ISTANBUL - The family’s two-room apartment slants downhill, and there is no running water.
Three-year-old Zaineb is crying from hunger. The girl hasn’t eaten all day, says her mother, Ismahan, as she rolls rice into grape leaves for what will be the family’s evening meal.
They plucked the leaves from trees, she explains, because they can't afford to buy them.
Like many Syrian refugee families living in Turkey during the pandemic, they also cannot pay their rent.
Eight people including Ismahan’s two children are crowded into the tiny apartment and an abandoned shelter nearby. The rent is only $30, very cheap for Istanbul, but they haven’t paid in two months.
“The landlord says he will kick us out if we don’t pay,” says Ismahan. “He doesn’t like Syrians.”
Across the country, families like hers have moved from poor to destitute as they are increasingly isolated by the pandemic lockdown.
Most Syrian refugees rely on incomes from the country’s informal sector, in jobs such as cleaning, textiles, shop work and street sales. Most of these jobs have been wiped out since the onset of COVID-19.
A patchwork of aid organizations provides some food, money and supplies, but it is never enough. Many families like Ismahan’s fear they will be forced into the streets if the pandemic continues much longer.
Ismahan used to sell small packets of tissues to drivers at traffic lights. The work was never legal, but it was tolerated. Police officers on the streets have made clear that it is now banned.
“Even if the police let us sell our tissues,” Ismahan adds, “people don’t want to open their car windows because of the virus.”
Hostility and neglect
A few kilometers away from Ismahan’s home, Mohammed, his wife Marwa and their five children live in a slightly more spacious apartment, paid for by a local charity.
In early March, the family lived in another Turkish city, and Mohammed made money painting houses and fixing motorcycles. But when the government announced it was opening its border with Greece, Mohammed sold his furniture, and they headed for the border.
Like tens of thousands of others, he thought this meant they could move to Europe.
However, Greece never opened its side of the border. After nearly two weeks camping in a petrol station, the family boarded a bus to Istanbul, homeless and broke. Aid groups met them at the bus station and helped them resettle.
“But they told me they won’t pay our rent again,” says Mohammed, as his older children push his infant daughter around in an empty box that once contained food aid. “Now, I stay up all night, every night, worrying about how to keep my children off the streets.”
Turkey hosts over 3.5 million Syrian refugees, more than any other country in the world. But as the country grows poorer, public resentment toward the refugees deepens.
“People here tell us all the time, ‘Go back to your country,’” explains Mohammed. But as a former rebel fighter in Syria, he doesn’t have that option. “They think we are taking food from their mouths, but we are not. We are just trying to work to feed our families.”
Isolation from the pandemic has also brought back memories of the war, says Marwa, Mohammed’s wife, making her feel like she is reliving the worst moments of her life.
“It is the same fear,” she continues. “In Syria, we were stuck in the house afraid of being killed by the bombs. Now, we are afraid of going out and getting the virus.”
More than 5 million people have fled Syria in nine years of war, and nearly all of them have suffered some kind of mental trauma, says Dr. Mohammed Khaled Hamza, a neuropsychologist and mental health professor with Lamar University in Texas, after thousands of interviews with Syrian refugees.
The impact of the war on Syrian families’ mental health is so great that Hamza and the Syrian American Medical Society call it “Human Devastation Syndrome.”
And for many Syrian refugees stuck in camps and on the fringes of society, the pandemic is making it worse.
“It’s bad when you have health problems,” says Hamza. “But it’s much worse when you have health problems and don’t have enough money or the finances to treat yourself.”
At his apartment in Istanbul, Mohammed describes increasing anxiety and feelings of depression caused by the financial strain.
“When your children come to you and ask for food because they are hungry,” he says, “the hardest thing in the world is to say, ‘No, we don’t have any.’”
Shadi Turk contributed to this report.