A Blessed Month Under an Accursed Regime

The happiness of entering the blessed month of Ramadan in Assad-controlled Syria is stifled under the oppressive reality of the enduring economic hardships faced by its people, which cast a somber shadow over the traditionally joyous and spiritually enriching period. For years, regions under the regime’s stewardship have grappled with the devastating consequences of mismanagement, corruption, cronyism, and the ravages of war, leading to a sharp decline in living standards and an ever-plummeting Syrian Pound (SYP).

Ramadan Traditions Lost Amidst Crushing Poverty

As aspirations to give charity, provide communal meals for breaking fasts, and share in the joy of Eid celebrations dwindle in the face of economic adversity, the plight of those in regime areas during Ramadan stands as a testament to the enduring hardships inflicted upon a populace struggling to live after 13 years of war.

Amidst this turmoil, the observance of Ramadan has become a poignant reflection of the profound struggles endured by Syrian families. Despite the deeply rooted cultural significance of the month, the economic devastation has left many unable to partake in cherished traditions. From the inability to afford basic necessities to the stark reality of stagnant salaries failing to keep pace with rampant inflation, the financial strain has eroded the ability of countless households to uphold longstanding customs.

(A Syrian sweet vendor in a Damascus souk) [MEE]

Under Assad, the economic plight only continues to worsen, as highlighted by Yasser Akreem, a member of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce. In an interview with the regime-affiliated Al-Baath newspaper he revealed that despite efforts to establish a “charity market” throughout Ramadan, aimed at selling goods at cost, high prices persist due to economic closures, supply issues, energy price hikes, and a lack of “clarity in economic policies,” and high import costs, taxes, and fees imposed by the government.

Akreem emphasizes that salaries are insufficient to cover basic needs, representing only a fraction of expenses and necessitating government intervention to prevent further social problems. Regime-controlled areas see average monthly wages typically around 149,000 SYP (approximately $11.45). Monthly salaries can range from as low as 37,600 SYP (less than $3) to 663,000 SYP (around $50) on the high end. Women, many of whom are forced to work either as sole providers or to supplement their family’s income typically make 21% less than men, earning between, $2.40-$40 with an average monthly wage being around $9.

Inflation and Ineptitude

While those like Akreem attempt to find solutions through subsidies and charities the regime’s systemic policies of taxation, ineptitude, and theft of aid have rendered such efforts nigh useless. The Ministry of Internal Trade and Protection confirmed preparations for Ramadan, with Syrian trade complexes to sell essential goods at cost and offer discounted food baskets, aiming to alleviate some of the economic burdens faced by Syrians. However, without comprehensive solutions addressing systemic issues, like regime theft, bribery, taxation, and solutions for the ongoing economic challenges, the problems persist, threatening the stability and well-being of the population.

According to the regime outlet Athar Press, the Syrian Trade Corporation, associated with the Assad regime, in collaboration with the Federation of Chambers of Industry and Commerce, aims to provide basic necessities at cost during Ramadan. The move comes as a response to imported food shortages and soaring prices, where citizens are encouraged by the regime to purchase staple goods at “competitive prices” from the corporation’s outlets, which also feature imported vegetables.

World Food Programme aid packages in Syria.

Among the goods offered via the scheme are “Ramadan Food Baskets” which typically contain staple items for everyday cooking as well as special items traditionally associated with the two meals, suhoor (predawn meal) and iftar (meal to break the fast) eaten during Ramadan. In the past few years, such baskets which typically were subsidized or provided by charities allowed families to get by. However, the cost and quality of these packages have greatly changed recently.

In 2023, the basket, priced at 99,000 Syrian pounds (approximately $7.60), contained essential items such as sunflower oil, vegetable ghee, rice, tea, vermicelli, tomato paste, and apricot jam. This marks a stark contrast to the 2022 offering, priced at 25,000 SYP (approximately $2.00), consisting of bulgar, rice, chickpeas, tomatoes, sardines, and tuna. It is anticipated that this year’s basket will see prices double those of 2023, at around 200,000 SYP (around 15.40) due to the dire economic situation under the Assad regime.

According to Abdul Razzaq Habza, the secretary of the regime’s Consumer Protection Association, the cost of iftar and suhoor for a family during Ramadan ranges from 7 to 8 million liras (approximately $538 to $615), with suhoor alone for a family of five costing 100,000 liras (approximately USD 7.70) daily or 3 million liras (around $230) for the month. This estimation aligns with Al-Baath newspaper’s forecast of the weakest demand for goods during Ramadan, in fifty years, due to the plummeting purchasing power of citizens in Assad regime-controlled areas.

Increase in Needy, Decrease in Donations

Along with the decline of purchasing power, and the SYP the ability of people to donate excess wealth has also greatly decreased. Those in the upper and middle classes, who used to support charitable causes, especially during Ramadan now find themselves unable to give and are often in need of aid themselves.

Charities in regime areas have said that their annual Ramadan campaigns face significant challenges due to a decrease in the number of daily meals sponsored by donors over the years. This is attributed to diminishing donations and a decline in the number of donors amidst the soaring cost of living. Volunteers from these associations highlight a stark reality: the increasing number of individuals reaching out for assistance far outweighs those offering donations.

Volunteers from the charity “Saed” (Assist) provide food to locals during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan in Syria’s northern city of Aleppo on April 6, 2022. (Photo by AFP)

This surge in demand reflects the worsening living conditions. Despite efforts, they find themselves unable to meet the escalating demand for iftar meals during Ramadan, as the volume of donations remains insufficient to cover all requests received by the most prominent associations in Damascus. A demonstration of the deepening humanitarian crisis in the region, where the gap between the services provided by charitable organizations and the rising needs of the population continues to widen.

Ramadan Realities

With the advent of Ramadan, the plight of the vulnerable is exacerbated, with so many below the poverty line and prices increasing due to demand and seasonal gouging families suffering from increased pressure. Muhammad who lives in the coastal city of Latakia told L24, “We live in a Muslim environment where Muslims live in extreme poverty and great need like any area in Syria… It is very hard for any worker to fulfill his family’s needs.”

(Jazmatiya market in al-Midan neighborhood in Damascus) [Zeina Shahla]

Even those receiving aid from abroad find it difficult to meet the needs for Ramadan. Murad, whose son lives in Germany, reflects on the financial challenges exacerbated by the economic downturn in Syria. Despite receiving a double transfer of $500 from his son abroad, it is still increasingly difficult to afford basic supplies due to the devaluation of the SYP and soaring prices. Struggling to prioritize necessities, he expresses the necessity of allocating funds primarily towards cooking the daily iftar meal and providing a decent suhoor. With the remaining funds barely covering daily expenses.

More than Money…

The years of war have left scars in Syrian society that transcend simple economic woes, “The atmosphere of Ramadan in Latakia is different before the revolution than it is today, Muhammad told L24, “The neighborhoods used to be decorated, there was also a lot of social cohesion. Certainly, there is a complete difference now.” The spirit of Ramadan is missing these days. What was once of time of worship, reflection, and community, spent with family and friends has simply become a time of realizing all that has been lost.

“Every family,” Muhammad solemnly said, “has lost someone, and every family today has individuals who have migrated away, so Ramadan misses those familial atmospheres. Surely, the family and communal atmosphere, and certainly, the memory of those who perished in this war, pains most families.” It is this sense of loss of what was, that scars the souls of so many during Ramadan.

Entire neighborhoods, families, and cities are wiped out, gone forever, and with them the traditions and the communities and people who upheld them. “The difficulty,” he continues, “lies in the absence of loved ones, in addition to the injustice and the difficulty of living.”

Syrian children carrying bread.

Murad acknowledges what so many Syrians scraping by under Assad have come to know, that the ability to observe Ramadan and its traditions will be dictated by both desire and financial capability – underscoring the harsh reality faced by families navigating economic hardships, loss of community, and separation and loss of loved ones during these beloved days.

“What can I tell you, my daughter,” said a vendor to journalist Zeina Shahla, in a 2022 article, “the old Ramadan was of a different time, it was ‘kareem’ (kind and generous), and people used to empathize for one another. Nowadays no one is able to empathize with anyone.”

Yet, despite the bleak circumstances, these families persevere with unwavering determination, clinging to the hope of better days ahead. As the blessed month begins, people should remember the plight of those enduring hardships, even in the most trying of times. As Muhammad concludes, “The situation of Muslims is dire in every corner of the world. Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Sudan are all under fire from the entire world. Muslims must reclaim their glory this month and unite to become stronger. May they regain their voice, God willing! May God bring us all goodness, blessings, and prosperity.”


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