Aleppo, a city of wonders, has seen thousands of years of history. These days, however, most would associate the city with urban warfare, snipers, and bombs. In addition to the terrors and deprivation of war, the city also suffered a devastating earthquake in February 2023. The people of Aleppo have witnessed something akin to hell – but still hold their hometown dearest in their hearts.
In Aleppo, northern Syria, the last glimmer of daylight shimmers amid the rubble. The call to prayer echoes in the air. The clock strikes ten to eight – the sun is setting. Although Syria has lived through a decade of horrifying humanitarian crises, magical moments like this still happen.
This was once a thriving city. History books tell us that Aleppo is one of the world’s longest continuously-inhabited cities. Those walking the streets experience whispers of the past, like the Al-Madina souk – an ancient marketplace of the 14th century. In the souk’s alleys, merchants traversing the Silk Road once sold fabrics, porcelain, spices, and perfumes of the Orient.
Now it is June 2023, and the bazaar is ruined. Fires have ravaged its alleyways during the last decade. Bombings destroyed stalls and shattered its historic features. February’s earthquake increased this devastation exponentially.
A narrow path weaving through the rubble takes one on a trip down memory lane in a city that has gone through extreme changes.
AMINA al-Sindyan, 63, shakes her head gently while watching her grandson showing off his somersaults. The grandmother proudly identifies as a native Aleppo girl. She has lived in this city all her life, apart from 2013-19, when her family fled the war to Latakia in western Syria.
Amina has lost her home in Aleppo twice: first to fighting, then to the earthquake. Currently living with her family in a makeshift shelter set up in a school, she longs for her hometown as she remembers it before the crises.
“I still remember what it was like, going out to buy things. All the shops were open – I could find everything I needed.”
Families in Aleppo are now in dire financial straits. The value of their money has crashed, and Amina al-Sindyan gives us an example – the bride-prices customarily paid in Syria when daughters marry.
“One of my daughters got married before the war. We got a bride-price of 50 000 Syrian pounds. It was a good sum and it supplied everything the new family needed. Recently, my other daughter also got married. We received a bride-dowry of one million, not that that would buy much these days,” Amina says, shaking her head in exasperation.
MONEY is not the only thing in her mind. Born in the sixties, she comes from an open-minded family. Even back then, the father of the family considered his daughters equal to him and wanted them to enjoy a wide range of rights. Amina and many others in Aleppo have felt the atmosphere of their hometown becoming more tense over these issues during the past decade.
The reasons for this change? War, terrorism, and all their consequences. As we talked to the citizens of Aleppo, they repeatedly brought up how fighting has led to changes in the city’s population.
Aleppo is a university town. Many of the city’s prewar inhabitants were educated, and these were the ones who had the money and opportunities to escape the violence. At the same time, less educated people from the countryside fled to the cities.
“Our educational backgrounds and the way we raise our children are vastly different,” Amina al-Sindyan says. She offers a recent example; discord at an emergency shelter for families who lost their homes in the earthquake.
Living through years of war in Latakia, western Syria, the women of the al-Sindyan family got used to wearing jeans and t-shirts. After returning Aleppo in 2019, they realised this is no longer possible. After the earthquake, their neighbours in the emergency shelter told al-Sindyan’s 11-year-old granddaughter to put on a headscarf and did so very directly.
Thus far, the family has not obeyed the neighbours’ orders.
“I want my grandchildren, especially the girls, to go to school. This is currently impossible due the poor financial situation of our family,” Amina says. She tells us that, despite her open-minded father, she once married a man who severely restricted her life during their life together.
“The girls either go to school or have to get married. I don’t want any woman to have to live how I’ve lived.”
THE GRANDCHILDREN of Al-Sindyan, among two thousand other children, take part in activities in a school in Aleppo organised by Finn Church Aid after the earthquake.
Here, children can exercise, play and make music while also receiving support, including lessons on how to protect themselves from the earthquake and how to process their fears and traumas.
During lessons, little hands go up in the air and questions are asked at a rapid pace. We request Yusef Mouhammad Bdeoi, 7, to show us how he would protect himself from an earthquake. He complies, burrowing under his desk and covering his head with his hands.
“Many children have misconceptions about earthquakes. They tell me how they ran out of their houses. But people often died in collapsed stairwells while fleeing their homes,” says Jalila Mouhamad Wilfe, 45, who teaches the lesson and explains the importance of these skills.
Jalila is a psychology teacher. In the past, she talked to her students about child marriages, child labour and being in a family, but since the earthquake, lessons have been dominated by just one subject. More than 72,000 families in Aleppo lost their homes when the quake hit the city, already traumatised by the horrors of war.
ON THE OTHER side of the city, curtains undulate in the breeze of the evening on the balcony of School Principal Ramia al-Naser‘s home. The calm and domestic image strikes an absurd contrast to the rest of the neighbourhood, where apartment buildings collapsed one after another on the morning of February 6. Mrs. al-Naser’s home has also half collapsed, and for safety reasons she is living with her three children and husband in an emergency shelter set up at her school. Memories of the earthquake are still fresh.
“I woke up to a loud noise that seemed to be coming from inside the earth. We ran outside and realised that everything was destroyed. Our neighbours’ cries of distress echoed through the streets. 50 residents in our apartment building died that night,” al-Naser says.
As a mother, she says, the experience was particularly hard on the family’s 11-year-old son Salim, who was shaking for three days after the disaster, unable to speak a word. Four months later, the boy still asks his mother every morning if there will be another earthquake today.
Ramia Al-Naser hopes that her family can soon find a home to replace the destroyed one. However, money is a problem for many families who have lost their means of subsistence.
“A rent for a family of our size in Aleppo used to be USD 10 per month. Now, a similar apartment goes for USD 50,” she reflects.
The average income of an Aleppo resident is around USD 30 per month. Beyond income, housing is another fundamental challenge: it’s easy to see how Aleppo’s housing stock has been destroyed in many places by the war and the earthquake. The homes simply no longer exist, and few people have the means to repair them.
ALIA Dwabili, 52, who lives in the historic quarters of the old city and has received a cash grant from Finn Church Aid to renovate her home, also knows this. A narrow, steep staircase leads up from an alley protected by a high wall. Here, above the roofs of the old city, is Alia’s home, and when the first earthquake struck, she fled these same stairs, still drowsy after sleep. In a way, she was lucky; the next quake collapsed the roof over her bed.
Alia Dwabili was born in Aleppo and has lived in the city throughout the crises. At one time, her neighbourhood was the worst battleground of the conflict. Indeed, Aleppo was a scene for urban warfare in 2012-16. Alia, just like everyone who experienced this period, could tell countless stories about how the lines between the different sides cut through neighbourhoods and where the snipers’ nests were.
Aleppo’s recent history of warfare repeats a pattern seen in the region’s history over hundreds and thousands of years. The city, known as the centre of what is now northern Syria, has seen power struggles since well before the dawn of time, such as during the Crusades, the Ottoman Empire, and the time of Syrian independence.
During all these times, the plight of the civilians has also been clear. After every battle, bombing and now the earthquake in the 21st century, Alia Dwabili has faced a harrowing task. She, along with other members of the neighbourhood, has had to collect the bodies of the neighbours that have died.
“No words can fully describe how that feels,” she says, moved to tears. Nevertheless, she thinks it feels good to find words for the things that have happened to her over the past few years.
Locals describe Alia Dwabili as the soul of the neighbourhood – a woman who lacks everything yet offers help to everyone around her. They tell us how she runs a clinic in her home, bringing together health professionals and women in need of aid under her roof. On a June evening, Alia offers coffee, pats us on the shoulder and wipes tears from the corners of her eyes. Then she slaps her hands together, laughing happily, her charm exuding to all around her.
THE SKY over Aleppo is cloudless and the city’s signature breeze sweeps the rooftops and street corners. Flocks of birds engage in a flurried dance in a blue sky. Darkness descends, revealing the stars.
For families in Aleppo, late evenings and early nights have always been when the city’s two million people can come alive. Thus, it will also be on this June evening of 2023.
Locals sit in the Aleppo fortress, in the heart of the old city. Before the war, the city’s people used to gather in the evenings to drink in cafes. Few afford to do so anymore.
Now, hookah pipes are lit and picnic boxes opened on park benches. Children run around the squares and people catch up with acquaintances. Romantic Arabic songs echo from loudspeakers, and, in the cafés, some people are tempted to dance on their seats. Their wrists move gracefully.
There is something magical about the nights in Aleppo, and every person we met who grew up in Aleppo mentions the same. It’s put into words most beautifully by Alia Dwabili.
“Aleppo is my passion. I love this city so, so much – I could never imagine leaving it.”
FCA’s earthquake response in Syria is supported by Syrian Humanitarian Fund (SHF).
Text: Ulriikka Myöhänen Photos: Antti Yrjönen Translation: Tatu Ahponen & Ruth Owen
Across the world, FCA’s local workers come face to face with catastrophes both in their work and in their personal lives
Karam woke up when the earth started to shake. Marianna fled a war. Susan skips workdays to fetch water. These FCA workers now tell us what it’s like to live in the middle of a catastrophe.
DID YOU KNOW that Finn Church Aid employs over 3 000 people? Or that 95 % of them are locally hired experts? Our local workers are the most crucial part of our relief work. For many people, catastrophes are a remote affair – for them, they’re a part of everyday life.
In this article we meet some FCA experts who have lived through the war in Ukraine, the drought in East Africa and a devastating earthquake in Syria. They don’t see their work as just a job. What is at stake for them is the future – for their families and for their countries.
Karam Sharouf from Syria has lived through a variety of catastrophes for his entire adult life. Still, he sees light at the end of the tunnel.
“It started with a bomb-like sound, just like what we have been hearing throughout the war. I thought we were under attack again. Eventually, I realized that the earth was shaking.
It was the morning of February 6, 2023. I was asleep in our home, on the fourth floor of a building, in the Syrian capital Damascus. In a state of shock, I grabbed my wife and child. Things were falling and breaking apart around us, but fortunately there were no injuries.
I am Syrian. I am 33 years old. I have lived my entire adult life surrounded by catastrophes: a decade of war, then the pandemic, now a devastating earthquake. Our country is going from a crisis to crisis, and many Syrians are just waiting for a chance to get out.
I have been working with FCA since 2019, when I became FCA’s first local worker in Syria. Even before that, however, I had ten years of experience in the organization. The earthquake has kept us extremely busy. In Syria, we have not had the opportunity to prepare for catastrophes like the earthquake and the pandemic, since we have dealing with bombs and attacks for the last decade. How to deal with something like an earthquake? We have had no idea.
Just before the quake, Finn Church Aid had expanded its reach to Aleppo, as well as Raqqa, often remembered as the capital of ISIS. People in these cities have been living under enormous pressure and, after all the bad things that have happened, all they have wanted is a moment of calm. What they did not need was another catastrophe, like this earthquake – causing many to lose their homes or families.
So, all things considered, it’s all very difficult, but I still see light at the end of the tunnel for us Syrians. That’s what keeps me going. After all, our mission is making people feel empowered.
The future of Syria depends first on us, the locals, even if the international community’s help is also necessary. When people work hard for their country, this creates a sense of togetherness and unity. What annoys me is how white people treat us Middle-Easterners. I’ve seen none of that while at FCA, even though we are in constant contact with Finland and our other countries of operation. Almost all of the staff at FCA’s Syria office are Syrian. That is quite exceptional and gets us a lot of positive feedback.
Marianna Zhurbenko, who has fled the war in Ukraine, would not hesitate to open her home to other refugees.
“I remember staring incredulously at the sky from the window of my home in Gostomel, west of Kiev. It was 24 February 2022, helicopters were flying overhead, and my phone kept ringing incessantly as my friends called in distress, telling me and my family to flee. All the sudden the war had started, and the front line was only 500 metres from our home. It felt like they were playing a movie just outside our window.
The artillery fire started in the evening. That’s when my husband and I decided to flee. We packed our 9-year-old son, our six-month-old baby, and our dog into the car. We fled first to Kyiv and then to western Ukraine.
I and my sons lived there for the next few months. I stayed awake, listened to my 9-year-old crying. Fortunately, the baby didn’t understand anything about the situation.
Unknown families took us in to live with them. We tried to offer them payment for water and electricity, and they refused to accept it. The war has united us Ukrainians like never before. I, too, would open the door to other families if they were facing such a situation.
My own values have also been changed by the war. Material goods no longer matter to me, while life, health, family, and love are vastly more important than before.
We were able to return home in May 2022. Kyiv was empty and our yard was full of mines and ammo fragments. The mines were cleared, and now our children can play there safely again.
Before the war, I was a supervisor in a sewing company. After we returned home, it soon became clear that this couldn’t continue. Although my workplace had not been destroyed in the fighting, all the workers had fled elsewhere and had no intention of returning.
I started in June as a planning coordinator at the Finn Church Aid. I’m in charge of obtaining aid and making sure that all aid going to FCA’s schools, for example, finds its way there.
I was an internally displaced person and I know how that makes people feel. It’s great to be able to help children, and I like what I’m doing here.”
Susan Abuba Jackson, living in a Kenyan refugee camp, is a teacher. Sometimes, however, she must spend a whole working day just fetching water.
“I am a teacher. The ongoing drought makes life hard for my students, but also for me. I have five children at home. Some days, instead of going to work, I must fetch water to keep my children from suffering. If I can’t feed myself, I don’t have the energy to teach. There are four of us teachers in the school. The class sizes are so huge that teaching while hungry and thirsty becomes impossible.
I came to Kenya from South Sudan in 2017, fleeing the war. I remember seeing one person shot I fled with my children here to Kenya while my husband stayed in South Sudan as a soldier.
I worked as a teacher in South Sudan for 12 years. Upon arrival here, I started as a primary school teacher. For the last two years, I have been working as a kindergarten teacher in a school run by Finn Church Aid in the Kalobeyei refugee camp.
I like working with children. They are flexible, they learn quickly and are very outspoken. Early education is also especially important for children. It is foundational to all sorts of learning.
The drought is currently our biggest problem. Normally we have 500 pupils, but many are dropping out of school because there is no water in the school, either. We can’t even offer them food if there is no water.
The children here have a lot of special needs. Many have seen war, have been traumatized. Their parents may have died, and they may be living alone with older siblings. It is up to us to look after these children and make sure they get a good education, but in a situation like this, that is very difficult.”
Returnees to Syria compound challenging disaster response effort – FCA is supporting the survivors of the Syria earthquake with warm clothes and cash distributions
Syrian families who lost their homes in the recent earthquake have already spent weeks in temporary shelters. FCA is responding to the most urgent needs, while also continuing essential school rehabilitation work.
FINN CHURCH AID’S(FCA) emergency aid distributions in Syria are in full operation with 4,000 adults and children in the Aleppo area reached by mid-March. Families who lost their homes in the devastating earthquake received warm winter clothes and hygiene items.
“We received the aid packages just in time. The classrooms are cold. We don’t have enough clothes or mattresses for my children to feel warm,” described a mother in Aleppo, who received aid at the end of February.
The family are currently living in emergency accommodation at a local school.
The series of earthquakes that started on February 6, 2023 caused enormous destruction not only in Turkey but also in Syria, where the humanitarian situation was already difficult due to the 12-year war.
Lia Mohamad al-Hayek was born on February 6, the same day that the earthquake shook Syria and Turkey. Lia has spent the first weeks of her life in emergency accommodation together with her mother, father and two siblings. In the photo, Lia is in the arms of Anadel, an FCA employee.
The earthquakes killed at least 6,000 people in Syria. According to estimates, more than 100,000 families have had to leave their homes.
Around 50,000 families are living in temporary shelters and with local families in in Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Latakia where FCA is active. The situation is the most severe in Aleppo and Latakia.
Life is cramped in emergency accommodation
Karam Sharouf, FCA’s Syria program manager, has spent a lot of time on the ground in Aleppo. He says that five weeks after the earthquake, the conditions are still extremely difficult.
“There is a huge lack of resources in international aid to Syria. We need more funding,” says Sharouf.
In Syria, the humanitarian situation is also challenging because the regional resources, for example in terms of education and healthcare, have long been insufficient. When fighting subsided, people started to return to their homes. In short, the earthquake got people moving again and this brings with it increased demand for support.
“Many Syrians who fled the war to Turkey have now returned to the Aleppo region. There have been Syrian refugees in Turkey in Kahramanmaraş and Antakya. Their homes were destroyed. According to estimates, there have been tens of thousands of returnees to Syria after the earthquake,” Sharouf describes.
Families who have lost their homes live in cramped emergency accommodation in Syria. Families sleep side by side on mattresses pushed together on the floor. There is no privacy. It’s not always possible for the female population to have their own toilets and washing facilities in the shelter.
“More than 60 people could be staying in one room,” Sharouf describes.
Ward (right) from FCA talks to a family in emergency accommodation in Aleppo. The family lost their home and have no savings to rent a new home. The mother is expecting her fourth child, and the wheelchair serves as a stroller for the youngest in the family.
Cash assistance helps those who have lost their livelihood
FCA has so far granted a total of 400,000 euros from its disaster fund to help earthquake victims in the Aleppo region and western Syria. Supplies are still being distributed.
The families will soon also receive cash assistance from FCA. With the help of cash, families can buy the things they need: for example, food, clothes or hygiene items.
“A large number of people have lost their means of livelihood. We support 350 families in Aleppo and Latakia with cash distributions,” says Sharouf.
Young people do not see their future in Syria
Millions of people in Syria were in need of humanitarian aid even before the earthquake. One humanitarian disaster after another has made life difficult. According to Sharouf, Syrians are really frustrated.
“Young people are now trying to travel abroad to get a future for themselves. There is no solution to the war, the economic situation is getting worse, and people don’t have jobs. In addition, health care and the school system are in a weak state”, he says.
FCA‘s work in Syria has for years focused not only on meeting the basic needs of people living in difficult situations, but also on supporting the country’s education sector.
We rehabilitated schools damaged during the war and train teachers in addition to organising. remedial education and extracurricular activities for children. Our work also focuses on psychosocial support, the needs of which have increased in the aftermath of the earthquake.
In 2023, FCA will perform rehabilitation work in up to 77 Syrian schools which have suffered damage during the war and earthquake.
Text: Ulriikka Myöhänen Photos: FCA Syria Country Office
More information and contacts for journalists:
FCA Country Director for Syria, Mazen Khzouz (English and Arabic), firstname.lastname@example.org
FCA Executive Director, Tomi Järvinen (English and Finnish), email@example.com, tel. +358(0)40 641 8209
FCA Manager of International Communications (English), Ruth Owen, firstname.lastname@example.org, tel. +358(0)504097848
“It is vital to aid the disaster area quickly” – FCA grants another 200,000 euros to help earthquake-struck Syria
“In this situation, it is absolutely vital to make humanitarian aid accessible to the people affected by the earthquake, by all means necessary,” says Mazen Khzouz, the Finn Church Aid Country Director in Syria.
IN THE EARLY morning of February 6th, the most destructive earthquake in the region’s history struck Turkey and Syria. In Syria, one of Finn Church Aids programme countries, it is estimated that six million people are in urgent need of humanitarian aid following the earthquake.
This week, Finn Church Aid (FCA) has allocated another instalment of 200,000 euros from its disaster fund, to help the people affected by the earthquake in Syria. A total of 400,000 euros will be used for the emergency aid work initiated by the FCA’s Syrian Country Office.
Northern Syria is currently experiencing a cold winter. According to the latest figures, the magnitude 7.8 and 7.6 earthquakes drove tens of thousands of families away from their homes. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, reports that at least 18,500 families have been accommodated in schools and other temporary shelters. 12,600 of the families are located in Aleppo, which is one of the areas that was struck hardest by the earthquake.
In a humanitarian crisis like this, it is vital that aid reaches those in need as quickly as possible. The winter cold makes the need for help even more urgent. Since the earthquake struck unexpectedly, early in the morning, the people who fled their homes did not have time to prepare or pack. Amongst the people whose houses are still seemingly intact, many are afraid to return home. They fear buildings collapsing because of structural damage and the danger of new earthquakes.
“In this situation, it is absolutely vital to support the people affected by the earthquake with humanitarian aid by all possible means, and proving them with equipment needed to survive the winter,” says Mazen Khzouz, the Finn Church Aid Country Director in Syria.
“Such equipment includes warm clothes for children and adults, blankets, flashlights, mattresses and shelters.”
During the past week, Finn Church Aid has assessed the situation and visited temporary accommodation facilities in Aleppo and Hama.
Millions of people in Syria were already in need of humanitarian aid before the earthquake in February, due to the war and the violence that has been raging for more than a decade. FCA has been working in Syria since 2017, providing humanitarian aid. The Country Office was established in Damascus in 2019, and before the earthquake FCA’s work revolved around on supporting children’s access to school and education.
“The humanitarian crisis caused by the earthquake highlights the already existing vast need for aid in Syria, and increases the suffering of the most vulnerable population,” says Khzouz.
Finn Church Aid is one of the few international aid organizations operating in Syria. That is why the decision to start the aid operation was made swiftly. The emergency created by the earthquake has also prompted the Finnish people to help.
“With the donations given to us, we will be able to support the most vulnerable people in the Syrian crisis. A quick response in disasters like these is very important. It is potentially life-saving,” says Finn Church Aid Executive Director Tomi Järvinen.
The dire needs of the Syrian people have touched the hearts of private Finnish citizens and churches alike. The Helsinki and Espoo congregations have, amongst others, donated to the FCA emergency aid fund in order to help the Syrians.
“We kindly want to thank every donor. Every euro counts. The destruction in Syria is enormous. When you take the pre-existing humanitarian crisis into account, the area will be in need of aid for a long time,” says Järvinen.
Pictures from the regions Hama and Aleppo in Syria.
FCA Country Director for Syria, Mazen Khzouz (English and Arabic), email@example.com FCA Executive Director, Tomi Järvinen (English and Finnish), firstname.lastname@example.org, tel. +358(0)40 641 8209 FCA Manager of International Communications (English), Ruth Owen, email@example.com, tel. +358(0)504097848
Education brings safety and hope for children in emergencies
Education is a powerful mean to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty and instability, writes FCA’s regional direction Ashraf Yacoub.
A decade into the conflict, millions of Syrians inside the country find themselves displaced and unable to access food, shelter, work or essential health services. The Covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the already decimated economy, which has severely impacted the ability of households to purchase basic necessities.
The situation for children across Syria has never been worse. Nearly 90 per cent of children need humanitarian assistance, an estimated 2.45 million children are out of school, and 1.6 million children risk dropping out.
Education is a powerful mean to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty and instability; it is a way to initiate and sustain recovery and reduce the disastrous impact of conflict.
As a Finnish organization, we have extensive experience and expertise in education programs. In 2020, we had to adapt to new ways of working, such as providing solutions for remote learning. An initial slowdown of project implementation was an opportunity to focus on school rehabilitation until measures were in place to resume educational activities safely.
During my visits to Syria, it has been uplifting to see the results of our work. In 2020, Syria programme reached over 35,000 beneficiaries, including 4,900 students and teachers benefitted from the formal and non-formal educational activities that we supported last year.
When it comes to Syria’s future, I’m most worried about the over-politicization of the conflict, which hampers reconciliation, rebuilding and humanitarian aid. But the resilience of Syrian youth gives me hope. Given the opportunity, they are capable of building a better life for themselves and their communities.
Regional director, the Middle East
This text twas originally published in our Annual Report 2020 that came out recently. Would you like to know more about what was done?
As I am writing this, the Covid-19 pandemic is dominating the news and daily politics for the second year running. In fact, this topic has overshadowed other news to such an extent that it is hard to remember what went on in the world before Covid-19 testing, vaccines and coronavirus variants. Climate change, protracted conflicts, swarms of locusts destroying crops – does any of that ring a bell?
The work carried out by Finn Church Aid focuses on providing education, securing livelihoods and building peace. The objective of long-term development cooperation is to help entire communities become stable and self-sufficient.
We also respond to more urgent needs. After a massive explosion in the port of Lebanon’s capital Beirut in August 2020, we delivered emergency assistance to those affected. When Covid-19 stopped trade and food deliveries at state borders in several parts of the world, we continued to provide emergency food assistance.
Some of the areas where we promote development cooperation, humanitarian assistance and peace do naturally overlap, just as global crises are inextricably intertwined. Many of our programme countries faced profound challenges even before the Covid-19 pandemic. Changes in climate and protracted conflicts have caused food crises, health crises and displacement of millions of people.
In South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, devastating floods have left two thirds of the country’s 11 million inhabitants in need of some form of humanitarian assistance as they are suffering from food insecurity and malnutrition.
Syria also has a disastrous decade of suffering behind it. This conflict-ridden country has spiralled into an economic crisis that, for Syrian people, translates into a shortage of food and lost income opportunities. An entire generation of children has gone to school in emergency conditions.
The global pandemic has ruthlessly exposed the weaknesses of many countries. In Nepal, more than 25 per cent of the country’s GDP has in recent years consisted of remittances by Nepalese working abroad. With the pandemic forcing migrant workers to return home, families have struggled for more than a year, trying to cope without an adequate income to guarantee a decent living.
But the pandemic has not brought all progress to a halt, even if we sometimes feel like it. In a number of projects, the situation has forced us to take a big leap forward in technology. For instance, in Kenya we distributed radios to enable women to participate in peace dialogues. Our objective in such projects was to make communities better equipped to resolve conflicts involving natural resources.
Without a doubt, we will face more challenges in the future. Our climate is becoming increasingly harsh, and in these changing conditions, it is likely that more epidemics will circulate in the population. Natural disasters will force people to leave their homes in growing numbers. According to forecasts, a high population growth rate in Africa will result in massive migration within the continent.
But the good news is that resilient societies are able to take better precautions and prepare for disasters. In time, the Covid-19 crisis will pass, and this is when Finn Church Aid’s efforts to improve education, support livelihoods and forge peace will bear fruit and produce even more tangible results. Those who have participated in our projects have been building a stronger foundation for their lives, enabling them to pursue a brighter future.
Ulriikka Myöhänen, Communications Specialist.
This text twas originally published in our Annual Report 2020 that came out recently. Would you like to know more about what was done?
Amid uncertainty, IDPs in Syria dream of becoming engineers, teachers or car dealers
Syria has 6.7 million internally displaced people (IDPs), many of them children displaced by conflicts, violence and natural disasters. We work with the EU’s European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) to make sure that schools can be an anchor in children’s lives, even in the midst of crises.
“We’ve had to move many times. I hate the feeling of living in chaos and uncertainty,” says Syrian Rida Issa.
Syria is home to a generation of children who have lived all or at least a big part of their lives as refugees or displaced in their home country. Rida belongs to that generation. During the armed conflict, his family kept rebuilding their home in East Ghouta, over and over again.
When the fighting ceased, the family returned to their old neighbourhood. But their home was in ruins, and now Rida lives with his grandparents.
Some 6.6 million Syrians who fled the war live as refugees in neighbouring countries like Jordan or Turkey, and some even further away on the Greek islands or central Europe. An equal amount – 6.7 million in a country of 17.5 million people – continue, like Rida’s family, to live in internal displacement within Syria.
For the time being, the fighting in Syria has abated. Nevertheless, in 2020 the country reported having more than 1.8 million new internally displaced persons, almost all of them fleeing conflict and violence.
At the end of 2020, there were a record 55 million internally displaced people in the world. More than 26 million people have fled their home country and been given UN refugee status (2019).
In 2020, 40.5 million people had to flee within their home countries. This is the highest annual figure in a decade.
About 85 per cent of internally displaced people have fled their homes due to conflict or violence. The rest have fled natural disasters, most of which were weather-related (floods, heavy rains, cyclones).
The report authors say that it is particularly worrying that these figures were recorded despite the Covid-19 pandemic, when movement restrictions obstructed data collection and fear of infection discouraged people from seeking emergency shelter.
Sources: Global Report on Internal Replacement 2021 by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and a Relief Web news article on the report. UNHCR.
Internally displaced children face many risks. Their chances of attending school and receiving healthcare and protection are compromised. Not only are children torn away from their familiar environment and communities, but they may also be separated from their families and put at an increased risk of child labour and child marriage.
Living a conflict-torn life as a displaced person affects each child in different ways. Below, Syrian children in Finn Church Aid-supported schools tell in their own words how they feel about it.
Remal & Enas: Saddened by memories of guns and an absent father
Year 4 pupil Remal Tahina goes to school in the Daraa area. Remal finds learning difficult but hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps as a car dealer.
“During the war, we had to leave our home village for somewhere else. I still remember the grenades, missiles, tanks and rifles. There were always guns nearby.
Once a mortar shell dropped close to our home. My grandfather could’ve been injured, but luckily he was in the mosque.
My family includes my father, mother and two sisters. My father is working in the United Arab Emirates because he couldn’t find work in Syria. My uncle offered him a job at the car dealership and he accepted so he could support us. I miss him all the time. He only visits us during the summer and brings presents. Once I got a bike.
At school, I have difficulty reading and writing. My friends start fights with me and then say they’re only joking. That bothers me.”
Our work in Syria focuses on rebuilding the war-torn education sector.
This includes repairing school buildings, providing necessary supplies and offering remedial classes for students who have been or are at risk of dropping out of school.
In 2020, a total of 9,345 students were able to continue their learning in refurbished school buildings. A total of 4,749 learners participated in our learning support activities. 3,000 students received a school uniform and school supplies. We offered training to 108 teachers on psychosocial support and teaching in disaster conditions.
Enas Alasimy, 12, also talks about how the war has affected her. During the war, the Alasimy family spent seven years as refugees in Jordan.
“I don’t remember much about the war because I was really young. I’ve heard people talk about gunfire, shootings and firearms.
I’m having trouble at school. I’m too scared to raise my hand and participate because I’m afraid the teacher will hit me if my answer is wrong.
When I grow up, I’d like to become a teacher to help shy students like me not to be afraid.”
Muhammad: Long days at the construction site
Muhammad Abdo Hijzai, 13, from East Ghouta goes to Finn Church Aid-supported remedial classes in maths and other subjects. With nine family members, money is tight in the Hijzai family and Muhammad has to go to work.
“When school ends at one in the afternoon, I go to help my father. He is a construction worker; we plaster walls together and prep them for painting. My dad can’t do all the work alone, so that’s why I help him.
After about six hours of hard work, we stop when the sun goes down. When I get home, I open my school books. I do it to achieve my dreams and make them come true. I can’t spare much time for homework, but I do my best: I study one to three hours a day.
On weekends I play with my friends because we don’t work on Fridays. I wish I could be with them more often, but I can’t leave my father to cope with all the work on his own. All of my older siblings are girls, so they can’t get involved in this type of work.”
Aya: Half a life in war
Aya Darwish, 14, who lives in East Ghouta, noticed how difficult it was to resume studies after years of war.
“I’ve always drawn. I draw when I’m sad. I draw when I’m angry. Ironically, I think my drawings are at their best when I’m at my worst.
I have clear memories of this long war we have had to go through. Things were really hard, and I don’t even have to go into details. By the age of 14, I have spent seven years in war. For half of my life, I have seen the worst things happen in life. That’s why I am grateful for every good thing that happens to me.
In those seven years, I almost forgot what it was like to go to school. After that time, it was difficult to start studying English again because I hadn’t used or heard the language for a long time. Remedial classes have helped me a great deal.
I don’t think painting will ever be more than a hobby, but I still dream of opening my own art galleries. That would give me an opportunity to exhibit my paintings and share my view of the world.”
Dreams stay alive, despite difficult conditions
For children living in conflict areas and as displaced, schools are crucial because they help build a sustainable future and give children the skills to earn a living.
When he was small, Omar Al Zuhaili, 14, had to flee his home village. But he has been able to return and now attends a refurbished local school.
“I want to become an architect because I like drawing and designing buildings. I want to achieve my dream, whatever the circumstances. I encourage my friends to complete their studies,” says Omar.
Education is also a powerful tool to eradicate child labour. Rida Issa, who is 14, knows he’s lucky because he doesn’t have to go to the construction site to help his father. Rida stresses that there is nothing embarrassing about working, but says he hopes that his classmates who have to work will be able to complete their schoolwork.
“I want to become an electrical engineer because I love inventions. I once designed a small spider from scrap metal. It had a small engine which made the spider vibrate and move,” says Rida.
Text: Ulriikka Myöhänen, Middle East Communications Specialist
War-torn Syria has descended into a financial crisis that worsens the country’s humanitarian situation. Children living through the war need moments in which they can just be children.
“How can I ever repay my country? I have been told that it is too tough for someone my age to ask, but I am growing up in this country. I eat the food that my father, a farmer, has planted in this soil. That teaches me what is happening here. I want to do something for my country when I can.”
These are the words of a Syrian eight-grader from Eastern Ghouta, Ghadeer Al Aghawa, who we interviewed in January.
I was horrified when I read the interview. Does a child really have to be burdened by such thoughts? Her reflections underscore the grim reality: a disaster marks an end to childhood.
Syria has been through a tumultuous decade since the war started in 2011. The intricate conflict involves the government, opposition groups, other countries supporting the various parties, and extremist groups, and the turmoil has a staggering impact on the emerging generation.
The country hosts millions of students who have gone to school in exceptional circumstances.
At least five million children have been born in Syria during the war. An additional million were born as refugees in Syria’s neighbouring countries. According to UNICEF data, thousands of children have been injured, and every ten hours, a Syrian child dies because of the war.
There are no signs of relief as Syria enters another decade in challenging circumstances.
The country faces an unprecedented economic collapse, worse than anything witnessed during the war thus far, writes The New York Times. The currency is weak, salaries have decreased, and the prices of necessities have soared. Syrians suffer from a chronic lack of petrol, which they need for cooking and heating the buildings where many families live.
Marwa Omar Safaya teaches computer science at an FCA supported school in Eastern Ghouta and observes first-hand how the country’s situation affects the children.
“During severely cold winter days, I notice how the children’s hands turn blue. Nothing protects their small bodies from the cold; the price of a coat nowadays equals a month’s salary,” she says.
Teacher Marwa Omar Safaya has seen the war’s impact on children.
The reasons behind the economic collapse are manifold, and many of them are interrelated, such as widespread destruction, international sanctions and the collapse of Lebanon’s banking system.
Statistics by UNOCHA underscore the situation’s severity. The number of people in need has increased by 20 per cent compared to the same period last year. Of Syria’s 18 million people, over 13 million need humanitarian assistance, and six million need it urgently. The World Food Programme (WFP) warned in February that a record number of 60 per cent of the population suffers from a lack of food.
Amid these needs, it is challenging to reconstruct cities ruined by a decade of war. The coronavirus pandemic and the measures curbing it further complicates daily life.
During the first lockdowns, experts worldwide expressed their concerns on how closing schools might affect learning globally. UNICEF and the World Bank said that already a few months of school closure might scar a generation, and worst-case predictions fear entire “lost generations”.
In Syria, the pandemic is only the tip of the iceberg. The country hosts millions of students who have gone to school in exceptional circumstances. Teacher Marwa Omar Safaya feels the pain of her students.
“We try to convince them that life has a lot to offer and that miracles happen when you go to school and work hard. At the end of the day, they only think of how they can complete their mandatory studies to find work and earn food to their table,” Marwa describes.
Eight-grader Ghadeer Al Aghawan is disappointed by the lack of computers in her school.
Eight-grader Ghadeer Al Aghawan says she is grateful for all that has been done for her school during the past years, but some things still disappoint her.
“We have IT classes but only theory. We do not have any equipment to practice what we learn, and that is sometimes frustrating. I know that outside our small town, the rest of the world is dependent on computers and technology. I feel like I am falling behind.”
Ghadeer’s disappointment is understandable. The digital divide between different societies is deep, and the divide increases inequality.
Finnish schools, for instance, utilised the internet for learning already when I was at Ghadeer’s age in 2007, and students did school assignments on computers. In Syria, this chance does not exist for most people, even today. It would not even be possible to introduce digital systems amid war. Computers require connections, connections rely on infrastructure, and infrastructure is built with money.
One thing is obvious: the schools play an essential part in disasters like the war in Syria. The schools offer a safe space and room to breathe for children enduring challenging circumstances. Ghadeer has found solace in school.
“For now, I only try to do my best at school”, Ghadeer says.
She has faith in a better future.
“Even after all the fighting, good things have happened, and I’m waiting for the good things that are still to happen.”
Children living through war need to experience moments in which they feel like children. And schools are the best place for that.
The author works as Communications Specialist for the Middle East at FCA. FCA supports access to quality education for internally displaced people in Syria.
Of an estimated 80 million teachers in the world, more than half are women. They are everyday heroes who face their share of challenges each day but also role models for countless girls who enrol in school.
A competent teacher is a child’s gateway to society. Surrounded by war, teachers in Syria settle their pupils in their classrooms and help them forget the reality outside school, even if just for a moment. In a Ugandan school for children with disabilities, the world opens up when both teacher and learner know sign language.
A school should be a safe place to grow up in, but this is not always the case. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) reported at least 11,000 attacks on education worldwide between 2015 and 2019. Attacks refer to actions such as bombings, kidnappings, or sexual violence directed at pupils or staff. The threat of attacks is real in Syria, a country living with war for almost ten years.
During the past year, education has faced new kinds of challenges. According to experts, the school closures caused by the pandemic may have far-reaching consequences for an entire generation. As schools reopen, there is a lot of catching up to do, and the new normal comes with practical challenges.
Below, three female teachers share their story. One is worried about the children freezing in school, while another faces doubts because of her age and gender. A third teacher hopes for more resources for special needs education. Despite the challenges, they all think they are on the right path as teachers.
Music is a source of relief to youth coping with the stress of living as refugees in Jordan. FCA’s learning centre teaches them how to play instruments and compose.
Mohammad Al-Ahmad and Moutaz Al-Zoubi have spent most of their lives in Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. The lives of the two 17-year-olds have been full of changes due to the war in Syria.
Like many other of their age, they had to abandon their homes and schools in Syria when they were children and adjust to life in a refugee camp while losing contact with their friends at home. Refugee children have grown up in a setting of uncertainty and frustration in neighbouring Jordan.
Mohammad and Moutaz describe music as a vital outlet for their emotions and a source of joy.
“I don’t own an instrument, but I have a great passion for music. I want to become a famous, respected and beloved keyboard player when I grow up”, Mohammad says.
Mohammad Al-Ahmad says he gains energy from his music lessons.
Psychosocial support puts minds at ease
When Za’atari refugee camp opened in 2012, Syrians found shelter and emergency assistance, but life was limited. There were no recreational activities or any other ways for children and youth to pass the time. Finn Church Aid (FCA) along with other organisations responded with psychosocial support activities, such as football, netball, circus and music lessons at FCA’s compound in Za’atari.
Meaningful ways of passing time have an immense effect on the well-being of children and youth burdened by the experiences of war and losing their homes. Mohammad’s mind is at ease at FCA’s learning centre. Here, he learnt how to play the keyboard, and he feels energetic when playing.
“I hope I become a professional, like our teacher. I want to teach the children of the camp, especially those that never had a chance to play instruments”, Mohammed says.
Moutaz says he enjoys all kinds of instruments and mentions particularly the keyboard, the oud – a kind of lute – and the darbuka drum. He is also comfortable with singing with a microphone.
Moutaz Al- Zoubi hopes to teach others someday how to play instruments.
Music sessions on Whatsapp during the pandemic
The recreational activities were brought to a halt in March when preventive measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus restricted gatherings in the camp. The music lessons resumed in June with assignments and exercises delivered via Whatsapp. The learners sent recordings to their teacher who replied with feedback. The teachers are also Syrian refugees who live in the camp.
Now the youth have returned to class, and everyone wears a face mask. It is a relief that activities continue, also because of the added distress caused by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The parents of the participants report that they notice a change in the attitudes and self-confidence of the youth, and say that they are more determined than before. Moutaz agrees.
“Music helps me relax when I am angry or feel down, and singing makes me full of joy”, he says.
Text: Aisha Shtiwi / Oxfam in Jordan Photos: Wisam Al-Riyabi
Individual supporters donated different types of musical instruments to FCA’s learning centres in Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps in Jordan.