A staple of Syrian life
Think for a moment of a food that appears every day on your dinner table, something that is a ubiquitous symbol of your culture. Got it? Speaking for myself, I can think of so many foods that not only define my cultural upbringing but also symbolize home and togetherness with family. Now imagine what your life would be like if that food were no longer available to you, or if you had to go to great lengths to get it.
For Syrians that food is bread. Bread is a pillar of Syrian society. It’s the primary source of carbohydrates and protein, but it’s also much more: bread plays a central role in social and cultural settings, and for many Syrians, access to bread is considered a human right. Without it, the social fabric of Syrian society — already weakened by loss of homes, jobs, families, and all sense of normalcy — begins to tear.
After five years of war, an infrastructure in disarray
This is the fifth year of the Syrian conflict. What began as a peaceful protest in the midst of the Arab Spring turned into a bloody civil war and is now arguably the most politically complex crisis of our time.
She said bread had become increasingly scarce before she left Syria, as bakeries, flour mills, and wheat collection centers came under attack from all sides.
The numbers are staggering. Since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, an estimated quarter of a million lives have been lost. 4.8 million people have fled the country and another 6.6 million people within Syria have been forced to flee their homes — that is roughly half of Syria’s pre-war population. About two-thirds of the remaining population is in urgent need of food or some form of humanitarian assistance.
“You can’t imagine life without bread.”
I had the opportunity to visit the homes of Syrian refugees during a recent trip to Turkey, and I spoke with them about bread’s nutritional, political, and symbolic importance in Syrian culture. One woman told me, “you can’t imagine life without bread.” She said bread had become increasingly scarce before she left Syria, as bakeries, flour mills, and wheat collection centers came under attack from all sides. Many bakeries are now non-functional or completely destroyed. I listened to their stories about how they had to wait in long lines for bread, often from morning until night, in constant fear that the bakery might be attacked.
In 2016, Concern helped to rehabilitate a bakery in Northern Syria.
Concern is determined to do something about this situation. In addition to working with Syrian refugees in Turkey and Lebanon, we are also working inside Syria, providing immediate life-saving assistance to the most vulnerable and also striving to provide a sense of normalcy to thousands whose lives have been disrupted by war.
Bringing bread to a war zone
In 2016, Concern helped to rehabilitate a bakery in Northern Syria. Bakeries have special importance not just because they supply bread — with all the nutritional and symbolic benefits that it involves — but also because they create and sustain livelihoods. In addition, Concern has been restoring water and sanitation systems to provide access to safe and clean drinking water and to prevent the spread of disease.
Should the families I met in Turkey ever return to their homes in Syria — and the vast majority do want to go home — it’s our hope that they will return to a neighborhood bakery still able to provide them with a central staple even if everything else may seem uncertain.
Though it will take years for Syria to rebuild, I look hopefully toward the current diplomatic efforts to find an end to the conflict. Perhaps next year we’ll be celebrating the first anniversary of the peace in Syria.
Abby Bruell is Concern Worldwide U.S.’s Humanitarian Program & Policy Officer. She oversees Concern’s humanitarian programs funded by the U.S. Government, including USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and Office of Food for Peace and the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration at the State Department. She also advocates on humanitarian policy issues of importance to Concern to the UN and the U.S. Government.
Header image courtesy of Emily Orpin, license details here.