Syrian refugees spend Ramadan in exile
Beirut - Sitting on the floor with her daughter next to her in the sweltering summer heat, Naima Haj was busy preparing iftar, the fast-breaking meal, for her large family in the informal Syrian refugee camp of Rihaniya in northern Lebanon. It is the fourth Ramadan, the Muslim holy fasting month, that Haj and her family are spending in exile after fleeing war in her native Homs province in western Syria.
“It feels like an oven inside,” the mother of ten said outside her tent, cooking iftar. Her teenage daughter helped by peeling potatoes. “The food is repetitive. It is the same during the whole month of Ramadan… It is either beans or lentils, or rice and fried potatoes!” the girl complained.
For Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Ramadan spirit is largely subdued. Food not only lacked variety but quantity as well. “I always find excuses in order not to sit at the iftar table with the family because I am convinced that there is not enough food for all,” Haj said.
“We are grateful for those who are offering us assistance without which we would not have been able to survive under these harsh conditions, but what is being offered is insufficient and very little, compared to our needs,” she added.
The Syrian war, which is in its fifth year, has displaced half of the Syrian population of 22 million, with at least 4 million seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.
There is nothing special happening during Ramadan in the shabby encampment that has become home to some 500 Syrian families for the past four years. “Most Syrians spend their time praying to be able to return to their homes,” Haj said. “We got nothing particular for Ramadan except new clothes for the kids donated by some charities.”
In Jordan’s Zaatari camp, a desert settlement housing more than 80,000 refugees, the mood is as sad and gloomy, with no signs of Ramadan festivities.
“There’s nothing to celebrate while our people are being killed and our country is perishing,” said Yousef Anzo, 34, a native of Syria’s southern restive border city of Daraa, the site of the first peaceful demonstrations against President Bashar Assad in March 2011 that marked the beginning of what became an all-out war engulfing all of Syria.
“We are fasting, although conditions make it much harder than back home,” he said, referring to a swirling dust, scorpions and snakes and scorching desert heat.
Temperatures in Zaatari, which straddles the southern Syrian border, are in the 40s Celsius during daytime and dip to 15 degrees at night.
Oum Mahmoud, a 45-year-old Daraa housewife and mother of six, said her daily routine during Ramadan remained unchanged, but her life has changed. “I cook for my children and husband as we all fast, so more or less it’s the same,” she said. “What changed is that we now live under a tent that barely fits us all while back in Syria we had a farm with a home of two floors which I yearn to return to.”
In the marketplace of Zaatari, shops sell Ramadan ornaments, such as lanterns, and others decorated their entrances with flashing lights to attract shoppers.
But in Rihaniya, refugees stood in long queues under the scorching summer sun to receive “a box” of food assistance. Amina Idriss, a camp resident, complained that the ration was not increased or diversified for Ramadan fasting. “We expected the assistance to double or improve but nothing of that sort happened,” she said. “Things remained unchanged. In fact, matters have been worsening year after year.”
Idriss’s husband, Darazi Nassir, is more content and happy to have his family safe and secure. “We have four children and we all live in one tent but, despite everything, Ramadan has a special taste. The fact that we gather around the iftar table every evening with my children safe and sound around me is a blessing for which I thank God Almighty,” he said.
Four years of forced exile has stretched assistance to some 1.2 million refugees in Lebanon, resulting in cuts in food rations. But in Jordan, food assistance has not been jeopardised.
At the Zaatari camp, stores are packed with shoppers buying fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, chicken and fish to prepare for their sundown meal. They use prepaid coupons provided by the UN refugee agency.
Elsewhere in the camp, charities run by the Jordanian government and non-governmental organisations provide free meals.
“Food is in abundance but we only care to return home, to a safe Syria with no Bashar Assad,” said Mahmoud Khalidi, a 23-year-old carpenter, as he distributed dates and water to passers-by to break their fast after dusk sets on the camp.
Despite the gloominess, children in Rihaniya camp can still have a feel of Ramadan spirit. Rafi, a 10-year-old refugee, referring to a collective iftar organised by camp leaders, said: “We were at least 40 families sitting around a big iftar table on the first day of fasting. It was great fun and we were promised to have another collective meal for children only!”
Housewives like Idriss also make an extra effort in Ramadan. “During this month, my neighbour in the opposite tent and myself prepare joint meals and cook together, in order to have a certain feel of Ramadan and make believe that life can still be enjoyable,” she said.