Syria Crisis: What Nine Years of War Means for Syrian Families

Jamal’s* family received an Oxfam cash distribution after fleeing their home in East Ghoutta, Syria. © Dania Kareh/Oxfam
Jamal’s* family received an Oxfam cash distribution after they were displaced from their home in East Ghoutta, Syria. Her father was killed as the family tried to escape under fire. July 2018. Credit: Dania Kareh/Oxfam

For nine years, Syrians have suffered both inside their country and outside. Those still in Syria, and many who have left for Lebanon and Jordan, have shared with us stories of both despair and hope.

People want to rebuild their lives, but they have lost livelihoods and chance for education. Families have been torn apart. Essential services including the provision of water and electricity are disrupted. The economy is in bad shape. Beginning again is far from easy.

In Idlib, a recent escalation in violence has pushed people to the brink; according to the UN almost one million people have been displaced since the beginning of December — for many of them this is not the first time. People in Idlib are telling us that most people cannot afford already scarce food items. Water supplied through networks covers only 10% of the need. There are barely any functional healthcare facilities left and the few remaining medical points are underequipped.

With increasing challenges to access, aid agencies are unable to fill the gap. Children have seen their schools closed to give people somewhere to sleep.

There is a ceasefire now, but as we’ve seen over the past nine years ceasefires have not often held in Syria. There must be a concerted effort to make sure this opportunity is turned into a lasting peace.

Here are nine stories from Syrians, in which they tell us how the war in Syria has turned their lives upside down.

As the crisis enters its tenth year, we hope this year will be the war’s last.

1 — Badria, 43, Tripoli, North Lebanon

Badria sits on the floor of her Tripoli home and offers us tea. Though her husband left her, 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 neighborhood 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 husband left us. My youngest son sells napkins and gum on the streets. Both he and two of his siblings are out of school and we are heavily in debt.

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.

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.”

2 — Mohamad, 35, Palestinian refugee from Syria, Beirut

Mohamad, 35, Palestinian refugee from Syria, in Beirut, Lebanon. Credit: Sahar el-Bachir/Oxfam
Mohamad, 35, Palestinian refugee from Syria, in Beirut, Lebanon. 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.

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 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!

I also love cricket, and though the game is not super popular in Lebanon, I spend hours coaching Lebanese and refugee kids.

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.”

3 — Fathi, 43, Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan

Fathi, 43, Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan. Credit: Nesma al-Nsour/Oxfam
Fathi, 43, Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan. 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.

Fathi shows a photo of his destroyed house back in Syria. Credit: Nesma al-Nsour/Oxfam
Fathi shows a photo of his destroyed house back in Syria. Credit: Nesma al-Nsour/Oxfam

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 favorite songs — reduced to rubble.

My heart aches when I think of everything we lost. It’s easier to avoid reminiscing. Even the music.

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.”

Oxfam helps vulnerable refugees like Fathi make a modest income while gaining valuable skills training at Za’atari Refugee Camp.

4 — Zahra, Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan

Zahra, Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan. Credit: Nesma al-Nsour/Oxfam
Oxfam helps ensure women at Za’atari Refugee Camp, like Zahra, are empowered to become leaders in their own communities. 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 person-hood 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.

Zahra, Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan. Credit: Nesma al-Nsour/Oxfam

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.”

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.

5 — Ibraheem, 48, Arbin, southwestern Syria

Ibraheem, 48, stands in the middle of his destroyed apartment in Eastern Ghouta, rural Damascus. Credit: Dania Kareh/Oxfam
Ibraheem, 48, stands in the middle of his destroyed apartment in Eastern Ghouta, rural Damascus. Credit: 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 fled 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 light-years 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. USD $60) 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.

I’m always wondering will I be able to restore the life we once had before the war?”

Oxfam helps people like Ibraheem in Arbin by rehabilitating water networks and ensuring families have food.

6 — Fatouma, 65, Arran, north Aleppo

Fatouma, 65, Arran, north Aleppo. Photo: Islam Mardini/Oxfam
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: 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 terrible: 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. 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 IS 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 IS, 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.”

Oxfam helps people like Fatouma across 17 towns in rural Aleppo by repairing water pumping stations, helping water to flow to thousands more households.

7 — Seeham, 40, Bugros, rural Deir ez-Zor

Oxfam assists people like Seeham by helping to restore livelihoods in the agriculture sector. Credit: Dania Kareh/Oxfam
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 IS 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.”

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

8 — Asmaa, 40, dressmaker, al-Bwaidieh, rural Deir Ez-Zor

Asmaa, 40, a dressmaker, in her shop in Al Bwaidieh, a rural area in Deir Ez-Zor governorate, Syria. Photo: Dania Kareh/Oxfam
Asmaa, 40, a dressmaker, sits in her small shop in al-Bwaidieh, a rural area in Deir Ez-Zor governorate, Syria. Credit: 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.

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.”

9 — Ahmad, 39, beekeeper, Aleppo

Ahmad, beekeeper in al-Zahraa, rural Aleppo, Syria. Credit: Islam Mardini/Oxfam
Oxfam helps people like Ahmad through cash-for-work programs, 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 scarce; supermarket shelves emptied and what little 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.

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 that we had seen the worst of it, but 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.”

Oxfam helps people like Ahmad through cash-for-work programs, helping people earn money that provides an opportunity to look after themselves and their families.

Over 2018/19, Oxfam in Syria helped over 1.2 million people with aid including clean water, cash, essential clothing items, and support to help make a living and grow nutritious food. In Lebanon and Jordan, Oxfam has to date helped some 300,000 people affected by the Syria crisis.

Please support Oxfam’s humanitarian work in the Syria Crisis.

*All names have been changed.

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Oxfam is a world-wide development organization that mobilizes the power of people against poverty.

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Oxfam International

Oxfam International

Oxfam is a world-wide development organization that mobilizes the power of people against poverty.

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