What would Syrians eat in Ramadan amid soaring prices?

A vegetable store in the traditional Souk Bab Sraijeh in Damascus - October 2020 (Lens Young Dimashqi)

A vegetable store in the traditional Souk Bab Sraijeh in Damascus - October 2020 (Lens Young Dimashqi)

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Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud

“I borrowed the price of gasoline to be able to ride my motorbike in search of work, but I have not found any yet.”

Abu Mohammed, a construction worker in his forties, summarized to Enab Baladi the long quest for a livelihood as the political, economic, and global crisis stand in his way to earning it.

Such a squeeze controls the living conditions of Abu Mohammed, his wife, and four children residing in the al-Kuwaiti camp near Harbanoush village in the northern Idlib region.

With the advent of the holy month of Ramadan, the family finds itself in front of an income that only suffices for seven days, as the days in which the head of the family finds daily work that will earn him only 20 Turkish liras, or less than 30 percent of what the worker needs daily in Idlib to secure basic needs, according to the REACH humanitarian initiative.

The UN and humanitarian organizations concerned with Syria have released many statistics related to the extent of hunger, poverty, and food insecurity and the impact of all of this and warned of the dangers over the past 11 years since the start of the Syrian revolution.

But despite all the calls, data, and statistics examining the problem, no solutions have emerged to prevent Abu Mohammed from selling a kilogram of aid-distributed lentils to buy medicine for his wife.

Enab Baladi spoke to Abu Mohammed through WhatsApp, where he revealed in voice recordings, interspersed with the sound of his child crying, that his way to feed his family, in addition to the few working days, depends on borrowing from others.

The economic situation in the war-torn country is affected by the different areas of influence and control, according to international political datum, which makes clear the fragility of the living reality and the absence of its immunity, which necessarily means a quick negative impact.

On how to solve the family’s livelihood problem, Abu Mohammed said, in a weary voice, “We rely on God. I have a sick daughter, and we ask God for relief to the best.”

Poverty as common denominator

The poverty, low living conditions, lack of job opportunities, and low wages unite Syrians in northwestern Syria between a resident and a displaced person.

It also makes the lives of many linked to the aid, to which the UN, in response to a Russian desire, opened internal lines to deliver it from areas controlled by the Syrian regime to northwestern Syria.

It is estimated that about 2.7 million displaced people out of four million people living in Idlib need humanitarian assistance, given that 94 percent of families suffer from a lack of purchasing power to reach their basic needs, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The aid is divided between those entering through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey and the internal crossings with the regime areas under the name of cross-line aid, which many activists in the north do not believe in the positivity of its feasibility.

In addition to the large difference in quantities between what enters through the Bab al-Hawa crossing and what arrives through the regime’s crossings to the Idlib region.

Since the approval of aid distribution through the engagement lines with the Syrian regime, only 43 trucks loaded with foodstuffs entered from the areas under its control in Aleppo towards Idlib, in front of a thousand trucks of various types of aid, which entered through the Bab al-Hawa crossing.

Yahya al-Sayyid Omar, a researcher in political economy, told Enab Baladi about the effects that have negatively affected the lives of citizens, pointing to the increasing global economic inflation, which is reflected in Syria with the different areas of military control as a kind of repercussions of the Russian war on Ukraine.

Al-Sayyid Omar added that what exacerbates the severity of the economic situation in Syria is the overlap of imported inflation with internal inflation, with many crises experienced by the Syrian economy, which puts people in front of escalating difficulties with the start of the holy month.

Commodity prices in Idlib witnessed an accelerating wave of high prices before the start of Ramadan, in addition to the stability of the nominal value of wages and salaries, which are being eroded as a result of inflation.

The problem is on two levels, namely, the high prices and the low level of income, in addition to the shortage of materials in the market, the researcher said.

According to research studies, the effects of the problem widen more with the expansion of its time scale, which in turn is associated with the persistence of poverty and low income, with an economic collapse that portends long-term food insecurity, with limited availability of sufficient and nutritionally safe food, or limited ability to obtain foodstuffs in socially reasonable ways.

Food security is based on four dimensions identified by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, which are the availability, access, use, and stability of food.

The economic researcher believes that the options available to citizens to deal with the living situation are very few, as people are looking for additional work that may not always be available due to the high unemployment rate and the low level of employment.

This explains the high level of incoming foreign remittances to Syria during the month of Ramadan, and these remittances do not solve the problem, but they mitigate it, al-Sayyid Omar adds.

The researcher doubts the feasibility of monitoring prices if this is done, given that prices are rising as a result of international and domestic inflation.

He ruled out an increase in the level of salaries due to the “government’s inability” to implement it and that wages would not make a real difference, even if they were increased, due to the widening gap between income and expenditures, as he described it.

Al-Sayyid Omar also suggested providing direct aid and working to reduce the price hike as much as possible as a kind of solution available at the present time.

Poverty prevails in regime areas too

Umm Amer, a mother of four children who lives in the coastal city of Latakia, the stronghold of the regime’s head Bashar al-Assad, says that she is tired of “the heavy economic burdens as the constant pressure will inevitably lead to an explosion.”

She told Enab Baladi about the prices of vegetables and main staples and how she is no longer able to buy or afford them. “A liter of cooking oil costs 15,000 SYP (4 USD), a kilo of rice costs 4000 SYP (1.1 USD), a kilo of bulgur costs 5500 SYP(1.4 USD), and a kilo of potatoes costs 2400 SYP (60 US cents).”

Umm Amer is only able to secure the basics, or what is indispensable in a more accurate sense, to feed her children, as her husband’s salary is not adequate without borrowing more than double its value.

David Beasley, Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), warned in November 2021 of the harsh measures that people are forced to take due to hunger and poverty in Syria.

The WFP provides food aid to more than five million people across Syria every month, but the humanitarian organization is facing “severe funding constraints, and recently had to reduce the size of the monthly food ration received by families,” according to a statement by the organization.

Firas Shaabo, a professor of banking and financial sciences, confirms that the problem in Syria is both old and new, and it continues and worsens without solutions.

Pointing out that the regime’s government removed subsidies from individuals or sectors, with the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its role in raising energy and oil prices.

Shaabo told Enab Baladi that the regime-controlled areas are already facing a problem in the value of the Syrian pound and the weak income, with the absence of a government approach to reviving the economic situation, and of course, citizens are the most affected.

The academic ruled out the existence of an economic solution without a political solution in Syria, especially with the regime’s lack of control over the country’s resources and citizens’ lack of purchasing power, which makes the beneficiaries of the Syrian economy few.

On the mechanism of people’s dealing with the imposed economic reality today, Shaabo stressed that there is a negative response and negative adaptation to the living crisis.

This is done by taking children out of school sometimes to work, or selling basic belongings in the house, opening the door to borrowing, rearranging priorities, and relying on external transfers, given that work and overtime for a husband and wife together is hardly enough to feed the family.

New warnings, old numbers

About 12.4 million people, nearly 60 percent of the population, suffer from food insecurity and do not know where their next meal will come from, and this is the highest number recorded in the history of Syria, with an increase of 57 percent over 2019, according to the WFP.

With the beginning of the Russian war on Ukraine on 24 February, the Syrian regime government decided, during an exceptional session, “to set work items to deal with the emerging situation for a period of two months, during which periodic meetings will be held to assess the situation and take the necessary measures regarding its developments according to several levels,” which means imposing austerity.

On 4 March, David Beasley, Executive Director of the WFP, shed light on the looming food crisis in the areas affected by the war in Ukraine, including Syria.

Beasley also warned of the dangers of exacerbating famine worldwide due to the halt in production and export of products such as grain.

According to the UN report issued on 23 February, the number of Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance reached about 14 million and 600 people, after it reached 13 million and 400 thousand during 2021.

On 12 January, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, presented a report confirming that 90 percent of Syrians are below the poverty line, while 60 percent of them suffer from “food insecurity.”

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