Middle East
2:04 am
Wed January 16, 2013

For Those Still In Syria, A Daily Struggle

Originally published on Wed January 16, 2013 8:16 pm

The situation for Syrian refugees is getting dire. Much has been reported about the worsening conditions for hundreds of thousands of Syrians taking up shelter just outside the country's borders, but inside Syria, the numbers are even higher. The United Nations says some 2 million people have been displaced from their homes in Syria, and most of them end up squatting in mosques and schools. NPR's Kelly McEvers spent a night in one of those schools, in Syria's largest city, Aleppo, and sent this report.

As soon as you walk into the classroom, the stories come at you, all at once.

Eventually, we figure out how everybody got here.

Seven months ago, an older woman and her three sons and their wives were living in a house, but that house was shelled. The old woman's sister was a cleaning lady here at the school and has the keys. So, everybody moved in.

Now, another one of the old woman's children has just moved in as well. Her name is Amal, and the shelling at her house was so bad she took her five kids and went to sleep in the street. She was afraid the building would fall on her.

When the shelling started, Amal's husband, an older man, told her to go to her parents' house while he went back to the village. Amal said she wouldn't go, so he left her and took off.

Now, Amal's kids have lice, and her blankets and pillows have been stolen.

Amal's brother, Ahmed, is also at the school. Ahmed is really thin, with a scraggly beard and filthy pants. His hands are black.

Ahmed is a trash picker, and not ashamed to say it. Trash pickers gather plastic bags; one kilo gets them 10 liras — about 14 cents.

"[I] lost a daughter, a little daughter, she was sick," Ahmed said through n interpreter. "[We] didn't have enough money to pay the doctor."

Ahmed buried her and came back. He says that before the uprising it was better, and he would make about 150 liras a day — about $2 — but now he makes only enough to buy bread and nothing else.

Ahmed says he has a new plan. He used to drive a tank in the army, so he has decided to go and join anti-government rebels north of here, near the Turkish border.

Ahmed's brother, who's visiting, has already joined the rebels. He says he makes about a $150 a month, money his commander gets from Turkey.

As we're talking, we start to notice some arguing. The Syrian activist who brought us to this school also brought food and some money for heating fuel.

The voices get louder, and heated, and we realize there's a mini-war over how to divide it all.

"I was the one who brought him here."

"No, I was the one who brought him here."

"It should only go to the families who already live here."

"No, it should go to everyone."

All we know is it ends with Amal in tears. Her brothers and aunt, who have lived in the school for months, have taken everything. Because she's a newcomer, she got nothing.

Eventually, her sisters-in-law give her some apples, pasta and cooking oil. One of her little boys goes over to his brothers and sisters.

"Wake up," he says, "we have food." He gives them each an apple.

Each family has its own classroom. We bed down in the room of Ahmed, the trash picker, and his wife and their two kids. Another brother's wife comes to say good night. Her name is Em Ali.

It turns out that Em Ali lost a baby, too. All the women here have lost babies, either at birth or soon after.

Em Ali says her husband has beaten her as many times as she has hairs on her head. She says that before the war, he worked in a factory, making steel wool pads for cleaning dishes.

"We were poor before this," she says. "We blame the war for our misery, but we never had anything."

Em Ali laughs even when she's telling the sad stories. But before she says good night, her voice gets quiet. She says that from time to time, she hopes that she will be killed with her kids, "just to stop this, all of it."

In the middle of the night, the power goes out. It's below freezing outside.

The next morning, the power is back on. Blankets are folded up, floors are swept, and coffee is made on a portable gas stove.

We are served first. Arab hospitality prevails, even in the worst of times.

Ahmed gets ready to leave with his brother to go join the rebels. He's trying to sound noncommittal about it; his wife says it's better than starving.

"He will just go and see how ... just if he likes it or not," she says.

The wives talk about what detergent works best on clothes. The grandmother talks about her blood pressure.

This is just one school. Around Syria, there are thousands of schools like this — thousands of schools and hundreds of thousands of people.

With reporting by Rima Marrouch

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

News of an event in Syria yesterday filtered out hour by hour. Opposition groups reported an explosion in Aleppo - Syria's largest city.

INSKEEP: Later, video circulated on the Internet. The blasts took place on a university campus.

MONTAGNE: And now it appears the explosion has killed more than 80 people. One dormitory that was hit contained people who'd fled fighting elsewhere.

INSKEEP: It turns out that about two million people are displaced in Syria - refugees within their own country. And today we're going to hear some of their stories.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Kelly McEvers spent a night at a school full of refugees.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: As soon as you walk into the classroom, the stories come at you, all at once.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROSSTALK)

MCEVERS: Eventually, we figure out how everybody got here. Here goes.

Seven months ago an older woman and her three sons and their wives were living in a house. That house was shelled. The old woman's sister was a cleaning lady here at the school. She has the keys. So everybody moved in.

Now another one of the old woman's children has just moved in too. Her name is Amal. Her story comes first.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

MCEVERS: The shelling at Amal's house was so bad she took her five kids and went to sleep in the street. She was afraid the building would fall on her.

RIMA MARROUCH: Her husband was an old - like an elder man. When the shelling started, he told her go to your parents' house, and he left to his village.

MCEVERS: Back to the village, to his other wife.

MARROUCH: She had seven kids, two of whom died, twins. And her husband decided to go back to the village, and she said I'm not going to any village. Like, so he left her and took off.

MCEVERS: Now two of Amal's kids have lice, and her blankets and pillows have been stolen.

The next story is from Ahmed, Amal's brother. Ahmed is really thin, with a scraggly beard and filthy pants. His hands are black.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROSSTALK)

MCEVERS: Tell them what you do, they say. Ahmed is a trash picker, and not ashamed to say it.

MARROUCH: We gather plastic bags, and one kilo is 10 liras.

MCEVERS: Ten liras is 14 cents. Ahmed makes 150 liras a day. That's about $2.

AHMED: (Foreign language spoken)

MARROUCH: He lost a daughter, a little daughter. She was sick. They didn't have money to pay the doctor. He buried her and came back. Before - he's saying that before the uprising it was better, you know - I would make 150 a day. Now I make 150 - I just buy bread with it, nothing else.

MCEVERS: Ahmed says he has a new plan - to go and join anti-government rebels north of here, near the Turkish border.

MARROUCH: He used to be the driver of a tank.

MCEVERS: In the army.

MARROUCH: In the army.

MCEVERS: He's going to go tomorrow?

MARROUCH: Ten o'clock.

MCEVERS: His brother, who's visiting, has already joined the rebels. He says he makes about a $150 a month. He says his commander gets the cash from Turkey.

As we're talking, we start to notice some arguing going on.

The Syrian activist who brought us to this school also brought food, and some money for heating fuel.

We realize there's a mini-war going on over how to divide it all.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROSSTALK)

MCEVERS: I was the one who brought him here. No, I was the one who brought him here. It should only go to the families who already live here. No, it should go to everyone.

AMAL: All we know is it ends with Amal in tears. Her brothers and aunt, who've lived in the school for months, have taken everything. Because she's a newcomer, she got nothing.

MCEVERS: Eventually her sisters-in-law give her some apples, pasta, and cooking oil. One of her little boys goes over to his brothers and sisters. Wake up, he says, we have food. He gives them each an apple.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Each family has their own classroom. We bed down in the room of Ahmed, the trash picker, and his wife and two kids. Another brother's wife comes to say goodnight. Her name is Em Ali. Her story comes last.

EM ALI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Turns out she lost a baby too. All the women here have lost babies - either at birth or soon after. She says her husband has beat her as many times as she has hairs on her head. She says before the war he worked in a factory, making steel wool pads for cleaning dishes.

ALI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: We were poor before this, Em Ali she says. We blame the war for our misery. But we never had anything.

Em Ali laughs, even when she's telling sad stories. But before she says good night, her voice gets quiet.

ALI: (Through translator) I'm just thinking from time to time that I hope I will be killed with my kids just to stop this, all of it.

MCEVERS: In the middle of the night, the power goes out. It's below freezing outside. We hear shelling, shooting, and war planes in the distance.

It's morning.

The next morning, the power's back on. Blankets are folded and put into plastic bags, floors are swept, coffee is made on a portable gas stove. We are served first. Arab hospitality prevails, even in the worst of times. Ahmed gets ready to leave with his brother to go join the rebels. His wife says it's better than starving. He says he's just going to see how it is.

MARROUCH: Just to see if he likes it or not.

MCEVERS: Everybody nods. The wives talk about what detergent works best on clothes. The grandmother talks about her blood pressure. This is just one school. Around Syria there are thousands of schools like this; thousands of schools, hundreds of thousands of people.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And the other voice you heard in this story was NPR producer and interpreter Rima Marrouch. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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