Syria Diary: Beggar at the door

The writer is a recent graduate of the University of Damascus from a well-to-do family belonging to a Syrian minority. For security reasons, he prefers to stay anonymous. In this fifth diary entry, he shares the signs he sees around him of an increasingly malnourished and desperate people.

I was home alone when I heard a knock at the door. Outside, I found a skinny young woman in her mid-twenties, just like me. She was wearing sneakers, a pair of jeans, a sweater and no veil - an indication that she was probably a city dweller. Her clothes were clean but obviously old and overworn. With a shaky voice, she said:

“I’m from Homs and I have kids. We live here now and we need help. Can you help me with anything? Some bread would be great.’’

She didn’t say please. She didn’t use the phrases or prayers beggars normally do. She didn’t even have the look of someone asking for pity. She stated only facts and asked a question. She did, however, seem shy about it - though she should not have. I knew she had no other decent way to make a living. It shook me inside, but I kept a smile on my face, took a bill from my wallet and handed it to her, saying: “Things are going to be ok, and whenever you need anything, you can come to this place.’’

She smiled and said, “God willing; thank you,” and disappeared down the stairs. She did not knock on other doors in the building. I am convinced it was enough for her for that day.

I think about Syria’s malnourished every time I sit down for a meal with my family. Our meals are not what they used to be. They are smaller and have fewer expensive ingredients like spices and nuts (1kg of pine nuts now costs 40 percent of my father’s pay cheque), but at least we eat regularly. Our meals cannot be compared to what Syrians in besieged areas are living off of.

Last month, media reported that many Syrian children had died of starvation in areas under siege. I stood in disbelief when I heard the news. I thought of Somalia and wondered: would it be the same in Syria?

A friend of mine is one of the few doctors left in the besieged southern Damascus town of al-Hajar al-Aswad. He told me newborns are the most affected. Their mothers are not producing enough breast milk, and there is no powdered milk available.

Adults, he told me, are getting by on small amounts of seasonal stocked traditional Syrian foods like olives, thyme and marmalade - and in some cases cats and dogs. “Soon enough, we’ll start seeing adults dying of starvation as well,” he said.

In my neighbourhood, people are not eating cats and dogs, but I’ve seen subtle indicators of deprivation. At one supermarket near my home, known for selling products at lower prices, I saw a woman who bought 100g of margarine, 200g of cheese and three eggs. I was stunned. In Syria, historically, even the poorest people never bought food in such small portions.

But the prices made it easier for me to understand. One kilogramme of margarine, which used to sell for 450 Syrian pounds, now costs 2,500 pounds [with the devaluation of the Syrian currency, about US$17 on the black market]. One kilogramme of cheese has risen from 140 pounds to 700; an egg from 4 pounds to 23; and lamb, a basic ingredient in Syrian cuisine, from 700 pounds per kilogramme to 2,600. This is unbearable for many Syrians whose incomes - if they still have any - have barely risen. The average salary these days is no more than 16,000 pounds ($110) per month.

There are other signs of the deterioration. I came back to Syria recently after a month in Lebanon, where I tried - again unsuccessfully - to get a visa for Europe. While I was there, I received more than 10 phone calls from people who wanted me to bring them medicines. Even simple things like antibiotics and vitamins are no longer available in Syria.

And now, as Syria slips from the headlines, the upcoming winter is likely to add more suffering to the humanitarian disaster.

So many people have been directly affected by the war: killed, detained, displaced or disabled. Most of those killed or detained are men, leaving their dependent family members without a livelihood and prey to hunger. My family can help one or two people who ask for help from time to time, but it is never enough.

When I told my mother about the young woman who asked for bread, she said many such people had come to ask for help. She almost cried and said with indignation: “What can we do? We are helpless.”

And we are not immune.

My father is an engineer. Freelance consulting used to supplement his income from his job at the civil service. He has lost the first, but is lucky enough to have maintained the second, which brings in 30,000 Syrian pounds (about $200) a month for our family. It’s impossible to live on that, so we have been tapping into our savings. But with the devaluation of currency and constant inflation, we have no idea how long the savings will last.

Previous entries: 
Syria Diary: Leaving Damascus
Syria Diary: Life in exile
Syria Diary: Going home
Syria Diary: In limbo