Thirteen years after the beginning of the conflict, Syria is still one of the most serious and complex humanitarian emergencies in the world. In addition to the consequences of the war, and to the economic and energy crisis, last year's massive earthquake further exacerbated the needs of the population. Today, there are more than 16.7 million people in the country - over 70% of the total population - in need of humanitarian aid (OCHA, 2024).

We have been present in Syria since 2011 and we want to keep the attention on the humanitarian crisis faced bythe Syrian population, which is too often forgotten. For this reason, we asked Andrea Sparro, our country representative in Syria, to describe to us the current situation in the country 13 years after the outbreak of the conflict, amidst the protracted restrictions on access to basic services and future prospects.

Can you tell us about the repercussions of the conflict that are still visibile in the country today?

Many consequences of the conflict are invisible, but the visible ones are also enormous. The main one is the obvious destruction of buildings and infrastructures. Living inside Damascus it is not obvious, but as soon as you get outside the city, the sight is bleak for kilometers, with entire neighbourhoods completely destroyed. In Aleppo and Deir-ez-Zor, where we have our offices, the destruction can also be seen walking inside the cities, right in the city centres: both cities have been under siege for months or years. Deir-ez-Zor is 80 percent destroyed. Entire neighbourhoods are empty: this is the second visible consequence, the lack of people. Millions and millions of people have indeed been forced to flee the country, and entire areas that were once populated are now totally empty.

Another aspect that is particularly visible is the scarcity of electricity. At night, cities are often dark, contributing to a general feeling of desolation. This scarcity mirrors an enormous energy crisis in the country.

Furthermore, there is an obvious and visible economic crisis, which is the latest stage of the crisis resulting from the war and the sanctions imposed on the country. I am not only referring to the lack of liquidity, the galloping inflation, the constantly fluctuating exchange rate, nor only to the economic barriers to access services: we know that a lot of families cannot send their children to school for lack of resources and that teachers cannot reach the schools because the cost of transport is, in some cases, higher than the salary they receive. I am still talking about the visible consequence of this economic crisis, meaning that the increase of people living below the poverty line is visible in the streets.

Finally, another partly visible aspect is the large number of people with disabilities, with a rate that is twice as high as the averages in other countries: it is estimated that there is a percentage of people with disabilities of around 20% of the total population.

What are the consequences for children and youth who have lost years of education because of the conflict? What does the loss of education years mean for their future and the one of the country?

The compensation for so many years of school lost is very difficult, regardless of the work that international organisations are doing. Schools either no longer exist, because they have been destroyed, or they do not function. The formal education system is in great crisis and there is no possibility of a structural recovery of the sector in the near future.

What does this mean for children? It means that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to continue studying - to attend a high school, a university. This means that there are fewer professional skills on the labour market, which is already in crisis. As a result, there is a great risk of increased poverty and unemployment, and a great risk of creating situations of dependency: on other people, on exploitative situations or, at best, dependency on economic aid from outside, or humanitarian aid. And dependency is always a huge obstacle to development.

There are very serious consequences in terms of personal and not only professional development, because school is also a means of emancipation, of growth, of cultural, personal and social ascent. More concretely, child labour is already a widespread reality: in the areas where we work, we meet many children who have to work in small businesses, manufacturing or on assembly lines from an early age. There is also the risk of early marriage and pregnancy, exploitative situations, and gender-based violence. What is in peril in general is the future of the country, in the sense that the people who will have to rebuild the country tomorrow, which is currentll destroyed by war and sanctions, are not being educated at all.

What are the most urgent needs of the population? Both because of the conflict and the earthquake?

There are consequences, needs, that have typically arisen from the earthquake, linked to infrastructure issues. Having a walk around Aleppo, you see a destroyed building and you ask your colleagues whether the cause was the earthquake or the war, and 99% of the time the answer is "both, it was already destroyed and the earthquake made it worse". What has been destroyed is infrastructure of all kinds. The earthquake has exacerbated an already dramatic situation, especially for what concerns access to water: many infrastructures that were able to provide water even though they were old and inefficient, have been severely damaged, effectively cutting off access to water for entire communities. The earthquake has also increased the need for psycho-social support, as the population has experienced and is experiencing additional trauma.

In fact, the amount of needs in this country is huge and it comprehends a very large segment of the population, if not all of it. In general, there is a huge crisis in the labour market and therefore the need to create livelihood opportunities.

How are we supporting the syrian population since our arrival in the country in 2011?

In Syria it is only possible to provide humanitarian aid, because due to the sanctions imposed by the European Union, the United States, and other countries, there are no development funds. We operate here based on the needs of the moment. When we arrived in the country in the early 2010s, we supported the Iraqi refugee crisis. Over the years, everything has changed. In general, we provide emergency relief, support to those in need in all the ways we can and with the expertise we have at our disposal: shelter, food, energy, education, water, rehabilitation of infrastructure, etc. In particular, we provide support to ensure access to quality education and safe and sufficient water. We do this by working on the rehabilitation of infrastructure and training the staff of public education and water boards. We emphasise hygiene and sanitation by distributing basic goods, from hygiene kits to winter kits, to cope with the cold, because many people live without a home, or in homes destroyed by war.

Recently, we have started working on early recovery and livelihoods to try, again from a humanitarian perspective, to support the vocational training of young people and create a link with the labour market, because although it is true that there is an ongoing humanitarian crisis, and that the needs are often basic, we are talking about a society that cannot restart without livelihood opportunities. It is therefore necessary to support local capacity building to create income-generating activities and make the population more resilient.

13 years of conflict with no end in sight. What does it entail and will it entail for the population?

We certainly observe a sense of fear and insecurity, because it is true that the end of the conflict is not in sight and we know perfectly well that armed conflicts are increasing in the region. From our three offices, we live and listen to the bombings that often affect areas very close to us. The impact on mental health is high, as are the traumatic experiences. The prospect for many people, especially young people, including colleagues, is to leave the country, to migrate, especially to northern Europe or Canada. Because what lies ahead is more suffering, more poverty, more lack of education. Without an end to the war and the lifting of sanctions, opportunities for the population are almost non-existent.

Can you tell us a story that has particularly impressed you?

The people who made a real impression on me are the young people - under 30 - of our staff in the city of Deir-ez-Zor. The city has been under siege by non-governmental forces for more than three years. The local population has partly fled to rural areas, or out of the country, while others have remained inside, taking refuge in a couple of neighbourhoods (the only ones that are still standing today). Under siege, there was no food, electricity nor roads to get in and out, with snipers ready to shoot anyone who moved into the border areas. For years, these people had to adapt with what the land could offered and then no longer could. Many of them started working for SARC (the Syrian Red Cross) to try to support the population. Humanitarian aid was dropped from the sky by parachute because there was no other way in. These young men at 17, 18, 20 years of age, in addition to living in inhuman conditions, decided to support the population, dealing with death, with the risk of being killed, with hunger, with the deprivation of basic rights. They had to dig mass graves, bury dozens of people and exhume the bodies from mass graves created by the besiegers. These young men decided to put solidarity for their fellow citizens at the forefront, to start their work in the humanitarian sector while under siege: some of them died while trying to bring help to the population, others continued to work in the humanitarian sector even when the siege was over. Some of them work with us today. After years of great suffering, they chose not to leave and to stay in a city that was 80 percent destroyed to bring support to the population with us.

Working closely with people, what does emerge about the future of the country?

As it is always the case in these contexts, the solution to the crisis as a whole - as well as its causes - is political. In our work we do not talk about political issues, it is not our business, but we address the humanitarian consequences. What we see and what concerns our sector is that unfortunately some donors - probably due to political choices - have decided to cut funding. So we fear that the situation, from this point of view, will only get worse. At the same time, what we see is that Syrians continue to live, to hope for a brighter future.

What is the positioning of WeWorld in Syria?

Syria is at the centre of a huge international political crisis, with the presence of several foreign military forces on its territory. The sanctions imposed create conditions for a very serious economic and humanitarian crisis. Regardless of their causes, regardless of whether we consider them more or less right, based only on our values I can certainly say that they are exacerbating a crisis that has been going on for too many years and that is destroying generations of people.

We only support a small part of the population, because there are millions and millions of people living with the effects of the crisis, and there are not enough humanitarian funds in the country to intervene on everyone, nor development funds that would be needed to support the country's economic recovery. We continue to provide support, knowing that it is necessary, but also that the solution to the tragedy of these people does not lie, as in so many other contexts, in humanitarian aid. Does this mean we should stop doing it? No, the moment the humanitarian system disappears, these people will experience a dramatic crisis, because dependency on humanitarian aid is a sad reality. The government is already rationing the supply of electricity and is not able, partly and mainly because of the economic sanctions, to support the entire population. It is worth remembering that Syria, before the war, was in a very advanced economic, cultural and intellectual position in the region.

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