Sleepless in Syria’s displacement

Published: Apr 28, 2020 Reading time: 5 minutes
Sleepless in Syria’s displacement
© Foto: People in Need

When it comes to stories about humanitarian aid in Syria, international NGOs typically highlight work addressing the most urgent needs. PIN is no exception.

In recent months we’ve updated our readers on efforts to provide displaced Syrians supplies to survive the winter, food to fend off hunger, and cash to purchase basic needs like clothing and heating materials.

But there are other stories from displacement that often go unnoticed during an emergency: the sleepless nights, the dreams of a better future, and the many nightmares that people living amid conflict suffer.

This is a photo essay from northern Syria about those rarely told tales.


I used to sleep peacefully but I have forgotten what it’s like. At night, I keep thinking of my family, I keep thinking about the warplanes and whether we are going to be displaced again. Once I couldn’t get any sleep for two days in a row.

Sometimes my children wake up in the middle of the night screaming ‘warplanes, warplanes!.’ I hold them tight and tell them that everything is going to be okay. But I, too, have nightmares about warplanes. Sometimes I scream and shake while I am asleep, and when I wake up, my family tells me that I was shouting unintelligible things.

We also suffer from the tiniest details. For example, if I wanted to go to the toilet at night, I would have to cross over all my sleeping children. So, I tend to wait until morning just to avoid waking them up. We had to sell our solar power generator, so when the night comes we cannot even see each other inside the tent.

I always live in fear. Currently, I am scared that the tent is going to be blown away by the wind in the middle of the night. Once it happened and my children were crying because of the cold while I was trying to bolt the tent to the ground. It was so rainy and windy.

When it rains, the water gets into our tents and the whole ground turns into mud. Everything gets dirty: our blankets and pillows, and even the children. The tent is not even ours. We all live in the same tent, I have nine children of my own, and sometimes my sister comes to our tent with her children.

Before being displaced, we used to look at the tents and could never imagine that we would end up living in one.


I still remember the exact date when we lost our ability to sleep peacefully due to fear. The last time I got a proper night’s sleep was in December 2017. Then the attacks were so severe that at some point, we could not sleep for days. With the escalation of violence in December 2019, the frontline moved very close to my village and this was when we were forced to move. It was December 16, 2019.

That night, I didn’t tell my children that we must leave at dawn. I stayed up all night thinking and I finally woke them up at dawn and told them to grab what they most needed as we had to leave immediately. They asked where were we going. I answered: “To the unknown; this earth is God's earth.”

My brother’s family settled with my family in an empty school. We were able to take some cooking necessities, some clothes, and one blanket and pillow for each one of us that now we use every night.

I used to sleep with no fear but now, whenever I go to bed, I am afraid of everything. We cannot sleep alone anymore because of fear: fear of a warplane, fear of heavy bombardments, fear of everything around us. At night, we keep thinking of what will happen. The situation and the severe psychological stressors have changed our lives completely – especially at night.


We spend many hours at night unable to fall asleep. Shelling at night is the most frightening. We have seven children and five of them have cerebral palsy, so at night I always feel sad and frustrated because my children could not escape in the eventuality of airstrikes. 

They could not reach the ground floor or the street as my wife and I cannot carry them all. Sometimes, even if the children are able to sleep despite the shelling noises, my wife and I can’t. We are worried and we want to keep close to them and ready so that we can react and take care of them if anything happens.


We lost the feeling of being properly rested a long time ago. Now, we are always afraid of everything, especially because we are living in a tent. Only yesterday, our tent was blown away by the strong wind in the middle of the night. Our blankets and carpets were all covered by water, and the children were crying a lot. The possibility of lying down in peace vanished when we left our home.

In the evening and at night we are restless, and we keep watching the tent to prevent it from falling apart due to strong winds. My children always cry and are scared, especially my little Mohammad, who cannot sleep soundly because of the wind whistling against the tent.

At night I think about how to make ends meet. I have talked many times to the landlord who rents us the piece of land where we have our tent; sometimes he accepts that I take a loan but sometimes he doesn’t. I also get anxious because there are no jobs. But when there is bombing, I don’t think of anything except trying to protect my family.

Sometimes I dream big and think how good it could be to return to our homes. More often I dream smaller, just hoping things will get better here, with better tents and a better road that doesn’t create all the mud that ends up in the tents. Unfortunately, when I wake up I live in uncertainty, and we can’t expect anything.

[Note: The above are extracts from longer interviews that have been edited for clarity.]

Autor: Omar Khattab and Nina Tramullas, People in Need

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