Shivering residents in northwestern Syria burn secondhand clothing for warmth

AMMAN: As winter arrives in opposition-held northwestern Syria, residents are burning secondhand clothing for warmth as a cheaper alternative to more expensive firewood and diesel fuel.

When it began to get cold and rainy in the west Aleppo countryside town of Atareb last month, Abu Muhammad burned his bedroom set of furniture to keep his wife and seven children warm. When the furniture ran out, they went searching for any branches or discarded boxes to burn that might be left outside shops in the city, but “those are scarce,” he told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

Like many Syrian houses, Abu Muhammad’s residence on the outskirts of Atareb is fitted with a sobia, a wood-burning metal heater that is used for warmth or to heat water. During the war, it became increasingly common for people who cannot afford to buy firewood or diesel to roam the streets and countryside gathering boxes, plastic or pieces of shrubs to burn in the sobia.


Atareb resident Maryam al-Abdullah pulls old clothes out of a bag to burn for warmth. Photo by Muhammad a-Shafai for Syria Direct.

This week, temperatures in the Aleppo countryside and neighboring Idlib province reached between 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit during the day but dipped to freezing overnight.  

Abu Muhammad’s family shivered through a particularly cold night in their house a few days ago without anything to burn for warmth.“The next morning we burned some of our old clothes,” he said. Since then, Abu Muhammad buys cheap clothes by the pound at a local bala—a secondhand clothes store—with the salary he earns pouring concrete.

He is not the only one doing so. Today, families like Abu Muhammad’s are increasingly feeding their sobias with a new fuel: old clothing.

One kilogram of used clothing currently costs around SP200 (approximately $0.40) at secondhand shops across opposition-held Idlib and Aleppo, two residents told Syria Direct on Wednesday. A family might use four kilos of clothes for one day of heating, cooking and warming up water. In comparison, one liter of mazot diesel fuel costs around SP275 (approximately $0.50).

“We buy used clothes for heating, cooking and warming up water,” Maryam al-Abdullah told Syria Direct at her Atareb home. She fed a scrap of cloth into the opening of her sobia to feed the flames inside. Bags of used clothes including scraps of a blue and white sweater sit in her home for future use.


Women rummage through old clothes for sale at a secondhand shop in Atareb. Photo by Muhammad a-Shafai for Syria Direct.

Synthetic fabrics such as polyester, nylon and acrylic burn quickly but give off acrid, chemical fumes and can leave behind a blobby, plastic-like residue.

Muhammad, the eldest son in Atareb resident Abu Muhammad’s family at age eighteen, also helps buy clothes to burn with money he earns working at a local car repair shop.  

“I buy the scraps—the leftovers and castoffs—since they’re cheaper,” he told Syria Direct. “They smell when you burn them indoors, but it’s better than the cold.”

Two secondhand shopkeepers—one in Idlib, one in Aleppo—told Syria Direct that demand for clothes to burn is up as the temperature outside drops.

“With the beginning of winter, demand for used clothing has spiked,” Jouhar Abdelrazaq, the owner of a used clothes shop in Atareb told Syria Direct on Wednesday.


Jouhar Abdelrazaq’s bala shop in Atareb. Photo by Muhammad a-Shafai for Syria Direct.

“We used to have to throw away these leftover clothes that nobody wants,” he added. “Now, there’s demand for them—people come and reserve quantities of clothes ahead of time, to keep their kids warm.”

The used clothing sold by bala owners in Idlib and Aleppo “reaches us from Turkey after it is imported from Europe,” said Majdi al-Omar, who owns a secondhand clothes shop in the north Idlib town of a-Dana, 9km northwest of Atareb. Shopkeepers buy in bulk from distributors in Syria.

Due to increased demand, the cost of low-quality used clothes has doubled from their summer price, but it is still a cheap and more readily available alternative to firewood, diesel, or whatever scraps residents can find outdoors.

“In previous years, I looked for plastic and boxes every day, but I’m having trouble finding enough of these materials to burn now,” Atareb resident Abdelrahman al-Gharwi told Syria Direct. “Used clothing is the only option to replace it, despite the smell.”

“It’s better than going without heating.”

With reporting by Muhammad a-Shafai.

This report is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of northwestern Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.