Families hold onto hope inside Syria

March 16, 2017
Written by Helene Hetrick

The Syrian crisis is the defining humanitarian challenge of our time, but many of us only know about it from the point of view of refugees, because we seldom hear from the millions still trapped inside Syria. Concern’s new Shattered Lives report aims to change that by featuring the testimony of groups of Syrians talking about their fears and concerns.

Can you imagine holding onto hope for more than 2,000 days? After you’ve lost your home, your spouse, your family? The Syrian conflict, which today enters its seventh year, has put unimaginable pressures on the civilian population. As our new report shows, violence is no longer limited to combat, but now affects almost every aspect of life — sometimes in very subtle but nonetheless brutal ways.

“I am not afraid of dying, I fear disability.”

Though much of the news coverage has focused on images of Syrians fleeing to Europe and the tumultuous political debate surrounding refugees, in reality 14 in every 15 of Syria’s displaced people are still in the region. Most of the displaced  — 6.3 million — remain within Syria. They remember the middle-income country they loved, which just six years ago enjoyed a relatively high average life expectancy and standard of living, and they haven’t given up their dreams of rebuilding that once more.


Syrian boys play with cardboard boxes in Syria

Recently displaced children make toys out of cardboard boxes and play next to war-torn buildings. Their families received food baskets and hygiene kits from Concern.

However, life within Syria is now almost unrecognizable from what it was six years ago. What once were day-to-day activities, like going to buy bread, are now sources of threats such as harassment, theft, or even bombings. Before the war, when kids were late getting home, their parents used to worry they were up to mischief with friends — now they fear they’ve been kidnapped, or recruited by an armed group. Families are forced to marry off their young daughters just so they have one fewer mouth to feed. Men who were once proud providers for their families can no longer find work, and, feeling helpless and hopeless, strike out in anger at their wives and children.

Concern has been working in Syria since 2013, focusing on meeting basic needs such as clean water, food, and hygiene. We’ve also been working to ensure vulnerable groups, such as women, children, the elderly, and the disabled, enjoy safety and dignity. As part of this work, we recently spoke with groups of Syrian civilians about their fears and concerns. We spoke with men, boys, girls, and women separately. These are some of the things they told us.

Physical fears

Displaced Syrian boys from Concern’s community focus groups told us, “I am not afraid of dying, I fear disability.”

“I know a seven-year-old child who is lubricating and greasing cars, a job that is too tiring for a child of that age, and I cannot do anything to help him.”

In the rural villages of Syria, there are few 18 to 35-year-old men left. They have been recruited by armed groups, fled the country, or died in the conflict. This leaves many households without the main breadwinner, and consequently more and more children are taking jobs in order to help support their families. Frequently, these jobs are hazardous or simply inappropriate for small children.

“I know a seven-year-old child who is lubricating and greasing cars, a job that is too tiring for a child of that age, and I cannot do anything to help him” said a member in our men’s discussion group.

Impossible choices

Other families have been faced to make even more desperate decisions. “I know about some parents that gave their child in adoption to another family because they were unable to buy milk or basic supplies,” says another man from Concern’s discussion group.

Displaced Syrian families wait in line to redeem Concern food vouchers

Displaced families wait in line to purchase food with vouchers from Concern.

Many families have sent their young sons alone to neighboring Turkey, with hopes they can find work and send back money to help cover the basic needs of the family.

Emotional toll

While nobody is immune from the effects of violence, women and girls have special vulnerabilities because there are fewer places they can turn for help. Even if a woman’s claim of domestic violence were believed, it might lead to divorce, which frequently has devastating economic and social impacts.

“Girls are subject to domestic violence perpetrated by their brothers (who in turn) receive preferential treatment from their parents.”

Girls in Concern’s focus groups told us they feel powerless and that their families won’t always support them if they suffer sexual abuse or harassment. “Girls are subject to domestic violence perpetrated by their brothers (who in turn) receive preferential treatment from their parents,” explain the women from one of Concern’s community focus groups.

Even schools, once safe havens for children, are now at increased risk of violent attacks. The same is true of any event, festival, or large gathering of people. And with few health centers still functioning, it’s almost impossible to access psychosocial support.

How we’re responding

Inside Syria, Concern is providing immediate assistance to newly displaced families. This includes food baskets, hygiene kits, clean water, and basic items like blankets, tarps, jerry cans, and sleeping mats. We also provide food vouchers for vulnerable families in areas where markets are available.

A shortage of clean water is one of the most pressing concerns, with the threat of water-borne diseases heightened by the disruption of sanitation services due to conflict. Concern provides clean drinking water by rehabilitating water pumping stations, extending water supply networks, rehabilitating sewage networks, and conducting solid waste removal campaigns.

Clean water truck in Syria

Displaced Syrian families congregate at a water truck, which Concern fills with clean water regularly.

In response to the focus groups findings included in the Shattered Lives report, Concern has also started livelihoods trainings for women, which gives them space to socialize as well as the possibility of learning new skills. We also provide child friendly spaces where we conduct psychosocial support activities for children affected by the conflict, many of whom are orphans, to help them cope with their daily lives.

Help us reach more vulnerable families like those inside Syria