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For Those Still In Syria, A Daily Struggle

A family crosses a street piled with rubbish in Aleppo, Syria, on Jan. 5.
Andoni Lubaki
A family crosses a street piled with rubbish in Aleppo, Syria, on Jan. 5.

The situation for Syrian refugees is getting dire. Much has been reported about the worsening conditions for hundreds of thousands of Syrians taking up shelter just outside the country's borders, but inside Syria, the numbers are even higher. The United Nations says some 2 million people have been displaced from their homes in Syria, and most of them end up squatting in mosques and schools. NPR's Kelly McEvers spent a night in one of those schools, in Syria's largest city, Aleppo, and sent this report.

As soon as you walk into the classroom, the stories come at you, all at once.

Eventually, we figure out how everybody got here.

Seven months ago, an older woman and her three sons and their wives were living in a house, but that house was shelled. The old woman's sister was a cleaning lady here at the school and has the keys. So, everybody moved in.

Now, another one of the old woman's children has just moved in as well. Her name is Amal, and the shelling at her house was so bad she took her five kids and went to sleep in the street. She was afraid the building would fall on her.

When the shelling started, Amal's husband, an older man, told her to go to her parents' house while he went back to the village. Amal said she wouldn't go, so he left her and took off.

Ahmed (center) is staying at the school but will soon join his brother Yehya to go fight with anti-government rebels to earn money.
Kelly McEvers / NPR
Ahmed (center) is staying at the school but will soon join his brother Yehya to go fight with anti-government rebels to earn money.

Now, Amal's kids have lice, and her blankets and pillows have been stolen.

Amal's brother, Ahmed, is also at the school. Ahmed is really thin, with a scraggly beard and filthy pants. His hands are black.

Ahmed is a trash picker, and not ashamed to say it. Trash pickers gather plastic bags; one kilo gets them 10 liras — about 14 cents.

"[I] lost a daughter, a little daughter, she was sick," Ahmed said through n interpreter. "[We] didn't have enough money to pay the doctor."

Ahmed buried her and came back. He says that before the uprising it was better, and he would make about 150 liras a day — about $2 — but now he makes only enough to buy bread and nothing else.

Ahmed says he has a new plan. He used to drive a tank in the army, so he has decided to go and join anti-government rebels north of here, near the Turkish border.

Ahmed's brother, who's visiting, has already joined the rebels. He says he makes about a $150 a month, money his commander gets from Turkey.

As we're talking, we start to notice some arguing. The Syrian activist who brought us to this school also brought food and some money for heating fuel.

The voices get louder, and heated, and we realize there's a mini-war over how to divide it all.

"I was the one who brought him here."

"No, I was the one who brought him here."

"It should only go to the families who already live here."

"No, it should go to everyone."

All we know is it ends with Amal in tears. Her brothers and aunt, who have lived in the school for months, have taken everything. Because she's a newcomer, she got nothing.

Eventually, her sisters-in-law give her some apples, pasta and cooking oil. One of her little boys goes over to his brothers and sisters.

"Wake up," he says, "we have food." He gives them each an apple.

Each family has its own classroom. We bed down in the room of Ahmed, the trash picker, and his wife and their two kids. Another brother's wife comes to say good night. Her name is Em Ali.

It turns out that Em Ali lost a baby, too. All the women here have lost babies, either at birth or soon after.

Em Ali says her husband has beaten her as many times as she has hairs on her head. She says that before the war, he worked in a factory, making steel wool pads for cleaning dishes.

"We were poor before this," she says. "We blame the war for our misery, but we never had anything."

Em Ali laughs even when she's telling the sad stories. But before she says good night, her voice gets quiet. She says that from time to time, she hopes that she will be killed with her kids, "just to stop this, all of it."

In the middle of the night, the power goes out. It's below freezing outside.

The next morning, the power is back on. Blankets are folded up, floors are swept, and coffee is made on a portable gas stove.

We are served first. Arab hospitality prevails, even in the worst of times.

Ahmed gets ready to leave with his brother to go join the rebels. He's trying to sound noncommittal about it; his wife says it's better than starving.

"He will just go and see how ... just if he likes it or not," she says.

The wives talk about what detergent works best on clothes. The grandmother talks about her blood pressure.

This is just one school. Around Syria, there are thousands of schools like this — thousands of schools and hundreds of thousands of people.

With reporting by Rima Marrouch

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Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.