After years of fighting destroyed much of eastern Syria’s largest city and displaced hundreds of thousands of residents, UNHCR is helping families get back on their feet.
Standing beside their parched fields on the once fertile banks of the Euphrates River outside Deir-ez-Zor, eastern Syria’s largest city, relief washes over a group of farmers as water from a repaired irrigation station starts flowing down concrete channels towards the land. Smiles and exclamations of “Alhamdulillah!” (Praise be to God!) break out among the group.
“Water is life for us and our livestock,” explains Abu Ahmed, a farmer from Al-Keshmah, a village on the right bank of the river.
Last year, record low rainfall led to Syria’s worst drought in 70 years. Combined with damage to vital irrigation systems during the country’s decade-long crisis, around 40 per cent of Syria’s irrigated agricultural land no longer has a reliable water supply.
Deir-ez-Zor and its surrounding areas still bear many scars from the crisis. Years of besiegement and pitched battles have left an estimated 75 per cent of the city’s infrastructure damaged or destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of the city’s residents also fled their homes during the violence.
But like the water now trickling back into the neglected fields around the city, in recent years some families displaced by the fighting have been making their way back to rebuild their lives.
Among them is Samar, 57, a widow and mother of nine children who returned to the city after eight years of displacement. When she saw her house for the first time, she could barely recognize what remained of it. The doors and windows were all gone, and the roof and walls were badly damaged.
“We had to cover the windows and doors with plastic sheets. The children were freezing in winter, and we had to collect wood to burn in the cold evenings,” Samar says.
Like many returning families, they had no running water or electricity. Jobs and essential services like education and health care were in short supply. The COVID-19 pandemic brought additionally hardship, while Syria’s ongoing economic crisis has led to a sharp devaluation of the currency, further undermining the ability of Samar and others like her to get back on their feet.
Farmers from Al-Keshmah village watch as water from a repaired irrigation station starts flowing down concrete channels towards their land in Deir ez-Zor, eastern Syria. © UNHCR/Vivian Tou’meh
Water gushes down concrete channels following repairs to an irrigation station near Deir-ez-Zor. © UNHCR/Vivian Tou’meh
To help the city and its residents overcome the many challenges they face, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and its partners have established programmes to provide support in several areas, including repairing homes and schools and helping people to restart their livelihoods.
Samar’s was one of 105 returnee families in Deir-ez-Zor whose home was repaired by UNHCR last year. The walls and roof of her home were fixed, new doors and windows fitted, and water and sanitation equipment installed.
The repairs have given Samar and her children some much-needed stability and comfort while they try to re-establish themselves.
“My husband built this house with his own hands,” Samar explains. “The only thing that makes me happy is that I am [back] living in my house and my neighbourhood, with the memories of my life with my husband and my children.”
In other parts of the city, over the past year UNHCR has refurbished four local schools and opened two community centres providing a range of protection and support services such as legal assistance, counselling, catch-up classes and homework cafés. It also installed solar lighting in several neighbourhoods to improve safety for residents.
In the surrounding rural areas, UNHCR has provided agricultural support such as seeds and fertilizer to help 100 families resume farming. It has also repaired three irrigation stations, including the one at Al-Keshmah, which now provides water to more than 1,000 acres of land benefiting about 25,000 people, including many returnees.
One of the farmers in Al-Keshmah who returned to the area in 2018 after being displaced for many years summed up how it felt to be back and working the fields again, “We left our land, but our hearts never left it.”