The Linking Emergency Assistance and Recovery in North Syria (LEARN) project began in October 2018 in the northeast region of Syria. This project intends to address some of the major consequences of the crises that have affected the country: war, the covid-19 pandemic, and extreme drought.
Using a multi-sectoral approach, the LEARN project aims to enable populations in need to have access to decent housing, water, hygiene, and a quality health system. It was set up by a consortium of four international NGOs and two local organizations and is led by SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL.
The journalist Marta Bellingreri went to meet the populations accompanied in the framework of this project in order to understand the impacts on their daily life.
When Qatar sits behind the sewing machine, for a moment the entire world disappears. Only her hands, the fabric she holds, the repetitive yet sweet to her ears noise of the machine, surrounds her.
“The feeling is indescribable,” she says, looking at her latest accomplishment on a child-size mannequin. “I sew a dress, even if it’s a small dress, even if it’s not a dress for adults, but for children. Ooh, it’s an incredible, beautiful feeling. I sat behind a sewing machine and sewed, I learned and produced. This is what I could have never dreamed of.”
A safe space for women and girls
Qatar is a 26-year-old woman from Kisreh, a city in the western countryside of the Der Ezzor province, in North-East Syria. She’s discovered her passion for sewing in the Women and Girls Safe Space where she attends diverse sessions and educational activities, awareness and life skills, but also psychosocial support sessions.
The 10-year war in Syria has disrupted her life, as it has the lives of millions of Syrians. It all became more difficult when she gave birth to a handicapped child with cerebral atrophy. In the same period, her husband was injured by a shrapnel in his hand, and paralyzed. She felt alone, depressed and hopeless. But she had to carry on. “The responsibility of my family is on my shoulders. My husband can’t work; my child needs my support. I am illiterate, I can’t be employed, but while sewing I see a future opportunity to work, from home, without leaving my son behind.”
The Women and Girls Safe Space, opened in 2019 by Learn, a Consortium of four international NGOs led by Solidarités International (SI), has become a safe haven for many women like Qatar. Beside sewing, many women and girls also take computer literacy and hairdressing lessons. But at the heart of the Safe Space is the support that women reciprocally give and receive. In another word: protection. “They taught me how to protect myself. They taught me how to deal with society when I get out of the house. How I protect myself, by myself. A person is the one who can protect herself,” continues Qatar, while sitting at the side of the Safe Space’s courtyard fountain. The plants and flowers and various decorations make the women feel at home in the Space. “Guidance from the women [working] in the Safe Space on how to protect ourselves is very good. Our society is different from all societies. It’s petrified. It’s difficult.”
Hind Abdallah is the team leader of the Women and Girls Safe Space. She’s from Hasake and has moved with her family to Kisreh to work there. The four international organizations working in the consortium leverage their specific expertise in different sectors of humanitarian intervention such as Protection, Health, Shelter, Multi-Purpose Cash Assistance (MPCA), and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) activities. Due to the unique mechanism of humanitarian coordination, shared visions among the sectors and the existence of the consortium, Hind and the other organizations’ staff are able to work in close cooperation with the other teams and in the different sectors.
“When the Safe Center was founded, our team went with the health team to announce the center in the areas, also outside Kisreh, for example in the health points in Kobar, Harmoushyah, Hawiej, Zghayer and we also build mobile units.” Women from all over the area have reached the center. “We provide awareness activities for various topics such as early marriage, the importance of women’s education, and women’s rights. The region of Der Ezzor is very sensitive, so we must be careful in raising issues in order to avoid controversy in the society.”
The same goes for the social assistant Asala, working every day at Kisreh Hospital, and linking health and protection cases. “One day, a girl was waiting to enter the gynecologist doctor. She was suffering from gynecological infections caused by early marriage. I reached out to talk to her.” Asala says that it was easy to immediately catch this girl’s attention. “She was curious, and after some time she came to see us.” The day she entered the Protection Caravan at the Kisreh Hospital, where Asala welcomed her, she listened to the sessions about early marriage. “At the beginning, she was afraid to talk. After a while she realized she was not the only young girl married and so she shared her story. From that day, she never stopped coming and attending new sessions.” Asala shares the importance of linking health cases to the Women and Girls Safe Space Center: “This 14-year-old girl was married to her best friend’s brother. She thought she would have spent more time with her best friend and was not really aware of what was going to happen. She was shocked to discover she had to sleep with the brother of her friend. Behind a gynecological infection, there’s another world to tell.”
Rehabilitation and repair of housing
Following the path of the Euphrates River from Kisreh to the north, the city of Raqqa shows the cruelest signs of war, bombing and displacement. At first sight, the rubble seems to dominate the city, but inside Rama’s house hope is reigning despite all.
“My house has been inhabited by ISIS snipers. When I came back, I noticed these two big holes made in our walls. I was afraid.” Rama’s husband disappeared in 2015. At the time, ISIS had claimed Raqqa as its capital. She remained alone with six children and at some point, she managed to escape the city towards the countryside. When she went back “there were no windows, no water, no electricity, and the doors were broken. It was hard to imagine my children would restart life and go to school from this house.” Rama is one the beneficiaries of ‘Cash for Private Shelter’, and with the support of one of LEARN’s site engineers Zahra, step by step, she made her house beautiful again. “It was the right time when the organizations came to help me to rehabilitate this house, and Zahra taught me what are the best materials to get, and the correct price. We became like sisters and the results are evident. Hamdulillah, Thank God, I benefited a lot from this help.”
Rama and Zahra’s cooperative work in the private shelter rehabilitation and repair is part of the LEARN Consortium’s core-concepts. During both the preparation and the implementation, involving beneficiaries in the process functions as empowerment. This is passed through daily visits by LEARN’s staff, to build a relationship and mutual understanding with beneficiaries, especially with women. “I always try to make sure that my team includes both male and female staff members while visiting the houses, so that women beneficiaries are asked about their opinions and needs and feel more active in the process,” says Badria Musa, one of Shelter team leaders in LEARN. “The participation of women helps strengthen their characters and perceive themselves as more powerful in the community. It’s part of our vision to alleviate the effects of war.” LEARN’s rehabilitation of damaged houses and of public institutions, such as health centers, allowed people to safely return to their homes and to their city. “We were affected by the war as the people we support are,” continues Badria. “We also suffered from displacement so we can feel people when we meet them.”
Displacement in Syria is as old as the war, and continues with every new attack. This is the case of thousands of people from Rais al-Ain, al-Areeshah, and the villages on the Turkish borders, which were attacked and invaded by Turkey-backed armed factions in 2019. Many of these people are still living in camps or in old schools, which became collective centers. “It was a school previously. We didn’t have all the services and especially old women’s lives were sacrificed.” But Manal has turned her physical and emotional suffering and the displacement experience into a new path, to becoming the community leader of Tel Tamer’s collective center. She is originally from Al-Areeshah and hasn’t gone back home since October 2019. “Before being displaced, I was responsible for my family, eight people. Now I am the community leader of twenty families…that means one hundred people!” she says laughing.
Access to drinking water and hygiene awareness and health services
LEARN Consortium has supported many different collective centers, like the one where Manal lives, displacement camps, and also private and public shelters with WASH facilities (latrines and sanitation networks, water infrastructure rehabilitation), hygiene promotion sessions, and Covid-19 prevention.
“We are from rural villages”, Manal explains while looking at the children washing their hands as they learned from LEARN’s WASH team. “We didn’t know what prevention means. Now our kids are aware and even when they go to markets and shops, they use masks and they always wash their hands. They know how to cover mouth in certain ways when sneezing.” In addition, the provision of solar energy has guaranteed water supply and hot water in camps, collective centers but also in public institutions such as the hospitals. The people’s shared responsibility to clean the solar panels inside Manal’s collective center has transformed such a service in a new common tool to take care of all together. “We learned how to make them work, and the maintenance, and so we always have our water tanks filled. Something we could have not imagined when we first arrived here and with sounds of bombs still in our ears. It has become our daily melody, but we have something to work for and hope.” WASH facilities and hygiene kits (a basket containing soap, shampoo, towels, toothpaste and toothbrush, washtub and jerry can to save water) in the camps have made a huge difference especially for women who couldn’t go freely to the toilets in the open air. And to save for money to cover other expenses.
The access to clean water and to health services is center stage in the LEARN Consortium projects’ implementation in North-East Syria. And this is where WASH, Shelter and Health, which on its part is linked with Protection, and consequently to MPCA, are one unified piece. In al-Hilal Hospital in Raqqa as well as in the Menbij Primary Health Care Center which both underwent building repair, families with their children are taken in charge by doctors and nurses of LEARN, whose staff have often worked in emergency during the past years and has been able to build a strong network of Health Care Centers all over the Self-Autonomous Administration of North-East Syria.
Malak is the Menbij’s Primary Health Care Center team leader. Her office is like a garden, the love and care she puts in the small yard full of greenery next to her table is the same love and care visible in the whole structure.
“We have inpatient clinics, a children’s clinic, and a women’s clinic. In addition, we’re equipped with a medical laboratory that carries out all kinds of analyses. We have the emergency department, which works 24 hours and we have a health awareness service in the center about pregnancy and recently about Covid-19.” Malak’s words mark her unstoppable enthusiasm in the work she carries out. Like the number of beneficiaries coming from different places, such camps and villages. “We receive about 300 patients per day, and monthly between 5000 and 6000.”
The population of Menbij (Aleppo governorate) is one and half million, the large majority displaced from other Syrian provinces, but some of Menbij’s citizens never left the city, even in the darkest days of ISIS rule, and still they suffer the psychological consequences.
Uthayna is bringing her son to a psychological support session. “He was shy to talk and didn’t greet anyone. He was affected by anxiety and fear. Week by week, the situation is getting better.” Muslimat is the psychological support employee and she holds children, women, and men group sessions. “It was difficult to explain the meaning of psychological support,” she says in her room, surrounded by colorful walls and puppets. “There are often wrong beliefs about it, and the service wasn’t available in the area. Now more and more people demand this service.” Uthyana’s son likes Muslimat. They have a common friend, Coco, a cartoon character through which Muslimat talks to children. “The colors in my room relax children who live with post-traumatic stress disorders due to war and disorders.” Uthayna can breathe also now. She’s learning how to deal with her son at home and how to encourage him to go to school. “I know many people come here [Primary Health Care Center] for pediatric visits due to diarrhea symptoms or gynecological visits for infections or to take some medicines from the pharmacy. For many others like me and my son, the Center is a kind of refuge from all the bad memories, from all what we passed through.”
Among Huriye’s bad memories is that feeling of not being able to help women giving birth during war time in Raqqa. She’s a midwife and she would run from one house to another but could not cover all the needs. She worked for some time in a private clinic, aware that the large majority of women in Raqqa can’t afford private health care services. Now, back in al-Hilal Hospital, free for all beneficiaries, she’s busy helping women in natural births. During the battle in Raqqa, the hospital was one of the latest ISIS stronghold, with intense fighting and the rehabilitation today makes it symbolically very important. Reproductive Health, together with Primary Health, Mental Health, have been dramatically affected by the war. Community Health services from camps to cities, beside the health centers supported by LEARN Consortium, have developed an efficient collaboration mechanism. This is also thanks to the principles of humanitarian coordination, implemented by I/NGOs in North-East Syria in the absence of main United Nations agencies. The Covid-19 pandemic has challenged the health response, but humanitarian coordination and health working groups have proved to be resilient and effective. And despite all the hardship, new life continues to arrive.
“Every time a woman gives birth and she’s healthy and the baby is healthy, it’s a beautiful day”, Huriye says at the end of her long shift in the hospital. “We lived through difficult conditions. We are trying now to do our best. And every time a baby is born, it’s an amazing moment. I feel that the universe is born again.”