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 Reham sits behind the sewing machine, the entire world disappears for a moment. 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 mounted 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
Reham is a 26-year-old woman from the western countryside of Deir-ez-Zor province, in North-East Syria. She discovered her passion for sewing in the Women and Girls’ Safe Space where she attends diverse sessions: psychosocial support, awareness sessions and also skills development trainings.
The decade of 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 child with cerebral atrophy. In the same period, her husband was injured in his hand by shrapnel, which paralyzed him. 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 in Deir-ez-Zor governorate, opened in 2019 by LEARN, a Consortium led by Solidarités International (SI), has become a safe haven for many women like Reham. Beside sewing, many women and girls also take computer- and Arabic- literacy 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 Reham, 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. “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.”
Hanadi is the team leader at the Women and Girls’ Safe Space. The international organization she works for operates the Safe Space under the LEARN Consortium covering programs in North-East Syria, bringing together four international non-governmental organizations under one umbrella to serve the Syrian people. Each partner of the Consortium leverages its specific expertise in different sectors of its integrated 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, Hanadi and her colleagues from other partner organizations are able to work in close cooperation with other teams who cover the same or a different sector.
“When the Women and Girls’ Safe Space was founded, our team went with the health team to announce the center in the areas in and around the city, for example in the health points in local rural communities and we also built mobile units.” Women from all over the area have been able to reach the center. “We provide awareness activities on various topics, such as early marriage, the importance of women’s education, and women’s rights. The region of Deir-ez-Zor is very conservative, so we must be careful in raising sensitive issues in order to avoid controversy in the society.”
The same goes for the social assistant Rahaf, working every day at the local hospital in Deir-ez-Zor governorate, and linking health and protection cases. “One day, a girl was waiting to see a gynecologist. She was suffering from gynecological infections caused by early marriage. I reached out to talk to her.” Rahaf 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 hospital, where Rahaf 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 who married early and she shared her story. From that day, she never stopped coming and attending new sessions.” Rahaf shares the importance of linking health cases to protection services: “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 Deir-ez-Zor governorate 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 was inhabited by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) snipers. When I came back, I noticed these two big holes 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 their life and go to school from this house.” Rama is one the Syrians benefitting from ‘Cash for Private Shelter’, and with the support of one of LEARN’s site engineers Hayat, step by step, she made her house beautiful again. “It was the right time when the NGO came to help me to rehabilitate this house, and Hayat taught me what are the best materials to get, and the correct price. We became like sisters and the results are evident. Hamdulillah, I benefited a lot from this help.”
Rama and Hayat’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 households and communities in the process functions as empowerment. This is passed through daily visits by LEARN staff, to build a relationship and mutual understanding with families they serve, 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 are asked about their opinions and needs and feel more active in the process,” says Asmaa, one of the 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 Asmaa. “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 wave of violence and insecurity. This is the case of thousands of people from Ras al-Ain, al-Areesheh, and the villages on the Turkish borders, which were attacked by, and are now under the control of, 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, becoming the community leader of a collective center in Al-Hasakeh governorate. She is originally from Al-Areesheh and hasn’t gone back home since October 2019. “Before I was forced to flee my home, 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 their mouth in certain ways when sneezing.” In addition, the provision of solar energy (that helps pump the water into faucets) has guaranteed continued water supply and hot water in camps and 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 into a new common tool to take care of each other, 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) provided by LEARN partners in the informal camps and settlements in Aleppo governorate have made a huge difference, especially for women who couldn’t go freely to the outdoor toilets, including to save money to cover other expenses.
Access to clean water and to health services are center stage in the LEARN Consortium project implementation in North-East Syria, and this is evident around the cities of Raqqa and Menbij where WASH, shelter and health, which is integrated with protection and makes referrals to MPCA, are one integrated program. In major health facilities in Ar-Raqqa and Aleppo governorates, which both underwent building repair under LEARN, 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 which has been able to build a strong network of healthcare centers and ambulances all over North-East Syria.
Fatema is a Primary Health Care Center (PHCC) team leader in a critical health facility in Aleppo governorate. Her office is like a garden, and the love and care she puts into the small yard full of greenery next to her desk is the same love and care visible in the whole structure.
“We have an internal clinic, a pediatric clinic, and a gynecology clinic. In addition, we are equipped with a diagnostic laboratory that carries out medical tests. We have the emergency department, which works 24 hours, and we have Community Health Workers providing awareness in the center and in the communities about topics such as maternal care and, recently, Covid-19.” Fatema’s words mark her unstoppable enthusiasm for the work she carries out. Like when she talks about the number of patients coming from different places, such as camps and villages. “We receive about 300 people per day, and between 5000 and 6000 on a monthly basis.”
The population of the largest city in the region called Menbij (Aleppo governorate) is around one and a 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 they are still suffering the psychological consequences.
Khadra is bringing her son to a psychosocial support (PSS) session. “He was shy to talk and was not greeting anyone. He was affected by anxiety and fear. Week by week, the situation is getting better.” Sabha is the PHCC’s PSS worker and she holds PSS group sessions for children, women, and men. “It was difficult to explain the meaning of psychosocial 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 request this service.” Khadra’s son likes Sabha. They have a common friend, Coco, a cartoon character through which Sabha talks to children. “The colors in my room relax children who live with post-traumatic stress disorder due to war, and other afflictions.” Khadra can also breathe now. She is learning how to deal with her son at home and how to encourage him to go to school. “I know many people who come here [the PHCC] for pediatric consultations due to diarrhea symptoms, or gynecological consultations for infections, or to receive 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 everything we went through.”
Among Dala’s bad memories is that feeling of not being able to help women giving birth during war time in Raqqa. She is 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 cannot afford private health care services. Now, she works in a major health facility supported by LEARN where health services are free-of-charge for all patients, where she is supporting natural deliveries. During the Battle of Raqqa, this facility was one of the last ISIS strongholds, with intense fighting, which is why the rehabilitation today makes it symbolically very important. Primary health care, including reproductive health and specialized services like mental health, have been dramatically affected by the war. Community health services in camps, cities, and in the health centers supported by the 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 United Nations agencies. The Covid-19 pandemic has challenged the health response, but humanitarian coordination and the 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 is healthy and the baby is healthy, it’s a beautiful day”, Dala 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 like the universe is born again.”
All names in this piece have been changed to protect identity