"Today is not my turn to eat"

Aleppo, Investigation section | Tharwa Exclusive | May 13, 2008

A child forages through the garbage for something to sell or eat, Aleppo 2008
The bitter enemy of progress and development, poverty, exacerbates that gloomy side of life. To understand poverty in Syria, two-fifths of the population is under the poverty line.

The Syrian government plays the main role in rising poverty rates.   The government’s unwillingness to invest in development projects and the lack of job opportunities worsen the economic situation. 

We discussed the deplorable situation with Syrians who have been greatly affected by the increase in costs. To truly recognize the abject poverty rate in Syria, all you need is to take a nighttime stroll through the streets of a Syrian city, particularly Aleppo, and witness the people perusing through garbage cans. Tharwa went to poor and middle class neighborhoods in Aleppo and talked to those affected by the economic downturn in Syria. The details in audio files reflect their thoughts:

Name: Abu Samer
Age: 40 years old
Marital Status: Married
Occupation:  Hospital Janitor

Abu Samer, the father of a 13 year old boy and a 9 year old daughter, is generally only able to work 24 hours a week, earning 8000 S.L per month (the equivalent of 160 U.S. dollars). He said: “I’d like to work full time, every day, but I also do not want to prevent someone else from earning his bread”.

Samer struggles to bring home things his wife needs. His condition is worsened by his large debt of  35000 S.L.  He doesn’t know how he will be able to pay his debt off, remarking, “My wife asks me to bring this and that, I say wait until I pay my debt and settle my engagements and I will buy you whatever you want, but all in vain". In addition to his work custodial duties at the hospital, he makes extra money by washing doctor’s cars and cleaning their houses and is ready to go to any lengths to provide for his family.

Abu Samer blames his family’s difficult living conditions on rising costs. He sullenly quipped, “My children have asked me for 4 months to buy cheese, but I can’t afford it”

Name: Mrs. Ayesheh
Age: 30 years old
Marital status: Widow
Occupation: Tailor
Neighborhood: Sheikh Maqsood Araby

Mrs. Aysesheh’s husband died four years ago and she has struggled to subsist ever since. Aysesheh and her 3 children live in small home that has a living area, a kitchen and a bathroom. Depending upon the availability of work in local trinkets shops, Mrs. Ayesheh earns 300-400 S.L. a week (6-8 U.S. dollars).

Her daughters have contracted anemia due to malnutrition. She said, "I have to take them to the hospital each month to provide them with blood; this disease can often cause many other diseases. For a year and a half, I have had to get medicine from Damascus.”

Name: Um Ali
Age: 33 years old
Marital Status: Married
Occupation: Housewife
Neighborhood: Al Ashrafeeh

Um Ali, her 5 children and her husband live in a small residence that has one living area, a kitchen and a bathroom.  The rising costs have been difficult for her family and have contributed to her husband rarely finding work, she said, “We do not own our house, my husband is only able to work one day every 10, and much of this is due to the rise in costs.”

Name: Abu Ahmad
Age: 53 years old
Marital Status: Married
Occupation: Retired
Neighborhood: Az Zebdyeh

Abu Ahmad began by saying, "If mujdarh (traditional meal) meal costs 500 S.L, 2 KGM of  bulgur, half kilo of lentil, half kilo of oil, a plate of salad, and box of yoghurt, how can poor person afford anything?”

Abu Ahmed is a retired army employee, he served in the army for 32 years and now he is working 13 hours a day to be able to live in a respectful way. He says with bitterness, “what can I do to get money if I don’t work, would I steal??"

"Our financial situation is very bad; we don’t have middle class any more, we have a poverty-stricken class and a very rich one, employees here are destitute". He gives as an example, his son, who is a married with children. His salary is 8000 S.L and he rents house for 4000 S.L. Abu Ahmad concluded by asking, “How will 4000 S.L be enough for his wife and children with electricity and water bills? Perhaps a full-time employee can make it but what about the worker who works one day and stays ten workless? How could he live? There is no good living standard here.”

Name: Abu Khaled
Age: 55 years old
Marital Status: Married
Occupation: Retired
Neighborhood: Old Serian

Abu Khaled sees the Syrian financial situation in an international context, but according to him the Syrian situation is particularly drastic. The price of many consumer goods has doubled and many goods are rationed, the level of income for the average consumer is incredibly low and corruption is an endemic part of many state run institutions. Abu Khaled says, "For example; if we go to lodge a complaint against a bakery that has raised prices too high and doesn’t produce good bread, the baker controls your destiny. His employees will not let the word out because the owner shares his profits with the employees.”

According to Abu Khaled, there is no mechanism for controlling the rising bread costs and worst of all there is no way to express your grievances, "Complaint to anyone but God is disgrace”. This is exacerbated by the corruption and inflation “We are an oil producer country, yet we have gas problem because it sells behind the scenes and the price of goods continues to rise, a kilo of tomatoes was 15 S.L and now its 55-60 S.L.”

Abu Khaled confirms that employee salaries do not adequately account for the current rising in costs.  He concluded his remarks by bitterly saying, "If you want to know how Syrian employee lives, just watch garbage cans at night, everyone is looking for something specific, one takes nylon, another clothes and another food".

More than a quarter of Syrians believe that government officials are not truthfully discussing the rise in poverty rates. In reality, the situation is considerably worse than what is being said or written by the government. A large number of the poor go to sleep hungry every night, and there is an aura of pessimism that permeates the poor regions of the country.

We concluded our interviews with Doctor A.H. The story he told us is not an exceptional case, as he knows of people in Syria,  “that spend days without eating.”

Doctor A.H. told us a story about a student in Alyarmook elementary school in the Bostan Alqaser quarter, originally told to him by one of his patients. One of the students in second grade class fell unconscious during gym class. When the teacher took her to the principal's office and asked her, “How you came to school without having your breakfast?”  The child answered, “Today is not my turn to eat!”.

After investigating what the little girl said, it was discovered that the girl’s family alternated days between eating. One day a group of six would eat and the next day another group of six would eat. Doctor A.H. concluded his speech pessimistically, “This is the face of poverty in our country”