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Driven from their land, Syrian farmers scavenge to survive

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Driven from their land, Syrian farmers scavenge to survive

As Syria's bloody war enters its sixth year, those fleeing violence in conflict affected areas frequently endure poor living conditions.
14 March 2016
Displaced Syrian farmers Sabha and her son Adnan sit in the truck they use to forage for recyclable materials in Yabroud, Syria.

YABROUD, Syria, March 14 (UNHCR) - Until the bloody Syrian conflict caught up with them, Adnan's extended family lived a fairly prosperous life raising cattle and growing crops on land that his family had farmed for generations.

But forced to flee when their house was torched, the 31-year-old, his widowed mother and nine siblings fled to this city 80 kilometres north of Damascus where they now survive scavenging cardboard and plastic.

"I collect around 100 hundred kilos of cardboard daily, and I spend one third of the income on fuel," says Adnan, who calculates that he is left with just US$3-4 a day to support 13 people.

The family are among more than seven million people displaced by war within Syria, many of whom are struggling to survive extreme economic hardship after five years of bitter conflict that has ravaged the country and killed around 250,000 people.

Millions have lost their livelihoods altogether, while those who have been able to find some means of support now have to deal with lower incomes and rising living costs. While a fragile truce has brought hope, many displaced Syrians struggle to cope.

Adnan's family abandoned the land they farmed in Al-Hasakah in northeastern Syria after militants overran the area in 2013 and burned their home. His mother Sabha, aged 50, took charge of the family of 10 children in their flight across country to Yabroud.

She remembers the beauty of the ancient city before fighting broke out. The family owned a large farm and cattle and they were well off. "Every morning, I used to milk my cows and tend the crops," she said. "We were happy, when we used to harvest … but now we have forgotten that feeling," she said.

Where they once worked the land, planting wheat, barley, maize and lentils, the family now hunt for discarded plastic and cardboard in to be recycled into boxes and containers that are sold to grocery stores and small shops around Yabroud.

At first they built up a steady income when only three factories - one of them a recycling plant - remained up and running in Yabroud, which was itself caught up in fighting. But after relative peace returned to the city in 2014 and other factories reopened, they found themselves chasing an ever-dwindling income.

"I would have never left my home and the land of my ancestors, but I was forced to do so," said Sabha, who swapped a large house in the country for the small rented apartment where her family now lives. "The war brought us misery and poverty."

Sabha's two youngest sons also try to help their mother out as best they can, and have found part-time work in the casual economy, selling sweets and candy and washing carpets at the end of the winter.

Recently, the family received a package of core winter relief items including plastic sheeting and blankets from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, which came in handy. They were even able to sell the cardboard boxes that came with the supplies. They heard about UNHCR's livelihood program, and the small business start-up grants and they intend to apply this year to open a small grocery shop.

While the family now feels safe in Yabroud, their greatest hope is for a lasting peace in Syria that would allow them to go back home and resume a life living from the land. "Continuously, we call our neighbors in Al-Hasakah, the situation there is still not safe to return," Sabha explained. "In the end, everyone feels most comfortable at home."

By Vivian Toumeh in Yabroud, Syria