Idlib Province, Syria – Abu Munir struggles to care for his wife, three children and elderly mother in Ahl al-Tah IDP camp in northern Idlib.
Ramadan is particularly painful for Abu Munir. This time of year brings back happier memories of having an iftar dinner with his family in his southern hometown of Idlib, where they enjoyed food he can no longer afford.
“We had tamarind juice and soos [a liquorice drink], and had meat in our iftar meals,” Abu Munir told Al Jazeera. “Now we can only dream of meat.”
As a call to prayer echoes through the camp, volunteers from the charity Hathi Hayati (This Is My Life) arrive to distribute hot meals to displaced families. The children invade the volunteers before quickly returning to their families with donated food parcels.
“Many generous people are trying to relieve us of the pressure, and we are very grateful to them,” says Abu Munir.
Earlier today in the city of Idlib, 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, so it’s already a hobby and a passion for me,” volunteer cook Om Ali told Al Jazeera while filling 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 herself was forced to flee the war-torn city of Aleppo.
As Om Ali boils 80 kg of rice for tonight’s meal in the IDP camp, volunteer Om Asaad is by his side chopping vegetables.
“I’ve worked in the kitchen and catering for much of my life, so I know how to run a kitchen,” says Om Asaad.
“There are many of our sisters in the camps whose husbands and family members are detained, missing or even killed. I am happy to help them.
Life in Idleb province and in northwestern Syria is dire.
More than half of the region’s four million people are internally displaced by war, and many live in camps for the displaced.
Basma Alloush, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told Al Jazeera that recent global crises have worsened living conditions in Syrian opposition enclaves, leaving the lives of millions of people “hanging by a thread”.
“There is an impact on northwestern Syria due to the Ukrainian crisis, but also economic turbulence in Turkey where the currency has lost half its value,” Alloush explains. Northwestern Syria is heavily dependent on Turkish imports, he says.
The opposition stronghold adopted the Turkish lira as its currency nearly two years ago, but the budget crisis that rocked Ankara last November has spread, triggering fuel and food inflation in Idlib.
Unable to buy wood or coal for their heaters, Syrians struggled to stay warm during the winter. Some children froze to death.
According to the United Nations, around 97% of Idlib’s population now lives in extreme poverty.
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 the flour that bakeries in the northwest import comes from Turkey. But Turkey is heavily dependent on Russia and Ukrainian wheat,” says Alloush of the Tahrir Institute.
“These crises have had repercussions in northwestern Syria.”
“Important that we give back”
The women of the Ramadan Charity Kitchen are adamant that they will continue to help families in need despite their own heartbreaking issues, including their own displacement, economic hardship and dealing with detained, missing family members. and you are.
Many women who volunteer with the Hathi Hayati charity are also the breadwinners of their own families.
One of volunteer Om Asaad’s six children is being held, but she does not know where. Struggling to keep calm over her missing son, she explains why Ramadan cooking is so important.
“Despite the difficulties we face, it is important that we give back to people during Ramadan,” she says. “There are displaced families from all over, families with breadwinners detained or missing, and even families caring for orphans.”
Another volunteer in the kitchen, Doha Halabi, fled fighting in Maaret al-Numan in southern Idlib with her daughter nearly a decade ago.
Her husband has been detained and missing for eight years.
“I don’t know if he is still alive or if he is a martyr,” Doha Halabi told Al Jazeera.
“But we have fled airstrikes and bombings to try to live our lives, and through this initiative we can hopefully inspire people in need not to give up on life and their aspirations,” says- she.
After years of war and displacement in Syria, Abu Munir told Al Jazeera that an iftar meal that reminds him of better times lifts his spirits.
“It’s nice for the family to have this experience, especially for the kids to enjoy the Ramadan juices and desserts that we used to have,” he says. “Getting meals also takes some of our financial pressure off and gives us the ability to cook great meals at home this month.”
The volunteer cooks try to prepare meals that are popular in different parts of Syria and accommodate the diversity of the displaced people in the camps, says Om Ali.
“We play a small role, but it’s important,” she says.
“I was once involved in a charity kitchen in Aleppo and I feel lucky to be able to give back to people,” she adds. “I think my kids enjoy it too, because when I come home from the kitchen they insist that they cook us dinner and I relax instead.”
Om Ali sighs when she thinks of Ramadan in her hometown of Aleppo before the war.
“Before, we always had family and loved ones together at the table, but now we all live in different cities and countries, far from each other,” she says.
“I hope that all the displaced people will soon be able to reunite with their families.”
Ali Haj Suleiman reported from Idlib, Syria; Kareem Chehayeb reported from Beirut, Lebanon.