A Difficult Eid Holiday For Middle East Refugees
Millions of people displaced due to conflict long to return to their home countries, where many of their family members remain
As the end of Ramadan approaches and Muslims prepare for Eid al-Fitr, the celebration that marks the completion of the month of fasting, thousands of Palestinian, Syrian, Iraqi and Yemeni refugees will spend the holiday in neighboring countries where they sought relief from ongoing and bloody conflicts.
To date, the Syrian conflict, which is in its eighth year, has taken the lives of about 500,000 people and displaced millions. Neighboring Jordan has absorbed more than 1.3 million of them where they live in six large camps. The scene in Jordan is not much different than the situation in other countries where Syrian refugees have gone. Many say they are suffering from the bitterness of being away from their parents and loved ones.
“In Syria, first thing in the morning, we used to go to my grandfather’s house. He died there and I wasn’t able to see him,” Muhannad, a Syrian refugee, told The Media Line. Since he left Syria behind along with other family members, Muhannad said he will not experience the joy of Eid.
“The whole family used to gather for lunch and to share stories.… We would do that for a good three days filled with love and tasty sweets,” he related, adding that the refugees are trying to keep the tradition going, but doing so in a refugee camp has its own set of challenges.
Muhannad, who did not disclose his last name, pointed out that before the war, Turkey used to open areas of its border with Syria so relatives in both countries could meet during Eid. “The Turkish government is continuing the policy, but only for northern parts of Syria, which is controlled by the rebels. Any area controlled by the Syrian opposition can take advantage of the Turkish open-border policy.”
Despite dire conditions, some refugees in Jordan’s Za’tari camp have tried to enahnce this year’s Eid celebrations by making cakes and buying new clothes and toys for their children.
Abu Yousef, a Palestinian refugee living in Lebanon, told The Media Line how hard this Eid is, given that he is far away from his extended family members who live in Jaffa. “There are different tastes in Palestine; here in Lebanon we are just visitors,” he told The Media Line.
Many refugees, Yousef elaborated, expressed deep pain and anger but they nevertheless make sweets for their neighbors. “Life in the end must go on,” he affirmed. Despite the squalor, many in the camps insist on creating a festive Eid atmosphere, especially for children. Yousef added that seeing the kids running through the camp in the early morning hours of the holiday delights his heart. “Mainly they shoot off fireworks and play Ghumayeh—a kind of hide-and-seek game.”
In neighboring Iraq, a church in Kirkuk is hosting more than six hundred youths, including many refugees from different parts of the country who did not manage to leave the country during the conflict with Islamic State. Yousif, the church’s Archbishop, told The Media Line that the church has an open-door policy. “Any person in need is a Guest of god. We do not categorize people based on religion, and God’s guests are our guests.”
Eyad, an Iraqi refugee from Mosul who now lives in Kirkuk, got separated from his parents when the Iraqi army and ISIS engaged in a firefight a few years ago. “When we saw white Toyota pickups brandishing Islamic State’s black flag drawing nearer to our position, the Iraqi army put us in cars and forced us to leave quickly,” he conveyed to The Media Line.
Separated from his family, Eyad lamented that it is not always possible to visit them because of the dangers of traveling. “I miss my family constantly. And it’s not only during Eid. This is because there is nothing to do in Kirkuk. Sometimes I go with my friends for a walk and that is pretty much all we do in our free time.”
Eyad is unsure how long he will remain in Kirkuk. “So far I’m staying in here to continue my studies, but if the situation gets worse, I will try to emigrate.”
Another student, who spoke to The Media Line on condition of anonymity, said that what gives him support during the Eid holiday is his second family: namely, other refugees in camps run by the United Nations in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq. “We are Muslim refugees who celebrate Eid al-Fitr with our Christian brothers,” he revealed. “Anyone is welcome to take part in our simple Eid celebration.”
Last year, the United States and UN hoped to send peacekeeping teams to Raqqa, Syria to protect refugees who wanted to return to their homes in the city. But officials warn that such a process could take years until the approximately 300,000 displaced people can return home. Meanwhile, their lives in the camps are not getting easier. There have been many reported instances of food and medicine shortages.
Fabia Mantoo, Spokeswoman of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Yemen, told The Media Line that observers are concerned about increasing tensions along the country’s western coast. “The hostilities may result in additional internal displacement of anywhere between 100,000 to half a million people based on 2017 statistics,” she said. “There are currently 2 million Yemenis who are displaced across Yemen and one million of them who have been displaced but are now attempting to return home.”