After the devastation: Ramadan in the rubble

Gihan Shahine , Friday 7 Apr 2023

People in Syria are spending a bleak Ramadan this year, with the recent devastating earthquake in the northwest of the country adding another layer of suffering to a nation already battered by war.

Atareb, Aleppo
Syrians affected by the 6 February earthquake attend a mass Iftar in Atareb, Aleppo (photo: AFP)


A Ramadan lantern and decorations were ironically some of the items that white-helmet rescuers found as they dug under the rubble for survivors in the southwestern Turkish city of Kahraman Mere’sh in the aftermath of the earthquake that struck the region in February this year.

Poignant as it seems, the family that had been keeping this lantern and these decorations safe in preparation for this year’s holy month of Ramadan passed away in the tragedy, and the now damaged lantern stands in the rubble in memory of them. The children are no longer there to play or sing in celebration of the holy month.

Many Syrian people have not been able to celebrate Ramadan properly for many years, whether inside or outside Syria, or since the outbreak of the civil conflict in the country in 2011.

This was the message that another rescuer conveyed as he dug in the rubble in a northern Syrian district that was also badly devastated by the earthquake.

The white-helmet rescuer was photographed sobbing as he gazed down at a small scrap of paper that had pink broken hearts drawn on it by an apparently heart-broken child. The paper turned out to be part of the diary of a young Syrian girl who was still missing under the rubble.

“My passion has been killed: I’m not interested in anything anymore. I laugh despite being in such pain,” the message read.

The girl, whose school prizes were found lying beside her diary, turned out to be a pupil named Sarah who described herself as “a Shami girl whose heart is as strong as steel.” Sarah wrote that she had moved from her hometown, torn by war, to a northern part of Syria, and she lamented that “the Eid (feast) was no longer a time for festivity in the absence of family and friends.”

“Your feast will be sweeter in heaven,” cried the rescuer, who told reporters his heart had been shattered when he read the little girl’s diary.

Sarah’s words describe the plight of millions of children and older people alike in Syria since the outbreak of the conflict.

Ramadan has turned into an occasion when millions of Syrians inside and outside Syria feel bitter at having lost one member or more of their families, whether in the conflict or in the earthquake. The holy month is also a time when Syrians feel nostalgic for the special taste of Ramadan festivities and family gatherings in their homeland, and it is a time of great charity and benevolence that attempts to put a smile on the faces of otherwise desolate people.

“Ramadan in Syria was the best,” reminisced Razan Al-Halabi, a volunteer for a Syria-based feminist charity. In an article entitled “Ramadan with the Syrian People” published on the organisation’s website, Al-Halabi described how the streets of the country used to bustle with shoppers before Iftar when people broke their fast; how markets were inundated with delicious temptations and a variety of mouth-watering foods; and how families would indulge in the warmth of Iftar gatherings.

“There were taraweeh prayers whether at home or in mosques, the sounds of kids playing in the neighbourhoods after Iftar, and waking up after midnight for Sohour at the sound of the mesaharaty, who would wander the streets before dawn to wake people up with the small drum in his hands to eat something before fasting,” Al-Halabi wrote.

“These memories are so sweet and so warm but yet so far. They are so many years away for every Syrian.”



Syrians living far from their homeland may not fare much better and almost share the same nostalgia during Ramadan.

“Syrians living outside their land in general do not notice much difference between the months. Everything feels the same when you are away from home,” Reem Saboni, a Syrian parenting and family coach who moved to Egypt because of the conflict, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

 “Ramadan was usually welcomed with great festivity, being a time for family gatherings. But now it conjures up a lot of painful memories in the hearts of almost every Syrian family that has to live with the pain of losing one or more of its members or being displaced and living away from home.”

Economic strains have also dimmed the cheerful spirit of the holy month, according to Saboni, since “Syrian Iftar tables that used to bear an array of delicious Syrian dishes and desserts have almost disappeared” because of the economic difficulties many such families face.

Saboni, however, says that she is blessed to be living in Egypt where she feels at home, especially in Ramadan where the traditions and rituals are so similar. She has been volunteering her parenting sessions at the headquarters of a NGO called Soria Al-Ahl (The Syrian Family), where she is teaching families how to help their children adapt to their new reality.

“As Syrian immigrants, we try to keep our traditions and rituals and even pass them down to our children who may not even know them otherwise as a result of having to move at a very young age,” Saboni told the Weekly. “Ramadan is a good occasion to do this, as we try to gather and provide support for each other.”

Those still living in northern Syria, however, may be far less fortunate.

“Can you imagine what the situation for the displaced people in northern Syria is like,” Al-Halabi asked. “Those people are far from being safe in Ramadan. I don’t think there is a worse feeling than being displaced in your own county or spending Ramadan in a tent with hundreds of people and at risk of being bombed at any moment.”

“You fast for the day, and you are not sure if you will be able to break your fast with any kind of food or not.”

This year may be even harsher for those in northern Syria and southern Turkey, where many Syrians fleeing the conflict have been living, as a result of February’s devastating earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people, while injuring and displacing many thousands more.

“The Syrians have been living through Ramadan with a lot of grief and sadness,” Syrian journalist Soheir Omari told the Weekly. “Life has turned into a living tragedy for the Syrian people as a result of political unrest and economic strains.

“Those living in Syria are suffering because the country has been split into three provinces,” Omari said. “Meanwhile, those who have fled the war-torn country are also suffering since many are facing major challenges with residency permits and paperwork.”

The earthquake has added another thick layer of suffering, forcing more people into displacement and poverty. It is a “crisis within a crisis,” as the UN has recently put it, since the earthquake hit an area already battered by 12 years of war.

“Many of those affected by the earthquake, whether in northern Syria or southern Turkey, were already refugees, and many had already been displaced,” Omari told the Weekly. “Now, more refugees are sharing tents with other refugees who had already been living in tents.

“An estimated 90 per cent of the 4.6 million people in northwest Syria are reliant on humanitarian assistance,” UN reports suggest. Even before the earthquake, the UN estimated that “more than half of health facilities had been destroyed, whilst the conflict in Syria has made essentials like food, medicines and fuel, unaffordable for many.”

Today, the situation is much worse.

“No words can describe the sight of families — most of whom have been displaced more than once — who have had to leave their homes in the freezing cold to take refuge in unsafe streets in the middle of the night,” said Fabrizio Carboni, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) regional director for the Near and Middle East.

Hanaa Niazi, a Syrian therapist who has been volunteering with psychological support sessions for families and children devastated by the conflict and now the earthquake, told the Weekly that the past three years have seen an unprecedented rise in the number of those suffering depression and other ills due to the extremely bad economic conditions and prolonged suffering.

“It’s been too tough for many Syrians to take,” Niazi said. She currently lives in Egypt and volunteers with online therapy sessions for Syrians back home as well as in-person sessions for immigrants living in Egypt through Soria Al-Ahl.

Many Syrian people had already been through a lot of economic pain following the Covid-19 pandemic, and last Ramadan was marked by struggles for survival amid rising food prices that replaced the holy month’s festivities.

This Ramadan, many Syrians are struggling to survive the twin aftershocks of the earthquake and the conflict. “The psychological aftershocks usually appear within two months of any tragedy and can last for more than 15 years,” Niazi said, adding that the most prominent are “severe depression, withdrawal from social life, and biological signs related to appetite and sleep.”

“The suffering of the Syrian people has become intolerable and is affecting all layers of the community, even those living in Damascus and those who are well-off and have not been displaced,” she explained.

“The Syrian people are living with psychological scars and in pain due to the magnitude of the losses caused by the conflict, which they still cannot assimilate or comprehend.”


However, it is in Ramadan that God’s mercy comes to relieve people’s pain, including that of the Syrian people. Ramadan is a month of bounty when aid increases since most Muslims choose to pay zakat (alms) during the holy month.

“In this month, we see a huge divine mercy at work more than we do at any other time,” Niazi said. “If we go by mathematical calculations or logic alone, it would be impossible to feed the huge numbers of Syrians in need for support or even provide them with their only main meal of Iftar.”

“But this is when baraka [blessing] intervenes, and thanks to God’s mercy and bounty, we find that everybody ultimately has their meals.”

Aid is generally provided either by the UN or NGOs working in the region. Videos of charitable organisations handing out blankets, food bags, clothes, medication and other relief aid to Syrians displaced by the earthquake and previously by the conflict have gone viral on social media.

The sight of children receiving aid was particularly heart-warming, but their smiles and happiness could hardly cover the deep sense of agony that often marked their innocent faces. A video featuring a Syrian girl taking shelter in a mosque after the earthquake was particularly empathetic as the girl refused to take an extra banana so that everyone would get their fair share of the fruit.

One of the nicest gestures that seemed to put a real smile on the faces of the displaced children was made by a US-based relief organisation named Baitulmaal. The diligent staff insisted on including chocolate as a gift as they handed out blankets to those affected by the earthquake.

“The staff didn’t want to risk diverting badly needed funds away from basic needs like blankets and medical supplies,” said Dalia Mogahed, an Egyptian-American researcher and director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) in Washington.

“The staff only bought the chocolate with separate ‘staff’ donations meant for this small act of compassion. The milk chocolate pistachio bars were a huge hit.”

Mogahed was among the organisation’s volunteering convoy that travelled to Urfa, a city struck by the earthquake, a few weeks before Ramadan. She is urging more people to volunteer via her organisation’s website.

She said that the visit had allowed her to meet “some beautiful people in Urfa, distributing shoes, jackets, and sharing a meal with orphaned children.

“So many mothers have been widowed and children orphaned by this earthquake, and before that, the Syrian war,” she said. “Meeting them and hearing some of their stories was humbling and inspiring. The extremely dedicated ground staff knew every child’s name and had a meticulously prepared and labeled bag of shoes and clothes ready for them.”

However, far more aid is needed, as voiced by the recent UN and other relief organisations’ calls for people to donate more to help relieve the devastating consequences of the earthquake in addition to the aftershocks of the conflict and the Covid-19 pandemic.

“What makes the aid insufficient is that fact that those who are in need are in huge numbers, and the donations are hardly sustainable — in other words, they may fulfill their basic needs for only a few days,” Omari said.

“What we need is a more sustainable and constant flow of assistance because people will still need to eat and get warm and so forth for weeks or months. It’s an ongoing crisis with no near end on the horizon.”

According to the UN, “Syria ranks among the 10 most food-insecure countries in the world, and 12 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from.” Approximately 90 per cent of the country’s population live below the poverty line, and over 70 per cent (15.3 million people) are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, according to statistics provided by the Islamic Relief Agency.

Refugees, who constitute almost half of the population who have fled the war, have been struggling to survive in refugee camps, enduring unimaginably challenging living conditions.

Now in the aftermath of the earthquake, the number of those displaced has increased since even those who had a permanent home have nowhere to shelter.

The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR has been rushing aid to badly impacted parts of the country, but many challenges seem to stand in the way. Many insist that the UN and the international community as a whole have fulfilled less than half of the basic needs of the Syrian people.

The UNHCR conceded in one of its statements that “humanitarian assistance is not sufficient or sustainable.” Moreover, the UN Children’s Fund UNICEF said that “the ongoing war and the earthquakes have left millions of young Syrians at heightened risk of malnutrition.”

It estimates that “close to 13,000 boys and girls have been killed since the conflict began, while some 609,000 Syrian children under the age of five are stunted, a condition that results from chronic undernutrition and which causes irreversible physical and mental damage.

“Acute malnutrition is also on the rise,” it said, adding that “the number of young children suffering from severe acute malnutrition increased by nearly 50 per cent from 2021 to 2022.

“When children suffer from acute malnutrition, their immune system weakens, and they are 11 times more likely to die than well-nourished children.


OBSTACLES: One of the obstacles hampering the flow of aid into badly affected regions in northern Syria is the fact that many roads have been damaged by the earthquake.

“Roads have been damaged, and that hampers us trying to reach people,” the UN complained, saying that “it’s been very, very difficult.”

Omari added that “other isolated areas remain inaccessible to aid agencies that need to go through long bureaucratic procedures and paperwork to prove that they are not supporting terrorists, especially when those agencies intend to provide monetary funds.”

But even when agencies choose to provide relief in the form of food, blankets, and medication, they may still find major challenges due to damaged roads and bureaucracy, in addition to the fact that many such items are subject to looting, according to Omari.

“Syrians living in isolated parts of northern Syria hardly receive any of relief aid,” she said. Neither do they receive any psychological support, which remains scarce since most organisations tend to focus on urgent priorities of food, shelter and medication.

 “Many kids have lost their parents and parents have lost their kids. The situation is tragic for both children and elders alike, and both are both in urgent need of psychological support,” Omari said.

The future of their education also remains dim for millions of Syrian children who have dropped out of school over the past years due to the conflict and the destruction of schools and basic infrastructure.

“Syria is at risk of having a whole generation of uneducated people,” Omari warned. “Refugees in the camps hardly have any access to education, while those living in foreign countries encounter challenges enrolling their children in schools due to problems completing the required paperwork and residency permits.

“Meanwhile, the economic strains have also pushed many families to take their kids out of school, particularly since renewing their passports can cost $300 each and that remains a huge challenge for big families.”

In Egypt, Soria Al-Ahl, which was born in 2012 with the start of the influx of Syrian immigrants, has been diligently providing assistance to thousands of Syrian families, now to the tune of millions. Bassem Ganoubi, who spearheaded the initiative, says that the charity volunteers to provide refugees with food bags, financial assistance, psychological support and rehabilitation programmes.

It helps with employment ideas and provides programmes to help refugees adapt to their new life in Egypt.

“After the earthquake, we were able to reach out to some families who were affected since some of them were our volunteers or were the relatives of volunteers, and we managed to send them baskets of food and medication,” Ganoubi told the Weekly.

“The scale of the need, however, is certainly far more than the support we receive, and we hope Ramadan will be an opportunity for more donations.

“Although there are always those who sincerely attempt to put a smile on the faces of Syrian children, especially in Ramadan, and to whom we feel grateful, the only way kids and adults can really smile from the heart is for them to see their living conditions improve and to see the present tragedy ending,” Omari concluded.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Search Keywords:
Short link: