Many Syrians living in rebel-controlled parts of the country have become completely dependent on humanitarian aid in order to survive. With a devastated economy and no security, Aleppo is no exception.
Abu Muhammad Maqsouma, 57, is a manager of the Assistance Coordination Committee’s office in Aleppo’s Qaterji area, which provides assistance to struggling families in the areas of Aleppo controlled by the Syrian opposition. “We’ve got about 900 families registered here,” he told Syria Deeply, explaining that more and more families are signing up each day. “We receive 250 to 350 aid packages a month and try to distribute them to people. Our priority is the widows, then the others depending on the urgency.”
Aid organizations provide food, medicine and blankets, among other necessities. Some of the groups were around before Syria’s civil war broke out in March 2011, while others were established in response to the humanitarian catastrophe that the bloodshed brought with it. Once home to four million people, Aleppo’s population has sunk to an estimated 900,000. Most residents live in extreme poverty, according to a September 2014 report by the United Nations Economic Mission.
Ghalia, 63, lives in the nearby Qaterji neighborhood and receives monthly aid from the local relief office managed by the Assistance Coordination Committee. Yet because this group, and NGOs like it, suffer from a lack of resources, they are struggling to cope with the huge number of people dependent on aid for survival. “I go to the office every month,” she told Syria Deeply, “and pick up my package. It’s not the same each month. Sometimes it’s big and others it’s small. This month we got cracked wheat, rice, tea, sugar, margarine and oil. Sometimes we get canned foods. It’s enough for me and my daughter.”
Ahmad Falaha, 44, says he’s very grateful for the donations his family receives. “First of all, we are thankful to everyone who helped the Syrian people and sent aid to us,” he said, “but it’s not enough for me and my children.”
Explaining that the aid usually runs out after two weeks, Ahmad said: “We live on whatever I can earn for the rest of the month. I used to work in a slaughterhouse for sheep and that business is gone now. Today, I sell vegetables on the corner when I can.”
Others have been rejected by the humanitarian offices. Abu Radwan, 29, was denied by a local office that decided other families were in more immediate need than his. He used to work as a tailor to provide for his wife and two children, but the conflict has put him out of business. “The office lets me take powdered milk for my baby daughter until she turns a year old,” he told Syria Deeply, “but they said unfortunately that they cannot offer us anything else.”
With no assistance and a devastated economy, Abu Radwan has resorted to finding random jobs to make an income. “The most I can possibly make in a week is 1,800 Syrian pounds [around $7],” he commented. “We cannot cover our expenses, so my father-in-law, my father and others support us so that we can live.”
Others echo Abu Radwan’s frustration with the relief groups and accuse them of treating them unfairly in a time of desperation and urgent need.
Umm Muhannad, 42, was also rejected after applying for aid. A widowed mother of seven, she cried as she recounted that her husband was killed five months ago by Syrian army shelling in the nearby neighborhood of al-Firdos. Now, two of her sons – one aged 17 and the other 12 – provide the family’s only income, around $14 per week. “It’s not enough,” she told Syria Deeply. “We need at least 25,000 Syrian pounds [around $100] to barely survive each month.”
“Why are the relief people denying us aid?” she asked. “Don’t they have any mercy?” Umm Muhannad says that the relief organization she applied to sent an inspection team to her house to verify their family’s level of need: “In the end, they refused to provide us with anything.”
Because her sons’ monthly salaries last the family between 10 days and two weeks, Umm Muhannad has resorted to accepting handouts from sympathetic neighbors and borrowing from others. “Some never ask me to pay them back,” she explained, “but other people help us with the expectation that I’ll pay it back within a month. Of course, I cannot always pay them back and have to beg for more time. This is how we live.”
Abu al-Abadela, 43, works for Abrar Halab, an organization located in the al-Ansari area of Aleppo. Founded in 2012, Abrar Halab has 27 offices that service needy people across opposition-controlled parts of Aleppo. “We work with certain priorities,” he said, “such as providing aid to martyrs’ families, widows and others.”
Since the Syrian Red Crescent stopped servicing Aleppo in late 2013, most local relief organizations, including Abrar Halab, became dependent on support and funding from Syrians in exile. “This isn’t enough to cover the needs of all the people who need monthly relief packages,” Abadela said. “Most of the time we can only prioritize for the poorest families.”
Responding to the criticism, he said: “We make mistakes – that’s always possible. There are people that we cannot reach and others that we don’t know about. Sometimes the evaluation process can go wrong because we are understaffed and overloaded with work. Most of our workers themselves are paid with salaries of no more than $50 a month.”
Abu al-Abadela called on the world to increase their support for Syrians struggling to make ends meet as a result of the war. “There is no solution in the foreseeable future to cover the needs of all these civilians in Aleppo. If the situation continues like this for another year or two – with war, shelling, a declining economy and the United Nations not taking responsibility – famine is inevitable: this is what we’ll see happen.”