In a village in western Aleppo, a man walks into a butcher’s shop. He asks the shop assistant to sell him minced meat for 500 Syrian pounds (£0.80). ‘Ala rasi’ (literally ‘on my head’), the vendor replies, using a common formula of politeness. Meticulously, he wraps up the meat, a tiny slice, no more than the size of the customer’s little finger. In times when Syrian butchers charge 11,000 Syrian pounds for a kilogram of meat, this, of course, is a bitter joke.
It was shared by a participant in our new From the Field project. Since April 2020, and thanks to funding from the SRC-Global Challenges Research Fund at the University of Edinburgh, we have been using remote surveys and ethnography to assess the impact of COVID-19 on displaced Syrians’ food security and agricultural livelihoods in the Middle East. This article presents preliminary results from WhatsApp surveys and digital ‘food diaries’ with around 40 Syrian families in Jordan, Turkey, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and northern Syria. It argues that while COVID-19 may not have reached Syrian communities in the Middle East, its domino effects have, leaving them with no income and unable to cope with price hikes for food and public transport.
Over the last three weeks, we spoke with Syrians who reside in big cities like Irbid (Jordan), Gaziantep (Turkey) and Erbil (KRI), in villages and small towns along Syria’s borders, and in internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps in northern Syria and refugee camps in KRI. Our surveys are deployed remotely by Syrian research assistants who speak the local language and are embedded in the communities that we are studying. What all of our respondents have in common is that they originally come from rural areas, and most of them still work in agriculture or food production, even when they now live in urban areas. On average, they are in their mid-thirties and live in families of five; two thirds are men. By now, all of them have heard about the new virus, usually through the media and on the Internet, but so far, it is no more than a distant danger. Most respondents feel healthy as normal, and no one has been tested for the virus. Still, in Turkey and Jordan (and, to a lesser extent, in northern Syria and KRI), everyone has bought face masks. Most people have also resorted to stockpiling basic items like oil, flour and sugar, staying at home, and cleaning more often. A more imminent threat, however, is the loss of jobs and price hikes. Changed consumption habits serve as a drastic indicator of how the pandemic affects displaced Syrians’ food security. Over the last seven days, almost all of our respondents switched to cheaper food at least sometimes. Almost half have purchased food on credit, and more than half have reduced meal sizes. More than one tenth of respondents have sometimes survived entire days without eating. For displaced Syrians, COVID-19 is a food crisis, not a health crisis – here is why.
Even though displaced Syrians may live in rural areas and work as day labourers in agriculture, they buy most of the food that they consume from shops. Only in Jordan and in northern Syria did some participants grow their own food. Across field sites, most participants confirmed that markets are open and operate as usual, albeit with reduced opening hours in countries like Turkey. (Northern Syria, from where we received videos of half-empty shelves inside shops and warehouses, is an exception: the combined results of border closures and the drastic decline of the Syrian pound against the dollar have disrupted food imports). For most displaced Syrians outside Syria, availability of food is not the problem. However, what directly affects them are major price hikes for basic food items – sometimes as dramatic as 100% – as well as for public transport.
This situation is exacerbated by the abrupt loss of jobs: almost 80% of our respondents report decreased working hours, and more than 80% complain about a loss of income. Permanent or intermittent lockdowns affect lorry drivers in Turkey, farm workers who cannot find transport to the fields outside Gaziantep, and women who were let go from their jobs inside greenhouses in Jordan’s Eastern desert. More than 40% of our respondents have no access to cash right now. A Syrian father of three asked the research assistant who deployed the survey to make sure that we understood that he had a mere 100 Turkish liras (approx. £5) left in his wallet. One quarter are lucky enough to receive remittances from relatives abroad, but family obligations go both ways. A young woman in Turkey bitterly complains: ‘My entire family is in Syria and needs my help, not the other way around!’ As a consequence, displaced Syrians’ resilience to additional economic shocks is limited. Several families had to give up stockpiling because they ran out of money soon after the movement restrictions started. If movement restrictions continue and no humanitarian support comes forward, they will have to cut down their food intake even more drastically, and go hungry.
This dire reality is only part of the story. Our respondents are extremely worried about food, but also about other expenses. In IDP camps in Syria and refugee camps in KRI, displaced people usually live rent-free. In northern Syria, some of the participants in our survey still inhabit their own houses, even when their areas of origin have been heavily affected by displacement. But in most locations outside the country, monthly rent puts a big strain on refugee households. Let’s take the example of a Syrian man, head of a family of seven, that is currently based in Şanlıurfa, southern Turkey. Before the lockdown started, he used to make a daily income of 50-80 Turkish liras (approx. £6-9) as a labourer in agriculture. His work has now completely stopped. With no source of income left, he still has to pay the monthly rent of 500 Turkish liras (approx. £68) for the family apartment.
Roughly half of our respondents are also sad that they were unable to buy their children the traditional gift of clothes for Eid al-Fitr, the Islamic holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. One man in Jordan struggles with convincing his children that they would not be allowed to visit a playground during the feast. Another family in Jordan had to stop exchanging food with their beloved neighbours. Almost everyone acknowledges that cleaning, cooking and home-schooling have increased women’s workload inside the home. Some Syrian men added that while stuck at home, they realised everything their wives were doing for the family, and now help more with the housework.
This is why we take a bottom-up approach to the study of how COVID-19 affects food security for displaced people: ethnographic data, even remotely, help us understand the cultural and social ramifications of COVID-19 mitigation measures at a special moment of the year, when both fasting and communal meals are central to our Muslim respondents’ lives. Digital food diaries give us a vivid impression of displaced Syrians’ reactions to food insecurity: we have received videos of lovingly prepared Ramadan meals and excited children waiting to break the fast.
Often, survey questions serve as prompts for more storytelling, and research assistants leave notes in the margins that breathe life into what otherwise risks being a flat depiction of Syrians’ struggles under lockdown. At times, this turns into a two-way exchange, for example when a female respondent in Jordan reports that she cannot buy hand sanitizer, but then recommends her home-made mixture of lemon juice and cardamom to the researchers. Remote ethnographic research gives us insights into how movement restrictions rewire relationships inside Syrian families, but also with neighbours, employers, and host communities. It also tells a story of how Syrians are coping with protracted and new forms of destitution: Syrian families find new ways of supporting each other through the lockdown. And sometimes, our respondents crack and share a joke, to highlight the absurdity of shopping in times of COVID-19.
For now, displaced Syrians inside and outside Syria do not yet feel the health implications of the pandemic, although they often take precautions through social distancing, wearing face masks and excessive cleaning. Our participant’s butcher-shop joke conveys the difficult reality that in northern Syria, a kilogramme of meat now costs more than 27 times as much as before the Syrian conflict. Movement restrictions and border closures that all Middle Eastern countries have implemented to contain the spread of COVID-19 disproportionately affect marginalised people who rely on mobility to access agricultural work sites and markets. As a consequence, they are hit particularly hard by the pandemic’s indirect effects: the loss of income for agricultural workers and the surge of food prices (as well as fares for public transport). Sadly, food insecurity and instability are nothing new to many displaced Syrians. The current crisis exacerbates ongoing precarious working and living conditions that many of them have coped with for almost a decade, and jeopardizes individual and community-based coping mechanisms that have kept their heads above water.
Dr Ann-Christin Wagner is a lecturer in anthropology of development at the University of Edinburgh, and does research on refugee labour in the Middle East.
Dr Shaher Abdullateef is an independent researcher and a specialist in agricultural science and food security. He is currently involved in several multidisciplinary studies, including the Syrian Food Futures Project at the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security, University of Edinburgh.
Dr Lisa Boden is a specialist in veterinary epidemiology and public health and leads the Syrian Food Futures Project at the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security, University of Edinburgh.
Dr Lisa Boden, Dr Ann-Christin Wagner and Dr Shaher Abdullateef are collaborating with other researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh and Aberdeen, and project partners from CARA (Council for At-Risk Academics) Syria Programme, on a SFC-GCRF COVID-19 grant for research with displaced Syrians in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan and Northwest Syria.