children in emergencies

The Children Surviving In Syria's Industrial Heartland

Abdullah rubs the stem of a flying dragonfly toy between his palms, as if for warmth, and gasps with delight as friction shoots the colourful propellor...

Abdullah rubs the stem of a flying dragonfly toy between his palms, as if for warmth, and gasps with delight as friction shoots the colourful propellor into the air.

The dragonfly, caught in a gust, soars high and then crashes onto the broken concrete, its wing and dowel separating on impact.

The five-year-old boy picks up the pieces and starts over.

It is a brisk, overcast, November morning in Hasiyah. At this time of the year, the mornings grow colder. The Gap of Homs, a flat passageway in the mountains between Syria and Lebanon, funnels the winds into a fervour and unleashes them on the city.

Abdullah says he can already feel the weather turning.

“It is really cold. Yesterday, I was at school. It was very, very cold.”

In the seventeen-hundreds, English writer Richard Pocock described Hasiyah as “a miserable place”. The looming winter will bring sub zero temperatures and knee-high snow to this industrial zone.

Abdullah has one wish for the cold months ahead, a warm, winter jacket. His brother already has one, he says. One jacket, between two boys.

There’s no misery today. Abdullah’s twin brother, Elias, also has a brightly-coloured, plastic dragonfly.

The boys make a show out of who can make theirs fly the highest — and, perhaps, crash to the ground hardest — until one of the propellers breaks on the gravel.

The twins are identical and even wear matching hooded tracksuits with fleece linings. Born minutes apart, they fight over who is oldest.

Abdullah has one wish for the cold months ahead, a warm, winter jacket. His brother already has one, he says. One jacket, between two boys.

Abdullah’s family live in one of many unfinished industrial buildings that litter the town.

The home is barricaded behind a large, steel sliding gate, coated with rust, and too heavy for Abdullah to push open. He scampers over the frame and peers out from between the bars.

Hasiyah is known colloquially as the “industrial city”. In ancient times, it served as a post station for military craftsmen and later became a fortified garrison during the Ottoman era.

In 2001, the Syrian Government began building a new city here, intended to be a catalyst for big industry, but many of the buildings are only half-constructed.

Ever since the conflict began seven years ago, the city’s walls have instead become a refuge for displaced families.

Children play in the industrial surrounds of Hasiyah

Along with their family, Abdullah and Elias fled here from Damascus years ago. The boys are too young to remember exactly when.

The city is currently host to 1,900 families — including 4,400 children — who have arrived from conflict-affected areas such as Homs, Raqqa and Aleppo.

Within Syria itself, it’s estimated more than six million people are displaced by the conflict. Nearly 70 per cent of the entire population is living in acute poverty.

With nowhere else to go, these families have come to Hasiyah, more than doubling the population. They crowd into the endless sprawl of unsafe, unfinished buildings and erect makeshift shelters; they have no other choice.

Sisters Sabeen, 6, and Haya, 3, live in one such shelter.

The tent that their family calls home is weighed down with bricks. It’s large, but they say it offers little protection in winter, as rain leaks into the tent.

Right now, the sisters have only the clothes on their backs. They both wear sandals and neither of them owns boots or winter coats.

There’s no electricity or running water, and without heating in winter, they huddle under blankets at night. Yasser says he can feel the cold in his bones.

As temperatures plummet, and the snows pile up, they are both at risk of hypothermia or even death.

When we met them though, the girls were smiling broadly, holding hands and playing games, shrieking with laughter and excitement.

Thirteen-year-old Saleh lives next door to the sisters, in a similar makeshift shelter, but he’s rarely ever home. Instead he works in a heavy industrial factory, carting cement by the wheelbarrow-load.

His father is too sick to work and there is no one else to support the family, which includes his three-year-old sister, Maya.

An estimated 1,500 children are in the child labour market here. At least 29 children have lost limbs because of hazardous work environments.

UN agencies report the numbers of children who work are on the rise throughout Syria, as families settle in disparate parts of the country, pooling together whatever they can to survive.

Saleh hasn’t been to school for three years, but dreams of a day he can return. He says that if he knew his family was supported, he would go back again tomorrow.

Yasser, 11, is one of half a million Homs residents left homeless.   He hasn’t seen his father since the start of the uprising. Authorities said he was killed, but the family hangs onto hope he’s only missing.  His uncle, who’d been drafted into the Syrian army, was executed in front of their house. His mother had wanted to stay in Homs, in case their father returned, but after his sister was shot in the hip with a stray bullet, they fled for their lives.  In four years, the family have moved many times — they now live in a tent in Hasiyah. There’s no electricity or running water, and without heating in winter, they huddle under blankets at night.

Yasser says he can feel the cold in his bones.

“I fear the cold because our hands get numb and they hurt.”

Yasser (right) and his siblings outside the basic shelter their family calls home.

His mother works a night shift, cleaning at a factory. It pays for food, but little else.

Before the family fled Homs, he hadn’t been to school in two years. Now, he’s learning again, six days a week at the local UNICEF centre. Along with 2,000 other children, he learns skills he hopes help him find a job later in life.

The centre also offers counselling to children to help them cope with trauma, and provides some of the only working sanitation facilities in the town.

Huddled on a mattress with his mother and siblings, Yasser has one hope for Syria during the harsh winter months ahead.

“I hope that this winter will not be so cold.”

Words and pictures by Ethan Donnell.