Livelihoods at Stake as Winter Looms

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Blog by Rosie Thompson, Media Officer, Save the Children


“Cat, dog…duck” pipes up six year old Tarek as he sits nestled beside me pointing enthusiastically at animals in his English book.  A skinny boy with a toothy smile, Tarek has been a student at the local boys primary school in East Amman since his family fled from Syria in June.

We sit on a battered thin mattress, in a small sparse room, with Tarek’s two younger brothers, mother, grandmother, aunt and three youthful uncles. Cold cement floors, partially covered with a few tatty rugs, line their two-room apartment. Across from me colourful sheets, bought from the local market hang lifelessly in front of a large window, the only window in the house.

Tarek’s grandmother, Laila, is in her late fifties - smile and frown lines frame her hardenedblue eyes. She’s the character of the family, a strong woman who likes to tease her children and grandchildren. She smiles inwardly when she explains to me how life was in Syria before the conflict began. Her husband owned a construction company and they lived comfortably in Homs. Her voice quivers and her eyes slightly glaze when she talks about her house, “we had a large house with a big garden with flowers, beautiful flowers. And vegetables, I grew fresh vegetables for my husband and children. All my children and my grandchildren used to love coming over and playing in the garden. Life before, in Syria, was beautiful.”

Tarek’s grandmother was shopping in the market, with her sixteen-year-old disabled son, when her house was shelled, killing her husband of thirty-seven years. For a year the family lived internally displaced inside Syria, eventually finding shelter in an abandoned building in the outskirts of Damascus. For five months, they lived in the damp, wet rotting building. However with the young children continually getting fevers and colds, they decided enough was enough. After a ten-day trek, Laila and her family left Syria for the first time in their lives and arrived in Jordan.

“Rats, that’s the problem here,” chants Tarek cheekily. The entrance to their small apartment backs on to a dingy ally filled with rotting rubbish and dirt. Their front door hasn’t closed properly since they arrived, leaving a gap large enough for rodents to scuttle in. “We’ve try to fix it with bits of wood and bricks we’ve found lying about, but it just doesn’t stop them and our land lord doesn’t seem to care,” Laila explains.

At night, the family of nine huddle together on two thin mattresses and three blankets. “We put the children in the middle to keep them warm and away from the rats, I sleep with one eye open so they don’t nibble away at my grandsons” she recounts.  

The house is not built for the winter months, thin walls, rackety windows and a stone floor. Damp is evident and a strong mildew smell fills the air.  There are no heaters and a cold draft whistles through the house. The rent is $210 a month, well over its value. However with the rising influx of Syrian refugees crossing the border, the demand for housing has naturally increased making rent prices rise considerably.  “We dream about moving, but we can barely afford this rent and we want the children to go to school, which is an extra 20 dinars ($28) a month for the bus,” Laila states. 

The family receives a cash handout from Save the Children of $70 a month and have made friends with their local Imam who helps raise money on their behalf, but there is evident worry among all that they will not have enough funds for the upcoming winter. “My sons can’t work here, and with no additional income coming in, my family is not prepared for the winter months,” Laila explains. Tarek and his brothers still only have summer sandals, which they wear daily with dirty grey socks. And until recently, when Save the Children provided clothing vouchers they only had the summer clothes they walked across the border in.

I leave the family with hugs, kisses and dreams of us meeting again in peaceful Syria and feasting on Dawood Basha (Syrian Meatballs) a favorite of Tarek’s. As I walk away a knot fills my stomach, for the unbelievable tragedies this family has been through, and the irreplaceable loss they must live with every single day. But Tarek’s family is not alone, it is a crude reminder that this is just one family’s story and there are over two million Syrian refugees in the region, and over half of them are children. This winter is predicted to be the harshest the region has seen in a hundred years, and I can’t help but wonder about all the families, like Tarek’s, who will struggle to find proper shelter, heating, and warm clothes for the bitter cold months ahead.