How one Syrian family braves life in a divided Aleppo

The battle for Aleppo has destroyed entire neighborhoods and pushed thousands of residents to flee. For many left behind, savings have been spent and survival is a daily focus.

Monica Prieto/AP
In this Tuesday, Nov. 6, photo, a private house, seriously damage by shelling and fighting, is seen in the Old City of Aleppo, Syria.

At a charity center recently set up in a former school in a shabby neighborhood of Syria's largest city, a woman shows up seeking milk for the tiny baby she's holding.

She says Shahinaz, who is wrapped up in blankets and sleeping quietly, is a month old, but the child looks more like a newborn. The distribution center volunteers give her milk for the baby, but that's not all she needs.

"There is no milk. There is no gas. There is no sugar. There is no water," says the woman, who gives her name as Souda. Shahinaz is her
granddaughter. "There's been no work for my husband since the first day of Ramadan," she says. That was in July.

The battle for Syria's largest city has destroyed entire neighborhoods and pushed thousands of residents to flee. For some of those left behind, who choose not to leave or simply have nowhere else to go, it has turned their daily lives into a struggle for survival. 

In neighborhoods where rebels battled regime forces, apartment buildings lie in piles of rubble, the strewn personal belongings the only trace of former inhabitants. When rebels push the front line forward several blocks, capturing new territory, residents come back to retrieve what they can salvage of their belongings. They push carts loaded with washing machines, or drive trucks piled with mattresses and furniture through the rubble, relying on rebel checkpoints to help them avoid sniper fire.

In neighborhoods like the one where Souda lives, most of the houses are intact, but not all of them. Walking back to her home from the distribution center, she passes a house reduced to rubble by a bomb in September. A purple high-heeled shoe, covered in concrete dust, hangs from a piece of iron rebar sticking out of the heap.

'On the verge'

At Souda's home, around two dozen family members from three generations are living together in one two-story house. They gather in the simple salon, sitting on floor cushions and a cheap straw mat that serves as a carpet, to tell their story. Before Syria's battle moved into Aleppo, five men in this family were working, bringing in about 80,000 Syrian pounds ($1,145) a month to support the entire family. Now, there is no income.

The grandfather has been out of work since July. All of the men worked in factories or workshops that are now closed because the owners live in parts of the city still controlled by the regime, say family members.

The businessmen wouldn't dare cross into the rebel-held part of the city, which is bombarded daily, to open the factories, even if there was enough fuel to do so, says Souda.

The family burned through its savings in two months. Then they tried to sell their television, but no one was buying. Now they live on charity, eating simple food like sesame paste and bread. The last time they had meat, says Souda, was two months ago. When Shahinaz was born, her father, Haitham, borrowed 4,000 Syrian pounds ($57) to pay the doctor and hospital.

"If we don't receive any support, how can we live?" asks Souda. "You can say we are on the verge of [going hungry]."

'Before there was injustice'

Like the milk for the baby Souda received that day, the family sometimes takes food assistance from the same charity center down the road. The volunteers there, locals who began organizing in late July, use money donated by businessmen in Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, an Islamic organization in Denmark, and an Arab doctors' union to buy food. They distribute bags that include rice, oil, lentils, sugar, pasta, tea, jam, and tomato sauce in this neighborhood. They also provide free medical treatment. But the need is far greater than the supply.

Ali Nasrallah, one of the volunteers, says they have helped about 2,000 families so far. But they will run out of supplies before the applicants stop pouring through the door. Before giving a family help, the volunteers register their information, and visit the applicants' homes to assess their need.

"There are many families who don't get help," Mr. Nasrallah says. Many of the rebel-held areas of Aleppo are poorer than those still held by the regime, so families were already living closer to the edge of poverty before the war.

Back at Souda's house, the men say they feel embarrassed that they can no longer provide for the family. But the matriarch doesn't curse the war that put them in such hardship. "I am not upset about the revolution. It's God's will for it to be like this," she says. "It's worth it. It is worth the sacrifice, because before there was injustice. There was humiliation for us."

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