Listen to this article
Each day before work, Mohammed used to pray he would make it home alive.
Like tens of thousands of Syrian refugees scattered by war along their country’s northern border, the 22-year-old had few options to make enough money to feed his elderly parents and nine siblings: fight, steal or smuggle.
Mohammed, who is not fully named for his safety, chose to brave Turkish army gunfire. He smuggled diesel over the border for a chance to make around $10 a day.
“I always recited the shahada before leaving,” he says, referring to the Muslim declaration of faith that is recited to prepare for death. “But I had no choice, I am the oldest.”
Now, Mohammed has a choice. After completing vocational training with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the humanitarian organisation selected for the Financial Times 2014 seasonal appeal, he joined fellow trainees to open a shop. Instead of scrambling down rugged mountain paths late at night, he wakes up early to start work at the tent he has made into the camp’s local tailor’s shop.
With Syria’s war now in its fourth year and nearly half the population of 22m forced to flee their homes, aid organisations are rethinking strategies for helping a refugee population still growing by 5,000 per day.
While emergency aid is still needed, IRC workers say there should be more focus on education and training. “Aid baskets help for a week or a month, but after that people still won’t know how to take care of themselves in this new environment,” says Yasser, an IRC worker in Syria who met the FT in Turkey. “If we don’t give people options, they’ll turn to crime or extremist groups in the future — whether it’s two months from now, or a year.”
Activists in Syria say there more child soldiers are showing up on the battlefield, as teenagers try to support families that have lost parents and older siblings. “Kids just assume they will join when they can carry a gun.
Once that happens, they lose their future,” says Tareq Abdelhaq, an activist from the rebel-held northern province of Idlib, where many of Syria’s displaced have fled.
Aid workers euphemistically call this downward spiral of destitution ‘negative coping mechanisms’. At first, families sell household items and skip meals, but, eventually, boys might join armed groups, or girls might turn to prostitution. Smuggling is ubiquitous.
Syria’s 9m internally displaced people are especially in need of income. Aid services are even less regular inside Syria than in refugee camps in neighbouring countries where organisations can safely access 3m refugees.
“These aren’t even really camps. They’re surrounded by war zones, there’s no government, no regular food distribution,” says Ayham, an IRC co-ordinator in Syria whose full name has been withheld for his safety. “We’re basically working in a city — but instead of buildings, it’s made of tents.”
The IRC is one of the first international aid groups to base job training programmes on studies of markets inside rebel-held northern Syria.
“Just because there’s a war going on, some people, including myself, made many assumptions that there is no market there,” says Alejandro Terrones, who oversees the IRC’s vocational projects in Syria. “That’s not true . . . there is still commerce, there is still life.”
Syrian staffers like Ayham went from village to village doing a ‘market study,’ to find job opportunities. In addition to wartime needs such as food and healthcare workers, he found construction workers are needed in Idlib villages that have absorbed thousands of refugees. Because the electrical grid has almost completely collapsed in rebel-held Syria, generators are needed everywhere — as are the electricians who can repair them.
After reviewing the studies, IRC’s trainees are allowed to pick whatever field they like. In its 2014 pilot programme, they became nursing assistants, mechanics, barbers, aluminium workers — even falafel makers.
Mohammed, who spoke to the FT by telephone, made more from a day’s smuggling than he does in a week working at a tailor shop, where he gets about $5.
Nor was this the future he dreamt of before the war forced him to abandon his Islamic law studies. “But it’s a chance at life,” he says.
The IRC hopes to double the number of trainees in northern Syria next year to around 1,000. Those numbers are still small compared to the 4m Syrian refugees IRC reaches, mostly through aid distribution. But development projects are what Syrians want most.
“Before, I stopped thinking about my future, all I let myself think about was taking care of my family. In the camps, smuggling was the only option,” says Ahmed. He fled army air strikes and bombardment, moving village to village with his disabled father and ten siblings until they reached displacement camps on the border.
“Now, I have a profession I can use for my whole life,” says Ahmed, who was trained in phone repair. He opened a mobile repair shop in the back of a van. Still in his first weeks of business, he hopes to turn a profit quickly.
His optimism is already infecting his friends, he says. They are now studying what other trades might be successful in the camps.
“People never lose hope,” he says. “You just need someone to help you.”
To read all the FT’s seasonal appeal stories, and to donate, go to ft.com/seasonalappeal. Throughout the seasonal appeal donations are being matched by the UK government, with all match funding going towards the IRC’s work with Syrian refugees