“The future is not clear”: Syrians reflect on a lost decade

March 12, 2021
Written by Olivia Giovetti

“I thought we’d be here for just a month,” Fatima* told us in 2018 from her makeshift home in an informal tented settlement (ITS) in northern Lebanon. The mother of four was forced to relocate herself and her children when armed forces had surrounded their village in Syria. No one could get out. Then the bombs began. After four failed attempts to escape the violence, they were successful. 

But refuge came at a cost: When we spoke to Fatima in 2018, her husband was still in their village, unable to join his family. Her parents were there too. “I miss everything,” she said of home. “Living in Syria was bounteous. I liked living near my parents and brothers and sisters.” 

In Lebanon, Fatima has struggled to pay rent on a shelter that is in disrepair, with broken boards, infestations of cockroaches, limited water, and winters that are brutal and bitter. Unable to afford the tuition prices, her children remained at home, out of school and with little to do but wait. 

What Fatima and her family — along with millions of other Syrians — are waiting for is uncertain. This month marks the tenth anniversary of a crisis in Syria brought on by conflict, mass displacement, civilian casualties, the destruction of infrastructure, and other violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws. While many Syrians wish to return home, the road to getting there is less certain in 2021 than it was at the beginning of the crisis. 

Compounding factors 

Concern has worked with Fatima and families like hers, providing wood and shelter kits and building toilets and water points in their communities. While these measures are vital improvements in their daily lives, they’re only one aspect of a complex crisis. 

That crisis has only worsened in the last year: Estimates in 2021 indicate 13.4 million people still living in Syria who are in need of humanitarian assistance. An additional 5.5 million Syrian refugees are living in host communities, the majority of which are in neighboring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. 

2020 further complicated matters, pushing already-limited resources, resilience, and coping mechanisms to the brink. Both the escalation of hostilities in northern Syria and the COVID-19 pandemic have limited access for humanitarians still operating in the region. A worsening economic situation, fewer employment opportunities, and a food security crisis have added to the vulnerability of many Syrians still living in-country, who are now facing fewer options. Over 1.5 million internally-displaced Syrians who turned to “last resort” shelters in overcrowded areas live mainly in tents and without access to safe water, food, healthcare, or psychosocial support. As families struggle to cope, women and girls are especially vulnerable to domestic violence.  As conditions worsen, many families resort to negative coping mechanisms, such as early and forced marriage

A Syrian refugee child stands in front of her home in an informal tented settlement in Bebnine, Lebanon.

A refugee child stands in front of her home in an informal tented settlement in Lebanon in 2013, where Concern Worldwide distributed tarps to vulnerable families following a night of heavy rains. Photo: Crystal Wells.

“Between heaven and hell”

Crisis knows no borders. Neighboring countries, which are the primary countries of refuge for Syrians, haven’t been spared the compounding effects of a decade-long conflict. Nearly one in four people living in Lebanon is now a Syrian refugee and while the generosity shown by host communities has been amazing, it is being seriously stretched The ongoing consequences of the pandemic, Lebanon’s own deepening economic crisis, and last summer’s explosion in Beirut have disproportionately affected these populations. . 

“Put yourself in my position: It was because of my family that I came here,” Habib* told us in 2013. Then 59 years old, the father of 10 was living with his wife and children in the basement of an unfinished concrete building. Each family rented a room in the structure for $150 a month. Each room was damp, despite no running water, and had intermittent electricity at best, coupled with holes for windows. “In Syria, I was everything… Here, I am nothing.”

“In Syria, I was everything… Here, I am nothing.”

Many refugees living abroad are unable to find steady work, which has made living conditions like Habib’s the norm rather than the exception for the last decade. It is harder and harder to find work as a refugee.

Reflecting on pre-war life in Syria and her own situation as a refugee, Habib’s 37-year-old neighbor Sara* said “The difference is between heaven and hell.”

Syrian refugee children try to make their way through the snow and slurry

Syrian refugee children try to make their way through the snow and slurry in Lebanon.

A crisis across generations

As parents, Fatima, Habib, and Sara all stressed that their own personal suffering was second to their concerns over their children. “I am always worried for my children that something will happen to them,” Rana* told us in 2019. Her family fled Syria with just the clothes on their backs. “I didn’t put my youngest child in school because there is a water canal next to the school and I am afraid that they could fall in and drown.”

For all the pandemic-prompted conversations in the last year about “going back to normal” and “the new normal,” most Syrians under the age of 18 have grown up with a normalization of conflict, volatility, poverty, and displacement that will impact them for the rest of their lives.

“For my generation and me, the future is not clear.”

Samer* was 14 when the conflict started. When we met him just two years later he had already accepted that he had lost one of his basic human rights: his education. “I won’t go back to school,” he told us at 16. “I have lost my will now after missing it for two years.” Even if the conflict had ended earlier on, he reasoned that he would be behind in class and that the education system would take much longer to regain its footing. “For my generation and me, the future is not clear.”

Since then, a new generation of Syrians has been born, reached the age to begin primary school, and has been left to sit on the sidelines. Some, like Layal*, who was 11 when we interviewed her in 2017, were forced to step into parental roles. Despite being a child herself, Layal was the oldest of her siblings and had lost both of her parents. While she was out of school, she worked to ensure that her brothers and sister would have an education while they lived in an informal settlement in Lebanon. Like Samer, she spoke with a voice older than her years, a sign of the trauma of crisis and conflict. “It’s so far away, the future,” she said about her own hopes. “Now, I am 11 years old, and I don’t know what I will do when I am 12 years old.”

Children playing in their new home which is an abandoned school in Syria, September 2013. Photo: Arjan Ottens

What comes next — and why

While these interviews present an insight into the individual stories Concern teams have witnessed and heard over the course of the Syrian conflict, the devastating truth is that they all sound remarkably the same. This underscores the lack of progress on the part of the international community to work towards a lasting peaceful solution and a safe path for those who wish to return.

For nearly 20 million Syrians, the last decade has effectively been lost. “It is so difficult for a person accustomed to the culture and society where I was living to just leave everything and get out,” Ahmed* told us from his family’s tent a few years ago. “But it was like something imposed on us.… We need to face reality and see what will happen in the future.”

“I wish I had met you in Syria when we had a normal life there. You would come to Syria as tourists and have fun there, and I would host you at my house.”

The stress of living in this situation is almost unimaginable, but there really is no alternative. Still, Ahmed like many of his compatriots, also maintains hope for a better future and an ingrained sense of Syrian hospitality. “I wish I had met you in Syria when we had a normal life there,” he said. “You would come to Syria as tourists and have fun there, and I would host you at my house.”

“Bark Allah lak,’ant tahsud ma tazrae,” Victor*, one of Ahmed’s neighbors, told us. In Arabic, it translates to: “May God bless you, you will reap what you sow.” 

Learn more about our work in Syria — and how you can help

*All names changed for security purposes.