Syria crisis: "They call me the latrine guy"

The team installing a latrine for internally displaced people in Syria

Many Syrians displaced from their homes by conflict are living scattered in the wilderness, without access to water and sanitation, writes Osama AlGhssen, a civil engineer working with a CARE partner in southern Syria

Before the war, Syria was a middle-income country with functioning schools, hospitals, industry; communities were connected to public water supplies and sewage systems. It was not strange for homes to have multiple bathrooms.

But today, after more than five years of conflict, with five million refugees having fled the country, there remain at least 6.5 million Syrians internally displaced, many having sought refuge in only a tent or collective shelter. Families who previously enjoyed modern sanitation, have been forced to flee, moving from one location to another.

It’s a desperate situation for a people flung into the wilderness.

A year ago, I joined a Syrian humanitarian agency, partnering with CARE in response to the disastrous conditions the Syrian people face daily. We visit communities, assess their needs, and supply them with emergency latrine construction, water trucking and storage, hygiene kits, too.

If you see the harsh landscape here, you wonder how people are living. There is nothing, just people alone, existing in the worst conditions imaginable.

There are no sanitation facilities. People are forced to use open areas. There is no water. People depend only on emergency aid, distributed irregularly by different agencies – sometimes a hygiene kit, sometimes food.

These are circumstances that no person should have to endure. It’s so difficult, especially for the women and children.

In the south, displaced people have gathered in scattered places in Daraa and Quneitra governorates, in collective shelters and informal camps, where the living conditions are often miserable. They build a simple shelter using gathered wood and tarpaulins. Early on, people bought tents, but five years is long, and the tents have not lasted.

The lack of jobs or work

The men look for daily labour, anything to earn a little money – but job opportunities are limited in the south. People used to work in the agricultural sector, but with the war and the end of government subsidies, this has become difficult. When there is work, it’s only seasonal – for example during olive collection.

Before the war, many women worked too, and many still would if they had an opportunity. Too many families are headed by women who have lost their husbands in the war, or he has been detained or disappeared. Other men have suffered an injury and are unable to care for their family.

It’s worse for women

It is women who appreciate our work the most, largely because the lack of sanitation facilities affects them in particular. When we install a latrine, or supply them with water, they are elated. Without a latrine, women must walk long distances to find a private place. They worry for their safety and security. In the south, in many areas where families have been displaced, the areas are wide open and flat. There is not a rock to hide behind.

In these situations, women have only the benefit of night. They must wait all day, but those with medical conditions suffer. Women in some communities set up a small tent using a tarp. But it’s windy and these are easily blown over. It’s humiliating for them – imagine, a woman who one day has her own home, a choice of bathrooms, and the next day she is squatting in the desert with nothing.

We build emergency latrines – they are not permanent, but they’re durable, made of steel and corrugated metal sheets. Each has a pit that acts as a small septic tank. These can last the family 6-12 months, depending on the soil. If a family needs to move, they can carry it. This is essential when dealing with displaced communities, who may have to flee again, if the conflict shifts course towards them.

At first, it wasn’t easy locating families. I would find 500 people scattered in one area, and another 500 displaced somewhere else. I visited camp after camp as I found them, assessing their needs, and establishing a plan.

But now, they contact me. They call me the latrine guy. They find me on Whatsapp and they explain their situation.

Last week, I learned of another 1200 families who were living in dire conditions, especially now that it’s started to rain. Many are under trees, so it’s not as bad as it could be if they were out in the open. We will respond to them as soon as possible, with hygiene kits and latrines. But each day, there are more people requesting help.

Truthfully, I wish we could help everyone. We are the only latrine providers in the south – but our resources are limited.

I’m grateful to CARE because they recognised the need.

We saw the desperation of people in the informal camps and collective centres. Their situation was appalling. When you think of people in war, security is the obvious issue, but people don’t consider the importance of latrines, water and sanitation, or hygiene.

For people fleeing, that’s also part of their survival. It’s essential.

Truly there is nothing left to enjoy in southern Syria. If I can help CARE provide a family with a latrine, I have done my duty.

But what is really required is an end to this devastating war – this is the root of our ills. End the war – then we can rebuild, rehabilitate, restore. Our problems will be solved. Until that time, though, the solutions we’re providing now, these are only temporary answers for a much bigger problem.

Osama AlGhssen is a civil engineer working with a CARE partner in southern Syria, where CARE is the only provider of latrines, building over 270 latrines for more than 5,000 displaced Syrians.

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.