Stories from the heart of the Syria crisis.
Roueida, a Syrian refugee in Jordan
How do you begin to tell the story of Syria? We know it today as a land ravaged by conflict and bloodshed. A land of besieged towns and impoverished people. A land bereft of normal life.
Five years of fighting have left an indelible stain upon Syria’s history and spawned the greatest humanitarian crisis of our generation. The country has become inextricably linked to images of suffering, destruction and despair.
The numbers behind the crisis are staggering and impossible to truly comprehend. And like all statistics, they belie the true impact upon individual lives.
It was not always like this.
Syria is steeped in history, majesty and tradition. It is home to ancient mosques, churches, castles, Roman ruins and astounding cultural treasures. Ancient civilisations and empires have come and gone leaving their legacies behind. The great cities of Aleppo and Damascus are two of the oldest cities in the world, while the country’s numerous world heritage sites have long captivated and enchanted travellers.
And what of its people?
Syrians are profoundly proud of their heritage. They are dynamic, resilient, dignified and hospitable. They are part of a diverse and tolerant society. They do not care for differences in creed or ethnicity. Most importantly, they look after their family and they cherish their home.
How do you tell the story of Syria? You tell it through the eyes of its people.
Life amid conflict
Zuzan, 53, a Syrian refugee living in Bristol
Cold, lonely and hungry. Mohamad has little to cheer. All he has is hope. Hope that one day the guns will fall silent and that life will return to normal.
Mohamad is among the 6.6 million people forced to leave their homes within Syria due to the fighting – that’s more people than the entire population of Scotland. He has fled the bloodshed three times and has little access to food, water and medical supplies.
First, he left Aleppo for Raqqa. From Raqqa he moved to Tartous to stay with his brother and his family. When they could no longer afford to look after him, he returned to Aleppo. Now he lives with his daughter in an unfinished building that lacks windows, water and electricity.
Aged in his 70s, Mohamad is prone to bouts of sickness stemming from the cold. Medicines and treatment are not found easily.
“When I wake up, I can’t get out of bed. I have rheumatic pains in my hands. I cannot close them. I cannot wake until the warmth enters my body,” he said.
“This is not a life… I swear, this is not a life. It would be better if they sealed the windows with stones. A grave would be better. This flat needs a heater, but then I cannot work to provide diesel to fuel the heater.”
Mohamad owned a factory near the airport before the conflict. Together with his wife, they made a good living. But the factory was bombed and they lost everything.
While he battles to stave off hunger and the cold, he also has to contend with loneliness. His family has fled to Lebanon. Only his youngest daughter remains with him.
“For the last couple of days I’ve been feeling like I am going to die,” he said. “I live here only with my daughter. The flat is too cold. I cannot stand living here but I have no choice because we are alone. No children or grandchildren, I am so lonely.
“My neighbours help me. They are kind and respectful. But the problem is that all the people here are poor. We are all in the same position. They help us by giving bread and other things. They are helping me as much as they can. But I am sitting alone.”
Um Abdul Rahman
Um Abdul Rahman has nearly given up. The fighting has claimed the lives of her father, husband and a daughter. Three lives. The conflict has led to more than 250,000 deaths.
She has five children to support; Abdul Rahman is the eldest. He scavenges through rubbish and debris near their home looking for things to burn as fuel. Two of his brothers have mental health problems. He knows he has to support his mother any way he can. He is 10 years old. Some childhood.
“We have to burn slippers and plastic for heat, but this is very unhealthy. We suffer problems in our chests, especially me, I suffer from heart problems. I used to suffocate from the smell. I was also injured in the shelling, my head was hit by shrapnel and this has caused a neurological disease. I pass out frequently.”
The family shelter in an abandoned house with no protection from the cold. It is the third house they have sheltered in since leaving their Aleppo home more than one year ago. They rely on donations from neighbours and aid handouts to get by.
She added: “My children are sick. I want them to recover, but we have no heater. They cannot rest and keep warm. All I want is to help my children no matter what. I would do anything to support them.”
An estimated 13.5 million people need aid as a result of the Syria conflict. Some five million of them are children.
Five million children. That’s more than twice the population of Paris.
Rabia, 44, mother-of-two
Like millions of other Syrian refugees, Roueida and her family are eking out a frugal existence in a new country.
“We manage to get food from here and there, that is not an issue,” said Roueida, a mother-of-six. “We worry about the rent. We fear that if we don’t pay on time we will be thrown out into the streets.”
The family are living in the Jordanian city of Mafraq. They have spent all of their life savings. Unable to work, they are dependent on charity and their neighbours.
“We have good relations with our neighbours,” continued Roueida. “They come to visit us, they are welcoming and happy to help us with our children. Everything you see here – the mattresses, the carpet, the curtains, the TV – these were donated by our neighbours.”
The family fled from Homs three years ago. They are now among the 4.6 million Syrians who have left their homeland. Mariam, Roueida’s mother-in-law, explained that they tried to stay in Syria.
“Then there was some bad violence near the place where we lived. Our neighbours told us what they had seen.” The family had no choice but to leave.
“I fled first,” explained Roueida, “I had six children with me. The youngest one was just six months old when we left. It was hard to do that journey with a small child, but it was harder to leave my country.
Roueida worries about the effects the conflict has had on her children.
“In my son I see a tension and a lot of energy, but he doesn’t know what to do with it,” she said. “I didn’t allow them outside when the killing was going on. Someone was killed right outside our house. I heard someone calling ‘bring earth, bring earth’ to soak up the blood. My children heard all these things.”
She added: “We came here thinking it would be for one month – now it has been three, almost four years. It is painful for me what I see on TV about my country.
“My one wish for the future is for an end to the crisis. We want to go home. Even if we had no home to go to, at least we would be in our country. I want an end to the fighting.”
When you have troubles at home, you turn to your neighbours for help. And as the staggering numbers below indicate, Syria’s neighbours are supporting the vast majority of Syrian refugees. But what happens when your neighbours can no longer help you? You start to look further afield, towards the bright lights of Europe.
The conflict in Syria – along with other instability in the region – has fed into the European refugee crisis. Just over one million people arrived on Europe’s shores in 2015 in search of a new life. Syrians accounted for around half (498,370) of the arrivals. Syria is the main source of refugees in Europe, followed by Afghanistan and Iraq.
Lin is just 16. In December 2015, she spoke to the British Red Cross from a refugee transit camp in Gevgelija, in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. She described how it felt to leave her Damascus home with her family.
One week after this was filmed, Lin and her family arrived at a reception centre in Salzburg, Austria. “I am happy because I will soon see my father who is already in Germany,” said Lin.
“But I’m also sad because I am so far away from my country. I wish I could have stayed in Syria. It is my country and it’s very beautiful. But the situation is terrible. I can’t go to school or do anything there anymore. That’s why I am going to Germany. I hope to be able to study there and have a future.”
Crossing front lines
Marianne Gasser, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Syria
In 2015, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), working with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), helped millions of people inside Syria. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is by far the largest provider of aid in Syria today.
In the towns and neighbourhoods that have come under relentless shelling, the basic necessities for survival – food, water and health care – are in desperately short supply.
By following our principles of neutrality and impartiality, Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers can cross front lines and reach people cut off by fighting. But we cannot reach everyone, and we cannot do enough for those who we do reach. Aid is only ever a quick fix.
Nearly half a million people are living in besieged areas. At the start of 2016, Red Cross and Red Crescent aid convoys entered the southern town of Madaya, and the northern towns of Kefraya and Foua.
“Tortuous negotiations had taken place to gain access to Madaya and other besieged towns,” said Marianne Gasser, who heads the ICRC delegation in Syria. Madaya is besieged by pro-Syrian government forces; Foua and Kefraya by opposition groups.
“One town could not be given relief without relief going to the others – and at exactly the same time,” continued Gasser. “This system was so strictly followed that when one truck got stuck in the mud in the north, the trucks in the south could not move until it was freed.
“No food could be delivered to one town until it was shown – via photos on WhatsApp – that the same food was being delivered to the other side. Aid by synchronisation. This is not the way to run relief operations.”
ICRC spokesperson, Pawel Krzysiek, was on the convoy that entered Madaya. He sent this audio diary at the time:
Madaya is but one example of a town where aid is desperately needed. There are people across Syria who are in need of urgent help. The British Red Cross supports the work of the ICRC and the SARC through our Syria Crisis Appeal.
Also in 2015, around 130,000 people living in shelters in Aleppo, Homs, Lattakia, and rural Damascus received daily meals from the ICRC and the SARC. Some 1.6 million people received hygiene kits, towels, mattresses, blankets and other household essentials, while 410,000 people were given winter clothing.
The longevity of the crisis has meant that people cannot rely solely upon aid handouts. They need money to pay rent or put food on the table. That’s why the British Red Cross has been supporting cash transfer programmes in the region.
In Lebanon, we worked with our colleagues in the Lebanese Red Cross to give money to 700 families to help them through the winter. They were given $147 (£100) per month for four months. Each family received an e-card loaded with cash that can be withdrawn from ATMs.
“Giving people money, as opposed to relief items, can be a more effective way of supporting them,” said Razmi Farook, from the British Red Cross.
“It gives people the independence to buy goods according to their own needs, while it also helps to stimulate the local economy.”
In Jordan, we supported a programme to help Syrian refugees living through the winter in the south of the capital Amman. Each family received around £320 based on a family of five. More than half of those we helped were children.
“Syrians want to work, they don’t want to be reliant on aid handouts,” said Hosam Faysal, who heads up British Red Cross work in Syria. “They are creative, educated and skilled. They want to provide for themselves – they just need the means to do so.”
That’s where the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), the British Red Cross and some beautiful carpets come in.
Working closely with the SARC, the British Red Cross is embarking upon an innovative livelihoods scheme in a district near Damascus to help people forced from their homes.
The region has long been famed for its textile industry. Prior to the conflict, the historic souks of Damascus were awash with locally-produced carpets of every size, colour and pattern.
Carpet-making is a trade handed down through the generations. From individual households to large factories, the industry provided secure employment for many people. With the onset of the conflict, all of that changed.
The city of Al-Qutayfah is around 25 miles to the east of Damascus. It has been relatively untouched by the violence. As such, around 5,000 families have sought refuge in the area. Most fled the hostilities without personal possessions and rely on aid.
Price inflation and ongoing violence mean many shops, businesses and factories have been forced to close. Coupled with the influx of desperate families, there has been a sharp rise in unemployment.
Together with our colleagues from the SARC, we are launching vocational support in carpet manufacturing. By giving people new skills and tools, they can start their own business or gain employment.
“This idea came from the local community,” added Faysal. “It’s not just about giving people an income, it’s about restoring people’s sense of dignity, self-respect and community resilience.”
The eight-month project will help around 120 people. As people begin to generate an income, they will use the profits to replenish the raw materials.
Helping our people
Dr Abdul Rahman Attar, president of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent
What possesses someone to risk their own life to help a stranger? Why would someone stay behind in Syria when an easier life could be found elsewhere?
In a country riddled by disparate armed groups and shifting front lines, the volunteers of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) have an unenviable job. They are the ones entering besieged towns to deliver aid. They are the ones ducking under gunfire to provide medical care. They are the ones risking their lives every day.
By early 2016, more than 60 Red Crescent volunteers had lost their lives in Syria while on duty. Under international humanitarian law all civilians, including aid workers, must be respected and protected.
Despite the loss of lives, some 7,000 volunteers continue to help their fellow citizens. As a neutral and impartial organisation, SARC volunteers are able to cross front lines and gain access to areas out of bounds to other organisations. They are in a truly unique position in Syria.
So why do they do it?
Monzer Abdo, 25, a volunteer of six years
“One case that had a particular impact upon me and my colleagues was that of 14-year-old Molham. After the amputation of his father’s feet, he was the sole breadwinner for his family, but he got third-degree burns that crippled him and left him unable to move.
“We took it upon ourselves to take care of him and continue changing his bandages over a period of up to six months until he passed the stage of infection. The biggest reward we can get is the glimpse of happiness that we share with people who recover.”
Ahmed Youssef Hamadi, a volunteer of 14 years
“There was an incident when a shell hit during an aid distribution, injuring some of our volunteers and people we were helping. We started to help the injured quickly. We took people to the hospital and a medical centre. Later, I went back to the hospital and thankfully some of the people we helped had survived.
“We are in this time and this crisis. The situation is not perfect, but if you have first aid knowledge this helps a lot. The feeling when you save someone’s life, whether a relative or someone you don’t know, this is a feeling that cannot be described by words.”
Wajdi al-Qak, a volunteer of four years
“During the first workshop with SARC, one of the trainers asked me: ‘Why do you want to volunteer?’ I remember answering without thinking: ‘I want to wear the red uniform and be a first aider.’
“We help many people, but one face I cannot forget is a woman who was unable to move after an explosion next to her house. Her neighbours told us she was stuck.
“I cannot forget her eyes looking up at me and how she was praying for us non-stop. The house was destroyed, she was alone and could not move. Thankfully she survived.
“The strongest emotion I have is the weight of responsibility that comes with being a first aider and team leader. I am responsible for the safety of my colleagues and patients alike. When the day is over, we can rest in the knowledge that we have done everything possible to save lives.”
Wassim al-Atassi, a volunteer of 12 years
“On one occasion, I received a call at night to say that a child was injured by a bullet. The house where the child was located was in a dangerous area. I headed over with a first aid crew. The house was open to continuous sniper bullets.
“I told the crew to stay in the ambulance while I went with the family of the injured child. We crossed the road running. The child was injured in his leg and couldn’t walk.
“We carried him from the balcony of their building to the next balcony. When we got down, we transported him in a pickup vehicle. The driver turned off the lights to avoid being seen and drove fast until he got to our ambulance.”
Dr Abdul Rahman Attar, president of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent
“I can’t find the words to thank our volunteers. They have lost their homes, they have lost their families, they have lost their university education. They have no money. They had their lives and they gave them up to help their people.
“But some volunteers are leaving Syria. What can I say to them? It is their future. Believe me, this is a big loss. I am so proud of them. Sometimes I cry a little when I sign their certificates to say they are leaving. The volunteers are my children, we are a family.”
You can support the work of these volunteers by making a donation to the British Red Cross Syria Crisis Appeal.
Syrians in the UK
Sleman Shwaish, 28, a Syrian refugee in Huddersfield
Several thousand Syrian refugees are currently living in the UK. While their arrival here may symbolise the end of their journey, the reality is quite different. Adjusting to a new culture, language and traditions is no easy feat. Here, two Syrian refugees share their experiences.
Zuzan, 53, living in Bristol
“The hardest part of my life was leaving my children in Syria. I felt like I was dying every day without my kids. I felt I could commit suicide. I came to the British Red Cross in Bristol and I was just crying. I didn’t know what I was going to do.
“The Red Cross put me in touch with a solicitor and the Home Office. Soon I had a letter in Arabic explaining what was going on and then everything was okay.
“They are teenagers and it’s difficult for them to adjust to a new life in a new country. Two of them are at college and the youngest is at school. They are all very successful at their education and they study hard. Sometimes there are challenges, but compared to when I arrived in the UK alone, things are going well.
“I go to college to improve my English and I do drawing. I used to draw with a pen, but now they’re teaching me to use paint. Before I was painting portraits, now I paint trees and nature. I feel better when I’m doing my art. It helps me to relax.
“It was strange when I first arrived in the UK. London was busy and crowded. The Red Cross helped me a lot in the early days. They are a part of my family. I am quite fond of British people and the culture here. British people are very spontaneous. They express their feelings, I feel like they are free inside.”
Sleman Shwaish, 28, living in Huddersfield
“I love England. Something here is special. People love and respect me – that means a lot. Life here is not just about money. I am not sure I would find people as lovely as they are here if I went elsewhere.
“I arrived in the UK in 2012. People were smiling at the airport. I had a nice feeling, I had fulfilled my dream to get to the UK to continue my studies. But at the same time I was also sad. I knew I wouldn’t see my parents anymore.
“My English was okay when I arrived. I used to follow the news about the UK when I was in Syria. I knew about the culture, the royal family and football – we used to watch Manchester United and Manchester City on TV. I would love to see a match in Manchester.
“The English have been so friendly and welcoming. Well, most of them. I’ve met a few people who have been against refugees, but it’s not their fault. They just don’t know or understand what’s happening in Syria.
“One thing that surprised me about life here is how you eat sausages for breakfast. How can you eat them at breakfast? I cannot understand this. They are so heavy. In Syria, we normally have something light, like olives, hummus or cheese. But not sausages. I still find that strange.
“It was so hard to leave Syria. You leave your soul behind and your body runs away. You leave everything behind, including your memories. It was not an easy decision to leave. When peace returns to Syria, I will be among the first to return and help rebuild it. It is a beautiful country with beautiful people.”
Please donate to our Syria Crisis Appeal to help the people of Syria. Thank you.