to cover their basic needs such as food, rent, medicine, and clothes. The cards can be used to withdraw cash from a bank machine or to purchase items in shops like any other debit card, providing refugees with the freedom of choice. Batoul, a Syrian refugee in Turkey’s Sanlıurfa province, says that she is not only able to feed her children, but can also buy the right ingredients — “the flavours of their home”.
“Life was hard before we got this card,” she says.
“Now, we can pay the rent, the bills and buy food every month.”
The EU also funds a cash assistance program, the Conditional Cash Transfer for Education (CCTE), in partnership with UNICEF and Turkey’s ministry of education to encourage refugee parents to keep their children in school.
“The EU is committed to supporting refugee children in Turkey and beyond,” says Christos Stylianides, European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management.
“Education in emergency situations is a top EU priority. Our moral duty is to save this generation of refugee children and invest in their future.”
Firas, pictured with his wife and children at their home in the Turkish city of Izmir, fled Aleppo after their home was destroyed by shelling. With EU support, the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, has provided Firas and his family with regular counselling on access to rights, entitlements and basic services, as well as psychosocial support. “Life is hard,” Firas admits.
“But my hope is to guarantee my children’s education and their future.”
By Peter Biro, regional information officer for the Middle East, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations