The civil war in Syria forced Maram and her family to flee without any possessions. Five years later they’re still homeless and yet to return.
Security has improved in the capital, Damascus, and the family’s hometown in the adjoining suburb of Ghouta, but the humanitarian situation remains critical. Winter is on its way and will make conditions worse.
The family now lives in an empty elevator engine room on top of an apartment building in Damascus.
“I feel that this room is like a palace when I compare it to the public garden where we lived for three years, or if I compare it to my destroyed house in our hometown in Ghouta now…”
Maram breaks off her sentence, unable to hold back the tears.
Maram’s family is among the country’s 6.1 million internally displaced people. The war, now in its eighth year, is one of the world’s worst ever humanitarian catastrophes. Most international experts estimate over 500,000 people have died in the violence.
Like most Syrians, 25-year-old Maram and her husband, Ibrahim, are still unable to meet their three children’s basic needs. They are dependent on humanitarian aid, which Caritas is helping to provide.
The United Nations estimates that of Syria’s 22 million population, 13.1 million are dependent on aid inside the country, with 5.6 million in acute need.
Ghouta, Maram’s hometown, endured what the UN described in a recent report as “the longest-running siege in modern history”.
In April 2013, pro-government forces encircled the area and its inhabitants were bombed and denied food and medicine.
Maram and Ibrahim escaped the violence with their children, Mohamed who is now eight years old, and Shahd, seven. Their youngest, Mahmoud, is two years old.
Without being able to take any of their belongings, they headed to Damascus and sheltered in a public garden.
“I lost all the privacy back there in the garden,” said Maram. “People used to come and watch us like if they were in a cinema.”
“Life was very difficult there especially in the cold winter,” she added. “At least now I have a window and a door to close on my children.”
Ibrahim works as a security guard in the garden as well as doing odd jobs to try to support his family.
One of his work colleagues, who knew about Ibrahim’s family’s lack of housing, told him that his family could stay in the empty elevator room in his building.
However, its tenants have applied for permission to install an elevator. Once permission is granted, Maram and her family will have to leave.
“I don’t know what is going to happen when the permission is issued. I feel myself worried all the time thinking of where to go or live after that,” said Maram.
Ghouta might have been one possible solution. President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed forces captured the area in April this year after a prolonged period of massive bombardment.
Since then, almost 32,000 people have returned to their areas of origin in Ghouta, with some 7,000 remaining in IDP camps.
However, the conflict damaged or destroyed public and private facilities in Ghouta. Many hospitals, schools, water and sewage systems, agriculture, transportation, housing, and infrastructure are no longer functioning.
“Our house back home is totally destroyed. Only the kitchen is still standing,” said Maram. “Most of our village is destroyed and doesn’t have electricity or water. Despite all the bad circumstances, my brothers-in-law went back, but for us, it is impossible as we have no house there anymore.”
In Ghouta shelters are overcrowded with unsanitary basements and very limited access to basic commodities and services. Access to education remains challenging as most schools need rehabilitation. There is also a lack of medical care and healthcare facilities.
As winter deepens, so too have people’s hardships, and Caritas is stepping up its assistance in the area.
In July, Caritas arrived in Ghouta, and, cooperating with the local Hifzalnema Islamic Charity, distributed 1,480 food baskets, 1,000 packs of fresh vegetables and 600 boxes of diapers.
In September, Caritas provided 1,240 food kits for families through Hifzalnema, the cooperation underscoring the successful interfaith partnership that Caritas has achieved in Ghouta.
The organization is now planning on helping communities in Ghouta to prepare for the winter, chiefly in the form of help with heating and blankets.
Caritas is completing a needs assessment with the aim of designing a response that will be beneficial for the Internally Displaced People, returnees and local communities in Ghouta. This assessment will include shelter and education components that will inform future programs.
To build on its interfaith work, Caritas is also organizing a solidarity walk toward Ghouta. They will invite Christian scout groups to participate with Muslims from the area “to break the ice”.
“Most Christians have the idea that all people in Ghouta are terrorists and they were refusing to help,” said Sandra Awa from Caritas Syria. “We want to try to work on that.”
However, despite the work of Caritas and other relief organizations, people like Maram will struggle to get through this winter.
“Everything is very expensive, there have been many days that we couldn’t feed our children apart from with some bread,” said Maram. “You can’t imagine how sad I feel when my son asks me for a piece of candy and I can’t buy it for him.”
In Damascus, Caritas is now helping 1,142 families, including Maram’s, through an open voucher project designed to help the city’s neediest people.
“When I received Caritas call yesterday, I felt so happy. My children started to jump as if we won the lotto,” Maram said. “They insisted to go with me to the supermarket when I want to use the voucher. They were so excited that they would be able to choose some candies and biscuits.”
Maram was also able to buy some warm pajamas for her children to help stave off the winter cold. But unfortunately, they were lost, perhaps stolen on a bus.
“I was so depressed as my children didn’t have any warm clothes for winter,” Maram explained. “The next day, I received a phone call from Caritas telling me they would give me a second voucher. I just started crying and crying. With the support of Caritas, I feel that God is still with us and standing beside us in the hard time we are living in”.