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Um Abdo works at her sewing machine making COVID-19 face masks
Crisis in Syria

These Syrian women are making masks to make a living

Nearly a decade of war in Syria has left many people out of work—the ongoing economic crisis only compounded by COVID-19. Read about one way in which the IRC is helping vulnerable families to get by.

Photo: AHammam/IRC

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Hamida, Um Abdo and Wa’ad* turned their sewing skills to mask-making. 

Um Abdo sits at a sewing machine to make COVID-19 masks in Syria
Um Abdo at her sewing machine. Photo: AHammam/IRC

Employed by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) through our Cash for Work program, these mothers are earning an income while protecting their community in northwest Syria from the coronavirus.

Um Abdo, 38, used to make clothes before the pandemic. Now she's creating face masks the IRC gives out for free along with vital information about how people can keep themselves safe from COVID-19.

Syria’s economy has been ravaged by almost a decade of war, so the extra cash earned producing the masks has been a lifeline to support families like Um Abdo’s through the winter.

Earning vital income

“I’m now able to buy supplies for my home and wood for winter,” says Um Abdo, who is a mother to four children and supports her husband, who is paralyzed as the result of an injury. “The economic situation is hard. We have to buy water and we try to ration it as it’s so expensive to live here. Many people have had to pull their children out of school and send them to work to help their families secure an income.”

Um Abdo with one of her sons. She used to sew clothes before the pandemic, now she's turned her skills to creating face masks the IRC gives out to the community.

Photo: AHamman/IRC

“It helped a lot,” 28-year-old Hamida says of the money she has earned making masks. “We have children that need to grow, and nowadays the prices for food are so high.” The cost of rent has tripled, she says, even as her family's food budget is stretched increasingly thin.

“The food we buy now is completely different to what we could afford 10 years ago,” she says. “We’re getting chicken stock cubes instead of real chicken.” 

Um Abdo fits a mask on one of her young sons in northwestern Syria.

“Coronavirus is hard but the conflict has been harder on us,” says Um Abdo. Syria’s economy has been ravaged by almost a decade of war.

Photo: AHammam/IRC

Battling a pandemic in a war zone

“The war has left many people who are able to work without job opportunities,” says Tareq, an IRC staff member who helps Syrians in the northwestern province of Idlib gain temporary employment. He says educating people about COVID-19 prevention has also become an important part of his role.

"We continuously explain the virus to people,” he says. “There are fears about the virus spreading. It happened in other countries—imagine how it will be for a country that has experienced war for almost 10 years. The health system barely covers the basic needs of our population.”

Wa'ad sews face masks at her sewing machine in her makeshift shelter in northwestern Syria.

Wa'ad's main fear is not of the coronavirus but of the conflict. She has endured almost ten years of war.

Photo: AHammam/IRC

Despite the dangers the coronavirus poses, for many Syrians, their biggest struggle is living through years of conflict.

Coronavirus is hard but conflict is harder

“The conditions we are living in concern us more than the coronavirus—it’s a pandemic that will eventually end,” says Wa’ad, 40, who has been displaced ten times due to the conflict and now lives in Idlib.

Closeup of Wa'ad's hands as she measures fabric for COVID-19 face masks in Syria.
Wa'ad at work measuring fabric for masks. Photo: AHammam/IRC

“We’ve experienced shelling, displacement and poverty. We’ve left our sons, our homes, our land and our livelihoods and we’ve come here.” 

“We never thought that we would be living this life,” she says. “My biggest fear is that we’ll have to stay here for the rest of our lives and not be able to return home.” 

Um Abdo agrees: “Coronavirus is hard but the conflict has been harder on us."

We’ve experienced shelling, displacement and poverty ... we never thought that we would be living this life.

Hamida says her greatest fear is having to uproot her life yet again. She describes the terrifying moment when her family had to flee their apartment in Aleppo in 2015: “Our building was hit by airstrikes and split in half—the other half fell to the ground and everyone died.” 

Wa'ad sews COVID-19 masks on a sewing machine in her makeshift shelter in northwestern Syria.

Wa'ad has been displaced ten times due to the conflict and now lives in Idlib.

Photo: AHammam/IRC

“We faced many obstacles on the way here, including coming face-to-face with members of ISIS,” Hamida adds. “Thank God my husband and all my four sons are here with me.” 

Keeping hope alive

Ultimately, Hamida, Wa’ad and Um Abdo all share the same hope—that their children will not have to endure any more years living in war. Says Hamida, “I wish the children to have a better future than ours.”

A smiling five-year-old Murad at home with his family in northwestern Syria.

Five-year-old Murad is learning how to stay safe from COVID-19 thanks to his mother, Hamida, who is sewing masks for those in need.

Photo: AHammam/IRC

Along with money to help meet basic needs, the opportunity to work has provided the three women with a little more stability as they look forward to better days ahead.

I am proud that I work hard to help my family. I hope—and dream—that one day we’ll be able to return home.

“Life is full of ups and downs,” Um Abdo says. “I am proud that I work hard to help my family. I hope—and dream—that one day we’ll be able to return home.”

*All names in this story have been changed for safety reasons.

The IRC in Syria

The year 2021 marks a decade of conflict in Syria, as violence, displacement and humanitarian needs continue to grow. Syria is also the deadliest country in the world for humanitarians. Attacks on aid workers, civilians, homes and hospitals remain common. Many families have been uprooted multiple times. The health system has been decimated, undermining Syrians’ ability to cope with the challenges of COVID-19.

Learn more about the IRC's work in Syria.

Learn why Syria ranks in the top 5 of our 2021 Emergency Watchlist.