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In northwestern Syria’s displacement camps, children search for warmth, income in garbage dumps

Every morning, 10-year-old Fatima meets her friends at a landfill near Sarmada, in northern Idlib province. The next hours are filled searching through the garbage for plastic, old shoes and worn-out clothes, stuffing their bags before returning to their tents at the end of the day. 

It’s a scene repeated many times over in the streets and junkyards surrounding displacement camps in northwestern Syria. Displaced children, most of them younger than 15 years old–as well as smaller numbers of women and elderly residents–are gathering garbage to burn for warmth, or to sell so they can buy basic  necessities, according to one Mari correspondent in northwestern Syria. The youngest of them work from nine o’clock in the morning until 3pm, gathering what amounts to 200-500 liras worth of items, just $0.20-$0.50–that is, if they are able to sell them.

In the past three and a half months, nearly one million people have fled their homes in Syria’s rural northwest, according to a recent UN count.  They are outrunning pro-government military advances on the ground, as well as Syrian and Russian airstrikes and artillery fire. Some 60 percent of those who have been displaced are children. 

They are taking shelter in makeshift tents within hastily built displacement camps, or out in the open, even as frigid winter rains turned their campsites to mud. There are few organized public services, and everyday necessities such as food, water and cleaning products often come at a high price. 

For Fatima, that means joining up with her younger brothers at local garbage dumps near Sarmada before returning at night to their family’s tent with the items they gathered throughout the day. The children “provide the family with a little bit of warmth, by burning the plastic,” Um Omari, their mother, tells Mari. 

Fatima coughs regularly. Her family says it’s a result of the burning plastic. Still, they remain without a breadwinner, as their father was arrested five years ago by government security forces, according to Umm Omari. She now lives alone with four children, all of whom “left school years ago,” she says. 

Umm Omari feels a sense of guilt over her children not attending school, though the family has few other options for obtaining basic necessities so that they can survive in displacement. “How am I supposed to get supplies for heating, with the rise in prices?” she asks. The price of mazout, cheap heating fuel, reached 860 liras in recent days, about $0.78–expensive for hundreds of thousands of families now living in displacement along Syria’s northwestern border with Turkey. One kilo of firewood is now more than 120 lira (about $0.12), while a kilo of coals is 100 lira (roughly $0.09). According to Um Omari, her children’s work collecting garbage is the only solution for them to find heating supplies. Sometimes, she says, she accompanies them to the garbage dumps herself. 

They are among dozens of people to visit the sites daily, according to Muhammad Jillo, local council head of the nearby town of Qah, which is also home to displacement camps. He estimates some 100 people visit the garbage dump near Qah each day, “most of them children.” 

Jillo’s local council has tried to ban people from collecting the trash, but “to no avail.” 

“It’s become a source of income for many families, whether in the summer or winter,” he says.

Umm Abdelhayy burns clothing and plastics to cook food for her children, February 2020. Sham Muhammad.

Burnt garbage, and then illness

In Atma, a collection of makeshift camps clustered along the border with Turkey, 29-year-old Umm Abdelhayy lives in a tent with her children. She fled there two months ago from their hometown of Maarat a-Numan. Soon after Syrian government forces retook control of the town. Her children are now among those gathering at nearby garbage dumps each day to search for items they can burn for heating, she tells Mari.  

But Umm Abdelhayy’s children are now suffering from leishmaniasis, a disease also known as “Aleppo button” after the skin ulcers that appear on those diagnosed. Her children are showing signs of the skin ulcers, an effect she figures comes from breathing in the air around them as they burn collected garbage, including plastics, for warmth. 

Garbage such as the plastics that Umm Abdelhayy’s family burns in their tent “impacts the community in general, but especially children,” according to Dr. Anas Qurat, who lives in Idlib city and visits the displacement camps. “Breathing in the fumes from burning waste can hurt the respiratory system for children and even adults. That waste includes the garbage collected to burn for warmth.”

The danger? “Garbage dumps are a breeding ground for germs, as well as viruses and parasites,” says Qurat. “This garbage can also contain medical waste, and is dangerous for children.”  

“There’s also the danger of the garbage pile collapsing, which can kill people standing underneath it, which is what happened [in January] in Idlib city, killing three children.” 

But the risks to children are still high, as children continue to visit the dumps in search of sellable items. According to Ibrahim Sarmini, a protection officer with the Turkey-based Syrian NGO Violet, “child labor has become widespread, posing physical and psychological dangers to children.” 

And though Violet has distributed heating supplies to recently displaced people, the needs are simply too great, Sarmini says, as families continue to flee the frontlines in Idlib province. 

Without an education

Umm Abdeldayy feels regret over her children not attending school, over their “illiteracy,” she tells Mari. ٍBefore displacement, she had been looking forward to educating her children. But her children can not yet read or write. 

Abdelhayy, her oldest son, is one of thousands of Syrian children pushed out of school by war and displacement. Among them are “dozens of children” in the makeshift al-Bashakem displacement camp outside Sarmada, according to camp director Abu Hussam. 

“They drop out of school and go to the nearby landfill every morning, instead of going to school,” Abu Hussam tells Mari. “This is because of the poverty here, and the children needing to help their families.” 

Even if they were able to attend classes, there are few schools serving the displacement camps of northwestern Syria. For more than one million people living in northwestern Syria’s camps, there are only 49 schools, according to a report published last September by Humanitarian Response, a Syrian NGO. 

So each morning, nine-year-old Abdelhayy watches other children walk to school he heads instead to the nearby garbage dumps. “I asked my mom to teach me how to read and write, but she hasn’t mastered it herself” he tells Mari. “I can’t go to school.” 

Abdelhayy, born just as the Syrian war began and raised amid nine years of bombing, now “knows nothing of school,” his mother says. 

“This makes me feel like I’m falling short, that I’m helpless.” 

This report is part of Mari’s special coverage of Syrian education, and the first of a number of articles that will be published in the coming two weeks. 

Also read: A ‘generation of illiteracy’ as northwest Syria’s children driven into displacement


شام محمد

صحفي سوري، أقيم في إدلب، درست الاقتصاد والتجارة.

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