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Feature - Issue #6

Cold Comfort

Words by Daniel Briggs
Illustration by Pei-Hsin Cho

A young Syrian refugee reflects on the part that climate breakdown has played in his migration.

I met Noor in Norway, but that is not where he was from. His earliest memories were of taking the cattle out to be herded in the Syrian countryside and learning from his father the skills and techniques which, as he thought, would allow him to one day become a farmer himself.

“We knew nothing else as farmers, the people there, they were happy and content working the land,” he said. Yet “the days became long and hot” he told me as he offered me a homemade biscuit. At the time, he said, many farmers like his father became destitute and angry as they watched their businesses fold. The 2006 drought caused major agricultural failures and livestock mortality across the north west of Syria and Noor remembers there being localised protests in which his father participated. At the time, Noor was just six years old.

Climate destabilisation - in the main generated from fossil-fuel burning in expansive countries like the US, China and India - resulted in droughts in the Middle East. Even over the last decade, it is countries like Syria, along with others in the eastern Mediterranean belt that have witnessed the worst drought-levels for nine centuries. It is these processes that quickly turned Syria’s rich soil into solid-cracked clay, leading to redundant harvests for Noor’s family and paving the way for the death of their cattle.

But no one at the time was attributing this to the consequences of manmade climate breakdown. And after Assad came to power in 2000, people in rural Syria were more concerned about having to pay higher prices for commodities as inflation increased due to the liberalisation of the economy while domestic policies relating to supporting agriculture were neglected. Surviving as a farmer also became more precarious when Assad scrapped agricultural fuel subsidies, which inevitably pushed rural workers into debt. Reflecting on this, Noor said: “My father became an angry man, sometimes violent. Everything he had worked for was disappearing in front of him, and he couldn’t understand why it was so dry.”

Since 2008, food prices in Syria increased on average by 26% a year across the country. Water (or lack of it) played a direct role in the deterioration of Syria’s domestic economy and this heightened existing tensions that were already historically bound to ethnic and religious division. Further droughts and a massive decrease in precipitation in the Gulf region affected the 1.3 million people in rural Syria prior to the 2011 uprising. During the worst stints of drought in 2006 and 2007, 85% of the livestock died and 160 villages were abandoned as rural workers migrated to Syria’s cities. Hundreds of thousands of farmers lost their livelihoods.

Desperate families fled from the countryside to cram themselves into the over-spilling cities, looking for a livelihood. Noor was nine years old when his family joined the rural exodus in 2009, which marked the third consecutive drought year and the failure of his father’s business.

He said: “My family were wheat and vegetable farmers. The crops stopped growing and there was no money in the business. We found it difficult to survive in the countryside so moved to the nearest city.”

They rented an improvised shack in the sprawling suburbs of Aleppo. Even in the outskirts of the city, his father was in competition for informal work. The displacement of so many rural migrants meant there was constant vying for even the most basic, low-paid work. Noor’s father eventually found a job as a taxi driver. Approaching adolescence Noor found work in a mattress shop. He was always working any small jobs he could pick up, as the family didn’t have enough money to live on. “There was a tension in the streets, people always shouting, disagreeing,” he recalled as he poured me another tea.

The heat accompanied Noor’s family and Aleppo’s swelling population of 4.5 million. The city frequently experiences temperatures in excess of 40C (104F). Like the weather, social tension can also go from simmering to boiling point. In 2013, Solomon Hsiang and colleagues from Princeton University published their review, Quantifying the Influence of Climate on Human Conflict, a detailed analysis of 60 climate-related academic papers, which found that extreme weather correlated with the potential for increased violence.

There is a theory, then, that these climate pressures and population shifts, along with other social pressures such as growing poverty and unemployment, became the catalyst for the 2011 Arab Spring. In 2015, Colin Kelley and his team from the University of California published a research paper, titled Climate Change in the Fertile Crescent and Implications of the Recent Syrian Drought, that concluded that the devastating drought between 2007 and 2010 was responsible for the desertification of large rural areas in the Fertile Crescent, the area spanning modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Egypt, together with the southeastern region of Turkey and the western fringes of Iran, which supports the bulk of agriculture in the Middle East. Incoherent and substandard agricultural and environmental policies were also partly to blame when millions of people flooded to the Syrian cities, which were already suffering inequality and oppressive governance from the
Assad regime, making city living conditions across the country even worse and a factor in
the subsequent uprising. Noor saw this first-hand and watched as his future disappeared.

‘My family were wheat and vegetable farmers. The crops stopped growing and there was no money in the business. We found it difficult to survive in the countryside so moved to the nearest city.’

“It is not a revolution, it is a war,” he told me. “It was inevitable because of the tensions, the Kurds and Arabs hate each other. Some people are rich and more and more in Syria people are poor. This has got worse. I mean more and more people are poor [now], especially us [as we were fine before the droughts] when we were working in the fields as farmers.”

As subsidies reduced, food prices increased and caused discontent - with the onset of war, food stock was targeted as a way of starving rebel areas where the anti-government Free Syrian Army held. While there was little government interest in rescuing or improving agricultural infrastructure, there were also no formal means by which people could make this felt under Assad’s autocratic rule, so many rural workers and farmers joined the rebel groups.

With the advent of war, Syria’s economy shrank and the diminished law enforcement ability meant looting and robbery became commonplace. Illicit markets evolved around commodities like food, medicine, petrol, and water. Aleppo was also subject to numerous bombing raids and intense fighting attacks. Noor remembers how “nothing was safe as Assad’s army came every day, shooting us and bombing us”. And when friends and some close family were killed, his family started to reconsider the limited options available to them. While some of Noor’s young friends, only teenagers at the time, had joined the Syrian Free Army, others had just disappeared. The choice was fight and risk being killed or wait to potentially be killed anyway. With all of their savings, his parents paid for him to be smuggled out of Syria and across the border into Turkey. Noor was just 13 years old.

Leaving with another friend, he travelled clandestinely to Istanbul and, after several days sleeping in the streets, got work in a clothes factory: the $5 a day wage was used to pay for their shelter and food. “I had no money, no house, I didn’t like the life,” he said. He stayed in the job for two years.

‘They [the local community] think we are terrorists but they don’t know what we had to leave and why we came.’

As he sat with me in Norway wearing his woolly jumper, snow on the ground outside as the temperature oscillated around minus 30 degrees, Noor leaned back and recounted the conversation he had had with his ageing and fragile father.

“My parents wouldn’t come to me as they are too old to travel,” he told me. “But I said I can’t stay in Turkey, it was breaking me. After I told them this, they sold their car and sent me money. I asked someone to help me to go to Europe but I didn’t think about where I was going, I had no idea about Norway.

“I left in January 2015. I paid money for a smug-gler, in a group in an inflatable boat from Izmir, there was 43 people in there. It took three hours to get to Greece. It took one month from Greece to get to Norway. I came by train, car, and lorry, sometimes hidden. Each time the group gets smaller as we go through Europe as people go to different countries. They seemed to break up in groups of four and go to different places. Now there are three people who came with me from Greece.”

Noor was just 16 when he arrived in Norway. “Wow, here it is so cold, I mean not only the weather, the people as well,” he said as he folded his arms. “They [the local community] think we are terrorists but they don’t know what we had to leave and why we came.” Back home, his parents continued to struggle in Aleppo. He considered it a miracle they were still alive. His contact with them was intermittent. Shortages of electricity and water were commonplace there, on top of the continuing everyday risk of being threatened, kidnapped and tortured or killed. He worried that their chances of survival were small.

This was just the beginning of Noor’s life in another country, another culture, another social environment and another climate. The climate may have been the initial reason for his family’s troubles but it has continued to play a role in his life. As we finished our interview in the wooden hut that houses an asylum centre in rural Norway, he clasped my hand and tried to raise a smile. “My childhood was warm, before all this mess,” he said. “Now here the climate is cold.”

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