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15 March 2018updated 04 Aug 2021 10:03am

“At 28, I had life planned. Now I’m 35”: The Syrian millennials growing up in conflict

Seven years in to the Syrian war, young civilians still in the country are trying to find work and adapt to constant fear.

By Salim

Peace be with you. That’s how we begin our conversation in southern Syria, where I’m sitting in front of Rania*, a young women of 22, asking her how it feels to be the main breadwinner for her family.

She is one of the many young people who have reached adulthood during the Syrian war, as violence permeates around them.   

I am a Syrian field worker with Mercy Corps, working on the ground to support aid in Syria. In the last year, we have helped more than 950,000 people. I also helped conduct in-depth interviews with people in my community in 2017, to help Mercy Corps understand how Syrian people are coping and adapting through the war, so that we know better how to meet their needs.

No one had undertaken a study of this kind to learn how people feed, clothe and provide for their families in the middle of a conflict.

This was the first time we were asking people questions about what helps them cope and what strategies they use to survive.

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People often tell me the same thing: “We had to adapt, there is no choice”.

Many of the stories I hear are similar to mine. Before the war began, I was a teacher and an accountant; at 28 I had my life planned out in front of me. Now I’m 35, working as a volunteer and monitor for a local organisation in Syria that partners with Mercy Corps.

Like Rania, my life is unrecognisable to what it was before war.

When I ask Rania, who was only 15 when the conflict began in 2011, how she feels about this seemingly never-ending war, she says: “We got used to it. There is no salvation. We won’t migrate – we have to accept our reality.” 

Over the years, one of the most surprising things I have witnessed is the endurance and patience of the Syrian people. Every day we read about bombings and siege in different parts of Syria. I have seen neighbourhoods empty of my friends and family where before there was a thriving and normal community life.

I have seen girls, younger than 18, forced by the difficulties of life to assume responsibilities that are too big for their shoulders at such a young age – children who are being forced to grow up too quickly.

And yet, beneath this, there is still an enduring hope that life will someday return to normal.

Soon after Rania, I meet a young man of 18 who was hit by an airstrike and almost lost his foot. Luckily he was able to make it out of Syria for surgery and he, and his foot, survived. He returned to Syria to support his family. Now he has a job at a local clinic where he registers new patients’ names. The list gets longer every day.

The economy in Syria is in free-fall and prices of even basic food like bread have dramatically increased. After seven years of war, two-thirds of Syrians have lost their jobs and among their biggest frustrations is finding the means to survive.

The other big fear is dying. Syrians experience conflict on average twice a week, and terror is pervasive. Nine out of ten Syrians live in daily fear for their own safety and that of their families.

But then there is that perseverance. We know from our interviews with 1,600 Syrians that, despite the war, one-third of people have found new ways to make an income.

The percentage of young people working, like Rania, is more than double what it was before the war, and this has important consequences for how we deliver aid while a conflict is ongoing.   

Our research also showed that in the past year, three out of every four households received humanitarian support. Yet despite this, two-thirds of households said they did not have enough to eat.

What this shows us is that, after seven years of war, Syrians need support that match their needs, such as cash assistance that can help them start a small business and generate income.

While basic humanitarian aid is still vital to save lives, saving and adapting livelihoods needs to be viewed as vital too.

As I’m wrapping up my interview with Rania, I ask her if the conflict has affected her life more or less than others she knows. She tells me less. I am surprised. Rania says their house has been bombed and her parents and brothers aren’t able to work, but none of her family members have died.  She feels she is lucky.

In order for Syrians to return to a normal life, the war needs to end and reconciliation must begin. I wish Rania and all my Syrian sisters and brothers more than luck. I wish for peace. 

Salim* is a community monitor with Mercy Corps. Wages of War, a new report by global organisation Mercy Corps includes research from across Syria, including besieged areas, and shines a light on the enormity of the losses and horrors of the years of conflict.

*Names have been changed for security reasons.

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