Aleppo slowly progresses along road to recovery

UNHCR's Amin Awad visits Homs and Aleppo and witnesses resilient spirits first hand.

UNHCR's Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Amin Awad visits Aleppo

UNHCR's Middle East and North Africa Director, Amin Awad, met the displaced during a visit to Homs and Aleppo. Here in Homs, he witnesses signs of destruction.  © UNHCR/Vivian Tou'meh

ALEPPO, Syria – Six months on from the east Aleppo evacuations – when civilians first saw a glimmer of hope after many months of miserable existence and enormous suffering – life for some is slowly restarting. But the road to recovery will be a long one. There is catastrophic damage to infrastructure, destroyed homes and shops and questions over how those returning to their former lives can earn a living.

Amin Awad is the Middle East and North Africa Director of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, as well as the Regional Refugee Coordinator for the Syria crisis. He visited Homs and Aleppo earlier this month to see at first-hand not only the scale of the challenges ahead, but how people are coping and struggling to resume normal life.

“Some people are restarting life against all odds and amidst immense challenges. A demonstration of their admirable resilience,” said Amin Awad. “I know this city well and have visited it several times before the crisis, I feel so sad at the scale of devastation,” he added.

"The feeling of being home is great."

Filippo Grandi – UN High Commissioner for Refugees – visited Aleppo in January and expressed shock at the immensity of the destruction he witnessed. Awad’s follow-up visit comes at a time of continued uncertainty over Syria’s future and amid growing humanitarian needs – with over 6.7 million Syrians internally displaced from their homes and five million refugees abroad.  Including the displaced, there are now 13.5 million people within Syria in need of humanitarian assistance.

While visiting both Homs and Aleppo, Awad met Syrians who – despite all the odds and the risks to their lives – had refused to leave their homes even during the most difficult of times. Um Kinan, an 83-year-old Aleppo resident told Awad: “I will never leave my home. Life is good now, I can’t complain, but I need better health care.” In Aleppo’s Sulieman Al Halabi neighborhood, two ladies who had just returned to their home told Awad, “we are fixing our house with our bare hands, but the feeling of being home is great.”

Syria. UNHCR's Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Amin Awad visits Aleppo

Um Kinan, 83, is a resident of Bab Al-Hadid which is one of the seven historical entry gates to the old city of Aleppo. She receives daily hot meals and relief through UNHCR's partners. Throughout the crisis, Um Kinan never left her home.  © UNHCR/Bassam Diab

Signs of recovery across Aleppo are growing – debris is being removed, streets are being cleared and people continue to return to their ruined homes and shops. In Aleppo’s Seif Al Dawala district, Awad visited two schools UNHCR is quickly rehabilitating – to get them ready for the start of the school year in September. The challenges ahead however, cannot be underestimated. “Thousands returned to emptied and gutted towns, facing immense challenges while millions remain displaced,” said Awad.

In Jibreen, the industrial zone where tens of thousands of displaced Syrians now live, rehabilitation work continues to help improve housing conditions. Recently-installed solar-powered street lights are also transforming the city. “We do not feel safe at night, we can go out after sunset”, said an Aleppo resident. In east Aleppo – similar UNHCR-backed programmes have brought street lights to dozens of streets – a glimmer of hope for many who endured months of living in darkness.

The potential return of over 12 million refugees and IDPs also poses an immense challenge – with any returns being subject to political and security developments and to protection thresholds being met. So far, overall conditions cannot at all be described as conducive to return – and needs are overwhelming. “Human beings cannot live on bread alone,” Awad stressed.

Additional reporting and editing by Firas Al-Khateeb in Damascus