9 million Syrian children risk hunger amid food crisis
by Dario Salvi

UNICEF report: over 6.5 million in Syria and another 2.8 million abroad depend on aid. In the first three months of the year 213 children died or were injured, since the beginning of the war 13 thousand children have been killed. AsiaNews shares the stories of everyday poverty and struggling families for whom food is a luxury good. 

Milan (AsiaNews) - The most violent days of the Syrian conflict are long gone, although there are still pockets of violence in the country in which government forces are being confronted by local groups and jihadist or rebel movements that control part of the territory.

However, for the civilian population opinion - at all levels, not only in the weaker and poorer segments - the toughest period of the last decade, the most difficult and dramatic phase is taking place "today." The daily reality of unemployment, lack of resources, empty cupboards and extreme difficulty in gathering even one meal to serve at the table has resulted in more than nine million children, at home and in diaspora countries, living on the threshold of survival. 

Through a member of the Catholic community in Damascus who is active in international cooperation, AsiaNews spoke with some families who shared their daily lives. First among them was Kamar, a mother of four living in Eastern Ghouta, a rebel enclave on the outskirts of the capital for seven years under government siege.

She recalls: "I used to share a loaf of barley bread with my husband and children; it was our only meal. If we were lucky, we would add herbs picked from the fields, to boil. But back then there was no food. Today the markets are full of food, but we cannot buy anything." Her husband works as a cleaner in a store in Damascus, the salary is paltry; the woman has to rely on the solidarity of local groups, which provide her with a monthly basket of dry, long-shelf-life foods. But no vegetables or fresh fruit, because "my children don't know the taste. And I don't want them to get used to it."

"My eldest son Hussam," she continues, "was offered an orange in the shelter where we stayed for two months after the army took back control of the village. He thought it was a ball and started playing with it with his friends. Now the situation is worse, Hussam knows what an orange tastes like, but I can't afford to buy even a slice."

Another woman from Ghouta, named Haifaa, recounts that her three children on the five-minute walk to school pass through a market. "I force them to change their route and follow a longer one so that they don't see food that I can't afford." Her husband is a painter, and because of the economic crisis, work is scarce.

Ghazieh, a mother of five, lives in a tent in Kherbet Alward, an agricultural suburb of Damascus, rented for less than five euros a month because they cannot afford a real home. "I felt paralyzed when my children during Ramadan [holy month of Islamic fasting and prayer] would ask me what they would eat in the evening. Bread and tea were the only things I could get." Her husband is a daily farm labourer and his low income "is barely enough for a piece of bread."

These tales of poverty and despair depict a nation that today, more than in the recent past-when the bloodiest phase of the conflict raged- has been brought to its knees by a severe economic and social crisis that also reflects on the younger generation, with a harsh toll. According to a study published in recent days by UNICEF, there are more than 6.5 million children in Syria, and another 2.8 million Syrian children abroad, who depend on economic aid and support for survival. Never before have children been so utterly "dependent" on aid.

And after more than 10 years of war-which began in the spring of 2011 as a popular uprising against Bashar Assad and the government, then morphed into regional and global conflict by proxy-many are at risk of starvation, while funding has been drastically reduced. The number of needy "is the highest" ever recorded, and the price of basic goods - including food - are steadily rising, partly due to Russia's war in Ukraine. To this must be added the damage caused by ongoing outbreaks of conflict, which in the first three months of the year killed or injured at least 213 children. Since the beginning of the crisis, the total number of deaths and injuries among the very young has exceeded 13,000.

Abir is a mother of two children, her husband died a few years ago, and she works in a canned food factory to earn a living. "When my children cry at night because of hunger," she says desperately, "I promise them that as soon as I have some money I will buy them cookies, chocolates. That way they stop crying and fall asleep, to dream of a better tomorrow."

A mother of two girls, Josephine and her husband had a marble processing business that was destroyed during the war. In 2016, the woman was shot by a sniper while returning to Damascus from her granddaughter's christening and was paralyzed. Her daughter Marie is diabetic as a result of the shock of having seen her mother injured and bleeding, and today the family depends on humanitarian food and medical aid to survive.

"It is a nightmare," she cries in despair, "that gets worse with each passing day and seems to have no end. Not even at the time of the war, I didn't think I would face such difficult days ... aggravated by this state of paralysis."