(Al-Atarib, Aleppo countryside, Syria) Life in Syria has become more difficult and wretched lately in the light of the present siege laid by government forces and the lack of certain types of unaffordable combustibles. However, countrywomen keep looking for alternatives, and light fires using the simplest of means to fulfil what they consider as obligations toward their families. Every morning, they say a hopeful prayer in the midst of faraway cannon blasts, and they light a fire to make breakfast and coffee.
When you enter the house of one of these women, you feel as if you have travelled to a different and unfamiliar time. The families cook, wash and bathe using ancient and complicated means that are neither sanitary nor safe. Syrians used to live this way over 50 years ago.
30-year-old Jamilah, along with her husband and children, fled the regime’s air raids that showed no mercy to their small house in the village of al-ʿAys in the southern countryside, and settled in a simple blue tent. You always see her behind the homely stove that her husband made, preoccupied in lighting it, which is a long process. In the morning, she prepares breakfast, then she moves on to cooking lunch for her young children who spend their day in the woods, gathering sticks and branches for the fire.
Jamilah is happy despite her difficult life that “broke her back,” as she says. When you ask her why she endures this situation, she grins and laughs, telling you that “the embrace of nature” is kinder than those who destroyed her house. She would withstand anything as long as her children are safe from shelling.
60-year-old grandmother Umm Jamal also left the village of al-ʿAys over five months ago and started working on the babur (a kerosene-fuelled primus stove that has not been used for cooking since the nineties) when she arrived to the Kafr Karmin camp with her son and his nine children.
She strives to prepare food with all her strength despite her old age and arthritis. After all, in spite of the feeble capabilities, the children need to eat to forget the weariness and pain, and gain energy and strength instead. When asked about the reason that makes her go through all of this, she says: “Like any other grandmother, I see life through the eyes of my young grandchildren. I am here to make them better. Nothing beats seeing them grow in my arms and eat the food I cook for them.”
The children are not exempt from responsibilities either as they have to work hard to fulfil the family’s needs. Every day, six-year-old Tariq and seven-year-old Zyad leave to the forest, where their family set up the tent they live in, to collect sticks and small firewood pieces so that their mother can light a fire and prepare food for them and their younger siblings.
The two children usually take a large bag for the firewood and head out to what they consider a chance for discovery and fun. Zyad does not have any shoes to wear and walks barefoot. “I’m used to stepping on stones. My feet don’t hurt anymore. I’m the eldest of my siblings and I can handle anything. That’s what my dad told me, that he doesn’t have money to buy me new shoes,” he explains.
Once their work is done and the bag is full, the children’s voices precede them, bearing the good news to their mother. Then, she gives them the other bag and they return to their task once more, gathering firewood until sunset.