Faces of Syria
With the war in Syria entering its sixth year, it’s easy to get lost in the facts and figures: As many as 470,000 dead; 4.6 million refugees who have fled the country; 6.6 million displaced within it; 13.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.
The enormity of the need can overwhelm us. But what can help is putting a face on the crisis—meeting some of the people affected by the war and hearing their stories.
In late March, John Longhurst, Director of Resource and Public Engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank, went to Jordan and Lebanon to visit Syrian refugees who are being assisted through Foodgrains Bank members, Mennonite Central Committee Canada, Canadian Lutheran World Relief, as well as the Manitoba Council for International Cooperation. Foodgrains Bank projects are undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada.
While Canadians are to be applauded for responding generously to sponsor thousands of Syrian refugees come to Canada, the fact is the vast majority of people in need due to the war are in Syria and surrounding countries—and few of them want to come to this country. Their dream is to return home when the war is over, and rebuild their lives.
Aid from organizations based in the province are helping tens of thousands survive until that occurs, and at a fraction of the cost of sponsoring a refugee family to come to Canada.
The monthly food baskets or vouchers worth up to $80 per month not only provide much-needed supplementary food, but gives them hope and reminds them they are not forgotten.
Due to security or privacy concerns, some of the refugees whose stories are told on these pages declined to use their full names, or to be photographed.
Since 2012 the Foodgrains Bank has provided over $29 million of assistance for people affected by the war in Syria. Click here to make a donation to the Foodgrains Bank Syria appeal.
Life in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan is hard for Mustafah and Fatiya Al-Nadilsy and their family for many reasons, including lack of work. “I feel like a caged animal,” says Mustafah. “I get up, I eat, I go to bed. There is nothing to do . . . Please help me find a job. I have nothing.”
For Ghassim al-Haraki and his wife, Lamya, the future is back in Syria—not coming to Canada. Why not? Canada is so far away, and they don’t know the language, culture and customs. Plus, he says sticking his nose in the air and breathing deeply, “I can smell Syria from here.”
It’s one of the few patches of green in the brown and dusty Za’ Atari refugee camp in northern Jordan—a small soccer pitch in the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) compound where kids can play sports. But they aren’t only having fun; they are also learning conflict resolution skills that can help them when they return home to Syria.
When visitors from Canada prepare to leave, Abdal offers a message for those who donate to provide food vouchers for his family: “Thank-you for making this happen,” he says. “You have wide hands. Thank-you for not forgetting us.”
If it wasn’t so tragic, it would be ironic that the Al Naser family—which has various health issues—has found shelter with 300 other families in an abandoned hospital in Beirut, Lebanon. “We had a good life in Syria,” Owsama says. “We had our own house,” Rasmiyah adds. “Now we have to pay rent and he has no job.”
When Fred Rogers, of Mr. Rogers Neighbourhood, was a boy, and he saw scary things in the news, his mother would say: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” When it comes to scary, few things top the war in Syria. But like Mr. Rogers said, where there are scary things there are also helpers—people like staff at MCC’s partner in Lebanon, the Popular Aid for Relief and Development.
In her book Women Without Men, Mennonite Refugees of the Second World War, Marlene Epp presented the story of thousands of Mennonite women in the former Soviet Union who lost their husbands to Stalinist work camps and in fighting during the Second World War. Epp’s book came to mind while visiting Kadijah Abasa and Fadia Al Mhawash in Ramtha, Jordan—two women who have lost their husbands to the war in Syria.
When Canadians think of food distributions in the developing world, they usually think of a flat, dry, dusty plain with bags of wheat or other grains being handed out to hungry people—the kind of thing normally shown in the media. The food distribution for Syrian refugees in Sidon (known as Saida in Arabic), Lebanon doesn’t look anything like that.
Mohammed Ibrahim and his wife, Jalelah, and their six children live in a one-room apartment with one tiny window. “Back home in Syria, they had a nice house with a beautiful garden. “Here it is like a prison,” says Jalelah. “We can’t feel free.”
Fairouz Akkar has lost her husband, brother and home to the war in Syria. With four children, to look after, how does the Syrian refugee keep going? “I am a mother,” she says. “If I weaken, my children will suffer.”
It’s hard to come up with a firm figure, but there are between 1-1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon—a country of just 4.5 million people prior to the crisis. Around 400,000 of them have found shelter in the country’s Bekaa valley, including Ibrahim Yasser, his wife Shaima and their six children. For them, help from Canadian Foodgrains Bank is a real gift. “It is more than important,” says Ibrahim. “Without it, we would have no food.”
Haitham is just ten years old. He should be in school, playing with his friends, just being a kid. Instead, he works at a garage in Beirut from 8 AM to 9 PM, making just $20 a week. “I don’t like it, but what can I do?” asks his mother Sidra, a Syrian refugee. “We need the money.”
If the parable of the Good Samaritan was to be written today, the injured man could be a Syrian refugee in Lebanon and the Samaritan would be Christian churches that are helping the refugees.“We saw this as an opportunity to show love and kindness,” says Reverend George Najjar, pastor of the True Vine Church in Zahle, in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. “We tell them we are helping because we are Christians expressing our love.”
All Fatima wants to do is go back to being a teacher in Syria. “I miss teaching,” says the former elementary school teacher, covering her face with her hands and sighing so deeply you feel all the cares of the world are being exhaled out of her body. “Now I can’t do anything.”
The meeting about the dire situation in Syria was proceeding as smoothly as expected—until the translator started crying. “I’m sorry,” said Miralle after relaying comments about how children are suffering in that country. “I have kids of my own.”