Despite hardships, Idlib residents give back during Ramadan

Idlib Province, Syria – Abu Munir struggles to look after his wife, three children, and elderly mother in the Ahl al-Tah camp for displaced people in northern Idlib.

Ramadan is especially painful for Abu Munir. This time of year brings back happier memories of iftar dinner with his family in his hometown in southern Idlib, where they enjoyed food that he can no longer afford.

“We had tamarind juice and soos [a liquorice drink], and had meat in our iftar meals,” Abu Munir tells Al Jazeera. “Now, we can only dream about meat.”

As a call to prayer reverberates around the camp, volunteers from the charity Hathi Hayati (This Is My Life) arrive to distribute hot meals to the displaced families. Children swarm the volunteers before quickly returning to their families carrying donated food packages.

“There are many generous people trying to ease the pressure off of us, and we are so grateful for them,” Abu Munir says.

Food is distributed in Ahl al-Tah displacement camp in northern Idlib [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Earlier that day in Idlib city, 10 women spent the day chopping vegetables, steaming rice, and dicing chicken meat. They had all volunteered to take part in Hathi Hayati’s Ramadan charity kitchen after filling out an online form.

“I’ve been cooking since I was 10 years old, so it’s already a hobby and passion of mine,” volunteer cook Om Ali tells Al Jazeera while filling up bottles of fragrant soos.

“But I also want to help people, especially those in the camps,” says the 54-year-old mother of two, who was herself forced to flee war-torn Aleppo city.

As Om Ali boils 80kg of rice for tonight’s meal in the displacement camp, volunteer Om Asaad is at her side chopping vegetables.

“I worked in cooking and catering for much of my life, so I know how to run a kitchen,” Om Asaad says.

“There are many of our sisters in the camps whose husbands and family members are detained, missing, or even killed. I’m happy to be helping them.”

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Women prepare Ramadan meals in Idlib city [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Life in Idlib province and northwestern Syria is dire.

Over half of the region’s four million residents are internally displaced by war and many live in camps for the displaced.

Basma Alloush, non-resident fellow at The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, tells Al Jazeera that recent global crises have worsened living conditions in Syria’s opposition enclaves, leaving the lives of millions of people “hanging by a thread”.

“There is an impact on northwestern Syria as a result of the Ukrainian crisis, but also the economic turmoil in Turkey where the currency lost half its value,” Alloush explains. Syria’s northwest is highly dependent on Turkish imports, he says.

The opposition stronghold adopted the Turkish lira as its currency almost two years ago, but the fiscal crisis that shook Ankara last November has spilled over, sparking fuel and food inflation in Idlib.

Unable to afford wood or coal for their heaters, Syrians struggled to stay warm during the winter. Some children froze to death.

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A woman prepares Ramadan meals in Idlib city [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

An estimated 97 percent of the population in Idlib now live in extreme poverty, according to the United Nations.

To make matters worse, Russia’s war in Ukraine has caused a global wheat crisis, and Idlib province is not immune to its impact.

“All of the flour the bakeries in the northwest import comes from Turkey. But Turkey relies heavily on Russia and Ukrainian wheat,” The Tahrir Institute’s Alloush says.

“These crises have caused rippling effects in northwestern Syria.”

‘Important we give back’

The women at the Ramadan charity kitchen are adamant they will continue helping families in need despite coping with harrowing problems of their own, including their own displacement, economic hardship, and coping with detained, missing, and killed family members.

Many of the women who volunteer with the Hathi Hayati charity are also the breadwinners in their own families.

One of volunteer Om Asaad’s six children is detained, but she doesn’t know where. Struggling to keep her composure while thinking about her missing son, she explains why the Ramadan kitchen is so important.

“Despite the hardships we’re facing, it’s important we give back to people in Ramadan,” she says. “There are families displaced from all over, families with their breadwinners detained or missing, and even families looking after orphans.”

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Iftar meals are prepared in Idlib City [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Another volunteer in the kitchen, Doha Halabi, fled with her daughter from fighting in Maaret al-Numan in southern Idlib almost a decade ago.

Her husband was detained and has been missing for eight years.

“I don’t know if he’s still alive or a martyr,” Doha Halabi tells Al Jazeera.

“But we fled the air strikes and shelling to try to live our lives, and through this initiative we can hopefully inspire people in need to not give up on life and their aspirations,” she says.

After years of war and displacement in Syria, Abu Munir tells Al Jazeera that an iftar meal that reminds him of better times is a major morale boost.

“It’s nice for the family to have this experience, especially for the kids to enjoy Ramadan juices and desserts that we used to have,” he says. “Getting meals also eases some of our financial pressure, and gives us the ability to prepare some proper meals at home this month.”

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Meals are distributed in Ahl al-Tah displacement camp for Ramadan [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

The volunteer cooks try to prepare meals popular in different parts of Syria and accommodate the diversity of displaced people in the camps, Om Ali says.

“We play a small role, but it’s important,” she says.

“I was once involved in a charity kitchen back in Aleppo, and I feel lucky that I can give back to people,” she adds. “I think my children appreciate it too, because when I’m back home from the kitchen, they insist that they prepare dinner for us and I relax instead.”

Om Ali sighs when she thinks about Ramadan in her home town of Aleppo before the war.

“We used to always have the family and relatives together at the table, but now we all live in different cities and countries away from each other,” she says.

“I hope all of the displaced can reunite with their families soon again.”

Ali Haj Suleiman reported from Idlib, Syria; Kareem Chehayeb reported from Beirut, Lebanon.

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