What is Ramadan All About in Northeast Syria?

Photo: Hala* is a displaced woman who lives with her five granddaughters in a camp in northwest Syria. She is the sole breadwinner for her family. Hala recalls Ramadan when she was in her hometown, before war and displacement, saying: “In the past we were happy and life was easy, during Ramadan. We were able to buy what we need and eat what we want. We used to share our Iftar meals with our neighbors, as a tradition in Ramadan. Now, living conditions are difficult and Ramadan has become different.”

By Jolien Veldwijk

In a few days, the holy month of Ramadan will end. Many of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide will celebrate Eid, marking the end of a month of fasting, praying, and sharing. I have just returned from the Northeast of Syria, where this month is a painful reminder of everything people have lost in a decade of gruesome war, hunger, and displacement. I have lived in Yemen, Sudan, and Afghanistan, and was fortunate enough to break fast with colleagues and people that CARE supports. I have always liked how special this time feels – how it is a time of reflection, togetherness, family, and gratitude.

During my weeks in Syria, I have realized just how difficult it is for families to enjoy this special time. For many families in the camps, it has been years since they last slept in their own beds, set their own dinner table, or enjoyed sharing a meal with their friends, family, and neighbors. Some of the people I spoke to have had to flee up to five or six times. Their houses have been burnt down, their livelihoods destroyed. They have nothing left for themselves, let alone anything they could give away.

I have such vivid childhood memories of how excited my parents and grandparents were to buy us new clothes for Christmas, and how we put on our best outfits for church on Sunday. Similarly, families in Syria want to gift their daughters and sons new dresses, pants, and shirts, wanting them to look and feel their very best for this special holiday.

“Eid used to be a happy occasion for us”, one mother in the camp told me. “But not now, my husband is dead, my son is missing, and I don’t know how to provide food for my children.” How are people supposed to celebrate with their families, if many of them are dead or missing, if families are incomplete, broken apart, and live dispersed as refugees within Syria and neighboring countries?

To add to their worry, there was hardly any rainfall this winter and it looks like the coming wheat harvest will fail. Driving across the Northeast, I could barely see any wheat, and the few plants growing were a lot smaller than they should be. Families rely on wheat for flour to make bread, and as fodder for their animals. Food prices have already increased by 236% since last year. Many mothers and fathers cannot afford to buy enough food to feed their children more than one or two meals per day, and fresh fruit and dates, by which people usually break their fast, are completely unaffordable.  It is hard to feel festive in such an environment. It is hard to endure a day of fasting in the hot, scorching sun, when all you can think of is what you have lost and how this special holiday season could look like if you were not living in a dusty, crowded refugee camp, and have lost everything.

Despite that, there were also instances where I felt a sense of hope, a feeling that a better future is possible. During one of my last days in Syria I went out for an evening picnic with my Syrian colleagues. Families were sitting together on blankets, listening to music, and dancing. Some women were playing soccer with their kids, couples were holding hands, and enjoying the setting sun. My colleagues were talking about how this Ramadan is also different for them. Many have lost family members, while others have taken on the role of caring for their elderly parents, as their siblings have fled to neighboring or European countries. They, themselves, are going through a lot of hardship. Some of them had just graduated from college when the war started. They spent their 20s and 30s rebuilding their homes, seeking safe shelter, mourning family members, and often putting their dreams to one side, as the lives they had planned were put on hold.

And yet, they do not dwell on their own suffering. What they mostly speak about is how they want to put in extra hours this Ramadan to help people feel more hopeful. How they want to ensure that CARE’s activities, such as food distribution, cash, building latrines, and ensuring people have access to water, will continue despite the COVID-19 restrictions.

Listening to my colleagues, I was thinking that this really is what Ramadan is all about – our common bond as human beings. How sharing and caring is the most powerful tool against despair. As a humanitarian actor, CARE cannot solve the conflict in Syria or provide people in the camps with safe houses to return to. What we can do is help meet people’s most dire needs. Whatever it takes, we can, and have to continue to, make sure that people here know they are not forgotten; that they know they are not alone. My sincere wish for this year’s Ramadan is that people continue to share their compassion, and, if possible, donations, with desperate families in Syria. Not just during Ramadan, but throughout the year.