A crisis in a crisis: Syrians battle hunger alongside war

A crisis in a crisis: Syrians battle hunger alongside war

Jul 16, 2020

For Syrians these days, going to a market is like waking up in a nightmare. Only this nightmare is real. People no longer recognise the streets they used to walk, either from being displaced and somewhere new or from being surrounded by physical reminders of destruction from a devastating war. A constant fear of new attacks makes every noise a potential alert. Now, seeing prices 20 times higher than before the conflict began nine years back seems simply unbelievable.

Even with the global COVID-19 pandemic and the first four cases recently confirmed in northwest Syria, the current more tangible threat for people is food insecurity. Prices have skyrocketed in recent, months while the value of the Syrian Pound has hit an all-time low, to the extent that people have started using foreign currencies more and more.

The cost of food has increased 209% only in the last year, and in the past six months alone the number of "food insecure" people in Syria has increased 1.4 million people to reach 9.3 million, according to World Food Programme data. The United Nations warned that the deterioration of food security and livelihoods are likely to exacerbate existing substantial humanitarian needs across the country.

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Ahmed, a butcher like his father from the town of Ariha in northwest Syria, recalls that before the war they used to slaughter around 40 sheep every day. “Year by year things started to worsen.” From 30 a day in the first year of the war in Syria, Ahmed explained, down to 20, 15, 10…until it reached only five a day in 2019. “This year, every sheep we slaughter takes two or three days to be sold,” Ahmed explains hopelessly from his stall in a market.

Priorities have changed, and people who used to have meat twice a week have it maybe just once a month as they prioritize cheaper food like rice and bread. “Today, an elderly woman wanted to buy chicken kebab for 500 pounds. This would mean that she could just get 95 grams of chicken. Without saying anything to her, I gave her 200 grams so that she can have a good meal,” says Ahmed.

“Just between the months of May and June, the cost of the most basic survival items (SMEB) increased by 66% in northwest Syria, largely due to a sharp rise in the price of basic food items, according to a recent REACH assessment. The reported lack of livelihoods opportunities and the extremely low wages relative to prices make it almost impossible to survive: based on REACH daily wage data, a daily labourer would have to work 82 days a month just to earn the cost of basic items for one month.

Rimah, a 41-year-old woman from Ariha, doesn’t even consider buying meat anymore. Her only focus now is to make ends meet as a widow with six children, no job and no savings after being forced into displacement twice. She returned to her hometown earlier this year after a ceasefire was agreed.

“I bought a 16-kilo ghee [butter] can for 7,000 pounds a few months ago. Now it is worth 30,000 pounds. One litre of oil was worth 800 pounds but now it costs more than 4,000 pounds,” Rimah explains, tired of always being in debt. She recently received food vouchers assistance from People in Need, funded by the United States Agency for International Development’s Office of Food for Peace, containing several vouchers worth a sum of 128,000 pounds.

Rimah explains how she is living with the children in an old home and she has to care of them all on her own. Even when she has happened to get a job, she couldn’t afford taking it for long as her work in the house is very much needed. She recently found a job as a cleaner in a hospital in her town, however she had to quit because she sometimes had to do night shifts and would arrive home to see that her children had not had breakfast or gone to school. “They are too little and can’t stay alone. Also, since the war started everything has changed and we have been under great psychological pressure,” Rimah explains, making clear that there are several factors making the current situation dire.

For Rawda, after losing her husband and being displaced by the conflict, what concerns her the most at the moment is the current cost of living. In spite of returning to her clay house in her hometown, she warns that “the situation has never been worse” in Idlib province. Rawda has no source of income and has been receiving food vouchers from People in Need that she says she uses to buy ghee, tomato paste, lentils, rice and even vegetables and meat. “It alleviates our burdens and expenses. We spend many days just eating ready-to-eat noodles and tea,” Rawda admits.

And how are people coping? Mohamed is a 32-year-old Syrian who works as a daily worker in one of the main markets in the same town. He is a father of two and he explains how, before the conflict started and even during the first years, he and his family managed to make ends meet. But “the longer the conflict is, the more difficult it is to get a job, while money keeps losing its value. In the past few years, and even months ago, if you had 1,000 pounds you could buy a bread package, two kilos of potatoes, some onions and parsley. But today just the bread pack is worth almost 1,000 pounds. Prices of all items have sharply increased already many times. Today, headache tablets cost 1,500 and my daily income is just 3,000; a kilo of nappies costs 5,000. How can a family with two little children survive? This is simply catastrophic,” Mohamed complains desperately.

The math is desperately clear to him: “Each kilo of chicken is worth 3,000 which equals my daily income. Each gas cylinder is 22,000 pounds, so I fear running out of gas because each time this happens we struggle to buy a new one. I never expected we would face such harsh conditions.” Like him, “hundreds of thousands of people have similar stories and even worse,” he concludes.

*Some names in the story have been changed for security reasons

Author: Omar Khattab and Nina Tramullas, People in Need