Syria reaches a grim anniversary in March: eight years of civil war. After half a million deaths, with 11.6 million people forced from home, what is daily life like inside Syria now? Caritas reports from Aleppo.
For most Syrian families, the nightmare of constant bombing and gunfire has ceased. The government has largely retaken control, except for a last opposition stronghold around Idlib. But those who survived the shelling and snipers must now survive an uncertain peace.
With unexploded ordinance still littering Aleppo, only the main streets are safe, especially in the east. The UN deems the situation too risky for people to go home. Yet Caritas is witnessing an upsurge in returnees to Aleppo, with 2.25 million people in dire need living inside the gutted buildings.
While many aid agencies are pulling out of the city, Caritas Syria has started its next three-year, €4.1 million project for Aleppo, aimed at reaching 70,000 of its most vulnerable residents.
Caritas is working across political and religious divides in a country split by civil war. “We are all Syrians,” points out Hanan Bali of the Caritas Aleppo team, explaining how their work is dramatically improving relationships between Christian and Muslim communities.
She was one of the first aid workers to go into the badly-hit east of the city after the siege ended. “The Muslims were astonished when they saw us climbing over the rubble to get to them. They asked, ‘Aren’t you Christian?!’ They didn’t believe we would come back.”
The Caritas team did come back, with food, warm clothes, and friendship. “Our relationship now is very strong,” says Hanan. Four Muslim members of staff have been recruited in Caritas Aleppo.
Meanwhile in Ghouta, outside Damascus, Caritas Syria is working with Muslim relief organization Hifz al-Neema (“Save the Grace”). Amid massive destruction following a five-year siege, the priorities are to distribute emergency food, clothes, nappies, and fuel.
Needs are enormous in a country with 6.6 million internally displaced people and 2.1 million children out of school. The global Caritas network reached 667,000 people throughout Syria in 2018, with emergency food and essential medical care, help with rebuilding homes and restarting livelihoods. In four years Caritas has spent $167m in Syria.
Gradually the painful process of recovery is beginning. “There’s a lot of difference even in one year,” says George Antoine from Caritas in Aleppo. “Life is slowly returning.”
Prices have skyrocketed, however: families need at least eight times their pre-war income to cover basic needs. Even those with a breadwinner must still rely on Caritas food baskets and vouchers. “Caritas Aleppo is providing food and psychological support,” lists George, “also classes for children up to school entry, medical help, and rent. We also deliver water.”
Caritas is supporting shattered communities to survive and move forward. As George Homis, an engineer who has recently returned to his home parish and is now helping his neighbors rebuild their houses, says: “We can’t stay as we are. We have to take the first steps. The people of Aleppo are very active people, they work hard. Now the fighting has stopped, life will come back.”