‘Far from home’: Four recently displaced Syrians reflect on Ramadan in exile

AMMAN: As Syrians mark their eighth Ramadan since the war began, more than six million are doing so as internally displaced people far from their homes and loved ones.

Since the beginning of the year, a series of surrender and evacuation agreements has resulted in major displacements of civilian populations from four formerly rebel-held areas: East Ghouta, south Damascus, East Qalamoun and the northern Homs countryside.

As a result, tens of thousands of newly displaced people will now be breaking their fast for the first time in unfamiliar surroundings throughout the country.

Syria Direct spoke with individuals from each of these recently displaced regions to reflect on what in means to celebrate Ramadan away from their homes and what they have been able to preserve of their holiday traditions.

East Ghouta

Nour a-Sham, 24, has been displaced for seven years. Originally from the town of Hiran al-Awameed in East Ghouta, the carpenter first fled to Saqba in 2011 when government forces took control of his hometown. This year, he relocated again, fleeing to Zamalka before finally being evacuated to Idlib’s Maarat a-Numan last month under a surrender agreement between East Ghouta’s rebels and the Syrian government. In Maarat a-Numan, a-Sham lives with his family in the spare bedroom of a house that locals have allowed them to live in free of charge.

For a-Sham, Ramadan in East Ghouta meant crowds of friends and neighbors flooding the family home, where he and his relatives prepared and served an array of traditional food for the sunset iftar.

Now newly displaced in Idlib, with friends and neighbors cast adrift like him or still living in East Ghouta under government control, the stresses of displacement are particularly keen as Ramadan gets underway.

A man prepares traditional Ramadan beverages in rebel-held Maarat a-Numan on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Maarat Media Center.

In East Ghouta, “our families were happy, and they bought special things for the holiday,” says a-Sham. “Now, no one can to buy anything to prepare.”

Local organizations, seeking to ease the wrenching transition from East Ghouta to displacement in Idlib, have provided a-Sham’s family and others with free meals and food baskets for the first four days of Ramadan, he says. After that, he is not sure what they will do.

“In terms of our quality of life and work [here], there is none,” he says. “Everyone is sitting on their hands, living off of international organizations and subsidies.”

A-Sham hopes that this will be his family’s last Ramadan in displacement, and that a new year brings political or military changes that will allow them to mark the holiday with their loved ones in East Ghouta once more.

“We hope that we can return to our town, and that we can get together with our families,” he says. “Life is very difficult here.”

South Damascus

Malik Bardan, 31, is originally from Daraa province but lived in opposition-held south Damascus before he was evacuated to the northern Aleppo countryside on May 10, leaving his pregnant wife and 18-month-old son behind.

Bardan has felt “like a stranger” since arriving one week ago in the northern Aleppo countryside, roughly 350 kilometers north of his home in the southern districts of the Syrian capital.

The former activist boarded a government-operated bus departing besieged, then-rebel-held south Damascus all alone. His wife and son stayed behind in the capital at his in-laws’ home “to spare them the fatigue of displacement,” Bardan says.

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An antique lantern shop in the formerly rebel-held town of Saqba in East Ghouta in May 2017.  Photo courtesy of Abdulmonam Eassa/AFP/Getty Images.

Today, as Ramadan begins, Bardan remembers the communal spirit that for him once embodied the holy month: the breaking of the fast with his family, visits to relatives’ homes and gatherings with close friends stretching late into the night.

Now alone in northern Syria, Bardan no longer sees Ramadan as an opportunity to take stock with the loved ones in his life but rather as a reminder of the distance separating him from friends and family.

“I will receive Ramadan with sadness filling my heart and tears in my eyes,” says Bardan. “My heart is broken to be far from home... I am lost.”

East Qalamoun

Faris al-Munajid, 35, was displaced with his wife and daughter from East Qalamoun on April 24 as part of an evacuation deal between rebels and the Syrian government earlier this year. Today, they live in the Kurdish-majority city of Afrin in a stretch of Syria’s northwest controlled by pro-Turkey rebels. 

In East Qalamoun, Ramadan came with “it’s own special feeling, serving as a link between all members of the family and neighborhood,” al-Munajid tells Syria Direct.

All of al-Munajid’s family and neighbors followed the same routine: waking before dawn to the sound of the masaharat [traditional drummers who wake Muslims to eat before their fast begins] and gathering in the evening to break their fast together before praying at the neighborhood mosque.

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Children gather around an ice cream truck in Douma city during Ramadan 2017. Photo courtesy of Hamza Al-Ajweh/AFP/Getty Images.

Now, al-Munajid’s family and neighbors have been divided, their customs and ceremonies “lost,” he says. Al-Munajid is unemployed, surviving off what remains of his life savings—he can no longer afford to cook elaborate, celebratory meals.

Despite his new, austere lifestyle, he remains grateful. “God has blessed us with good health and a dignified life,” he tells Syria Direct.

“Today, we only think of getting by one day at a time,” al-Munajid says. “The month of Ramadan is one of worship that draws us closer to God.”

“It doesn’t matter where we worship.”

North Homs

Sameer Abu Khaled, 25, left his home on the besieged northern Homs countryside earlier this month in a surrender and evacuation agreement with the Syrian government. Today, he lives in a displacement camp in the Idlib countryside.

Residents visit rebel-held Maarat a-Numan’s fruit market on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Maarat Media Center.

For the first time, Abu Khaled, a former freelance photographer, is spending Ramadan apart from his friends and relatives. His mother and father stayed behind in northern Homs as it returned to government control.

In Abu Khaled’s hometown of Talbisa, “everyone would gather for suhour and iftar during the holy month,” he remembers. But in the overcrowded Idlib displacement camp where he now lives, “there is nothing like that at all,” he says. “The men are alone in their tent and the women in another tent.”

This year’s Ramadan is “a test of patience,” says Abu Khaled. “Patience for being separated from relatives, for being far from home, patience for the hardships we suffer in the camps.”

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Mohammad al-Ghazawi

Mohammad al-Ghazawi is from Deraa in southern Syria. He studied journalism at Yarmouk University in Jordan and began his work as a reporter with the student newspaper at Yarmouk. He has contributed several pieces to media conferences and forums in Jordan. His area of focus is politics in the Arab world, with a focus on Syrian affairs. He is participating in Syria Direct’s training program in order to develop his skills so that he may develop in-depth reports about what is happening in his country and serve the Syrian people.

Fatima Abdallah

Fatima is from Homs province. She relocated to Jordan in 2013 because of the war. Fatima hopes to complete her university studies in order to help rebuild her country after the war. She has volunteered with several humanitarian organizations which assist Syrian refugees in Jordan and is working with Syria Direct in order to help her fellow Syrians and broadcast their voices.

Barrett Limoges

Barrett Limoges is an investigative journalist who has reported from across the MENA region, his work appearing previously in Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, PBS Newshour, Al-Monitor, Huffington Post and other publications. He studied journalism at the University of King's College and is currently pursuing a MA in Political Science at the American University of Beirut.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.