Cash, Community, and COVID-19 Support in SyriaPublished: May 24, 2021 Reading time: 6 minutes
Syria is crumbling. A decade of war has destroyed infrastructure, the economy, and livelihoods. The value of the Syrian Pound has fallen by 40 percent¹ in 2021 alone. The COVID-19 pandemic, now over a year old, has also harmed businesses and income. As a result, job opportunities are skim, and those available pay a meagre wage of 1.4 USD a day;² not even enough for a full litre of cooking oil.
One approach to such a multi-faceted problem is cash-for-work schemes. People in Need (PIN) pays the wages for daily workers in a variety of community-support activities, allowing more opportunity for money to circulate through the local economy. Whether it be in the battle against the spread of COVID-19 or rehabilitating municipal infrastructure, individuals are able to earn a decent income while contributing to the resilience of the community at the same time.
‘I can work and I can serve the city’
Fleeing to safety can be an expensive ordeal. Jaber, 42, fled his home in Palmyra to Raqqa city in 2013, paying 800,000 Syrian pounds (~1560 USD) to smuggle his entire family through rivers and fields. He had to physically carry his mother the entire way after she fell and broke her hip.
In the summer of 2017, Jaber and his family fled fighting again, becoming displaced in rural Idleb, where they remain. The family pays nearly 27 USD a month to rent their home, which is no small amount considering his income from being a day-laborer is so precarious.
“At first we stayed with my mother’s cousin and it was already a very small home with four families living together. It was really like a prison,” Jaber explained. “It was tough and took us time and effort until I managed some work and found a home to rent,” said Jaber.
Despite having back problems, Jaber is a hard worker. He goes out every single day to find whatever job he can, whether it be loading vegetables into trucks or moving furniture. “I can’t just sit and relax and wait for aid or for someone to offer me work, this does not work for me.”
Today, Jaber is participating in a cash-for-work (CFW) scheme removing rubble and rehabilitating roads in Idleb. “Receiving a food voucher is good. But working in this project is better as I can work and I can serve the city,” said Jaber, who also worked in a CFW activity last year rehabilitating public green spaces in Idleb. “Work for the human being is very wise as you feel and enjoy the fruit of your work and effort.”
Still, life is hard in displacement; not knowing if you will have to flee again. And on top of everything, high prices make living even with a job nothing more than an act of survival. “Now I have no more hope and I just work to subsist the family,” Jaber expressed forlornly. “We just have our food, housing, and treatment at the doctors. We are deprived from many things and many things turned to be a memory.”
Making Masks for Money
Iman, 37, and her family struggle without a steady income. Her husband lost his job in 2015 and has not been able to work properly since, having a severe back injury. “He cannot even carry a few kilos of tomatoes and has to be careful when he moves,” said Iman.
“To add to our suffering, my mother in law has kidney failure and he is in charge of her treatment.”
This strenuous economic situation means Iman cannot afford to send her five children to school, nor an expensive eye procedure she desperately needs or else risk losing her eyesight. They have been coping by selling gold jewelry and going into debt.
PIN started an emergency CFW activity using funds from an SOS Syria appeal last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic – paying seam-workers to sew hand-made masks to distribute to front-line workers. In July 2020, Iman was selected as a beneficiary of this activity, working for almost two months sewing fabric masks. “There was a huge increase in COVID-19 cases in Idleb and my friends and I produced many masks and distributed them for free in the village,” Iman described.
Recently, this emergency activity received new life. “We started working on this project in [February 2021] and now I am producing 70 masks every day, which I give back to the organization so they can distribute them,” said Iman.
On top of receiving 5 USD a day for her work, Iman received a manual sewing machine and fabric. She saves time and effort by being able to work from the comfort of her home, but still, Iman worries for her children: “I do not worry for their life conditions as much as I worry about their education. Education is a top priority and if they do not learn and study, what will they do?”
Mitigating COVID-19 and Maintaining Hope
In January, PIN gave an information training to CFW beneficiaries on the effects of COVID-19 and how to mitigate against the effects of the virus. These workers have then been traveling to internally displaced persons camps and villages, sharing this information in localized awareness sessions.
“We are mainly working with people in camps, schools, and markets,” said 27-year-old COVID-19 Awareness Trainer Maram. “We explain to them COVID symptoms, best protection methods, and how to take measures not to infect others [like] how to sterilize and clean their hands.” At first, Maram reported, she faced a lot of people who were “careless” about the disease. “I think that this is due to lack of awareness and partly due to ignorance as they think that it is a conspiracy.”
“Gradually, people started to have awareness,” said Maram, “and be convinced about the danger of the disease once they started seeing people nearby infected and suffering.”
“In late 2013, my cousins and two nephews were killed in the village. Later in 2014, we all fled to Lattakia city,” said Maram. Shortly after their arrival in Lattakia, however, Maram’s husband and two brothers-in-law were arrested. Forty-two people crammed into a single house were reliant on the arrested men as their sole providers. In their absence the women would have to find an alternative source of income. “The women started working in food processing to make a little income. Things started getting worse at that time [in 2014], with very few jobs opportunities for men and expensive food prices.”
Unsure of whether or not he was even alive, and unable to obtain information on his whereabouts, Maram made the fateful decision to move back with her mother and nuclear family in rural Idleb in mid-2015. She worked in a sewing factory for a couple years, though did experience months-long stints of unemployment despite having a degree in Fine Arts. Today, through this CFW scheme, Maram is the primary breadwinner for her household.
“Hope is always there,” Maram said matter-of-factly, despite still having no information on her husband. “I hope the best is yet to come. I hope my contract as an awareness worker would be extended so that we have a stable source of income. If I stay jobless, there will be no one to take care for us.”
Thank you to the USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA) for funding these cash-for-work activities, providing a dignified way for people in Syria to support themselves while giving back to their local communities.