To make a house a home: Syrian IDPs return to rebuild lives
"They have no idea how much they’ve impacted our lives," Amina told The New Arab as we rested against the traditional cushions that lined the edges of the living room of her newly built house in northern Syria.
These words were echoed by so many other beneficiaries of a massive humanitarian housing project, in appreciation of the numerous charities, donors and workers that made this all possible.
Almost 12 years of war has led to the displacement of more than half of Syria’s pre-war population; 6.9 million of them are considered Internally Displaced People (IDPs) as they remain within the country’s borders – so close to, yet so far from home.
"They [Muslim Hands'] housed us, and it’s the second-best thing to being back home"
As I crossed the Turkey-Syria border at the back of our partner organisation's minibus, the reality of this became apparent very quickly.
Through the dusty windows, I saw small clusters of tents lining parts of the road to Afrin, shaded by olive trees which grew in fields stretching for miles. We still hadn’t reached any official camps managed by humanitarian organisations.
Those camps contain tents, sometimes covering huge areas, and struggling to shelter the thousands of families that were forced to abandon their homes after fleeing the horrors of war.
At the time of my visit, the border regions of North-West Syria were areas of relative safety. Although the fires of war occasionally rear their ugly heads there, the process of rebuilding Syria is already well underway.
However, news of a missile strike in the city of Azaz less than a week after my return home was a sober reminder that the Syrian conflict will enter its twelfth year in March 2023.
The region hasn’t seen all-out conflict for several years, but attacks like this still take place and with a lasting peace seeming to be a distant hope, most Syrian IDPs will be unable to return to their homes anytime soon. The north, therefore, serves as a safe haven for millions of Syrians who were uprooted at the height of the war.
The need for large-scale housing projects was evident simply by observing the situation in the camps and around the northern areas. Hearing stories directly from the mouths of Syrian survivors who have no roof over their heads only reaffirmed how important it is to rebuild this beautiful country.
The summers are hot, and the winters are damningly cold. Makeshift tents do not protect families from the extremes of the seasons.
Amina once lived in IDP camps like the ones we visited. Now she has a roof to shelter her children from the elements. She is a 23-year-old mother of three, originally from Homs, forced to leave her home behind because of the conflict.
For three years, the family moved from camp to camp, tent to tent. When she heard about the housing project, she hurried to register and eight months later moved into a new home just as winter struck. "Alhamdulillah (Praise be to Allah) we are fully settled in now," she told The New Arab. "It’s as good as a palace compared to the tents."
She told us how living in the camps was incredibly difficult. The flimsy structures couldn’t protect them from the rain or the cold – even their privacy was compromised. I witnessed this reality for myself in each camp I visited.
Amina had to wear her hijab [a head covering] constantly, both inside and outside the family tent, like so many other displaced women. She even had to endure giving birth to her youngest child in the camp: "Now I have walls and a roof over my head. They protect me and my children from the cold and rain. It is a huge blessing!"
These houses are being built in their thousands. NGOs all across the world, including Muslim Hands, have raised the funds to carry out this vital work. Amina said that she "could not find the words to thank them enough" for making this possible. It’s heart-warming to know that there are people who still want to do good in this world."
So far, Muslim Hands’ donors have contributed almost 1000 homes towards the project and it was truly inspiring to see the impact of this magnificent initiative, which is giving Syrians the safety, privacy, and dignity they need and deserve, first-hand.
The view whilst driving towards each housing site was a marvel to behold. Hill after hill covered in newly finished homes surrounded our vehicle. I could see hundreds of houses being built all around me.
This wasn’t the case in just one location – we visited numerous places where the work is leaving its mark. It was like new mini towns appearing on the map, with the help of generous people from all across the world, unified by this humanitarian cause.
"The houses being built are helping to bring a greater sense of stability to the lives of displaced Syrians. They can go to sleep assured that rain won’t soak their bedding or flood their floors"
Hala moved into her new home with her three children just four months ago. She described to us how horrendous the conditions were in the camps: “In winter, the tents would become flooded for months. The water reached so high, it was like living in a pool, not a tent.” She feels like her life has been transformed by moving into one of the homes. "When I moved to this house, I finally found peace. My life is much better, and I am so much happier."
Last year, news of babies dying from the cold in Syrian IDP camps shocked many of us to the core. Such horrific stories will only continue if interventions like this aren’t carried out.
So many more families are still living in tents, and with winter in full swing, they’ll face many difficulties in the months ahead. Hala recounted how she used to try and protect her children from the below-freezing temperatures, "when it used to get very cold, I’d take the children to the neighbours just so that we could warm ourselves in their tent." It is no overstatement to say these homes will save lives.
The IDP camps throughout northern Syria may seem like a better option for Syrians than returning to their homes. However, it was clear to me, even during my short visit, that life in the camps is full of uncertainty.
There are always questions about what the cold winter months will bring, or what the hot summer months may have in store. Then there are uncertainties about where one’s next meal will come from, or if there will be enough oil to warm the tent through another night.
Whilst Muslim Hands’ intervention includes the distribution of food packs, warm clothing, blankets and more, a longer-lasting solution such as the housing project is certainly needed.
The houses being built are helping to bring a greater sense of stability to the lives of displaced Syrians. They can go to sleep assured that rain won’t soak their bedding or flood their floors. The walls will do a better job of keeping out the cold than a flimsy tent can. It certainly is a step in the right direction – a reason to hope after years of suffering.
My heart was filled with joy every time we entered a new housing site. People were already making their shelters into homes. One family made a hole in one of the outer walls to create a makeshift storefront. This wasn’t just a roof over their heads, it was an opportunity to make a living too. Other houses were decorated with pictures and framed calligraphy.
After losing their homes and living through ordeal after ordeal in the camps, these houses have given many Syrians another opportunity to live life again – a fresh start. The goal of the project is clear – to empower Syrians and give them back their dignity. Every family that moves in is experiencing exactly that.
I am proud to be a part of this. Seeing the impact with my own eyes gave me a great sense of relief that the project is achieving its objective. Witnessing the smiles on the faces of children who have only known war and displacement, was heart-warming – they now have a chance at some kind of ‘normalcy’, although there is still a long way to go.
The atmosphere in northern Syria was one of renewal. I saw destroyed buildings being reconstructed, new roads being laid, and businesses bustling. This housing project is a big part of a long journey to move IDPs out of their tents and into solid shelters. In the words of one beneficiary, "They housed us, and it’s the second-best thing to being back home."
Bit by bit, brick by brick, the mission to give the Syrian people hope and dignity again is well underway.
Sahirah Javaid is a senior press officer at the UK-based charity Muslim Hands.
Follow her on Twitter: @JavaidSahirah