Syria's Religious Leaders Authorize Eating Cats and Dogs to Survive

Refugees in Turkey, crushed by hardship, tell of an even worse situation back home. 
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A dog searches for food at a destroyed house in Azaz, in northern Syria near the border with Turkey. (Zain Karam/Reuters)

GAZIANTEP, Turkey—Yasser and Mahmoud, two cousins aged 12 and 10, respectively, stop at the entrance of the central mosque in Gaziantep as others hurriedly step inside for early morning prayer on the eve of Eid-ul-Adha, the Muslim holy feast of sacrifice.

Wearing shabby trousers and faded shirts, Yasser and Mahmoud arrange locally produced candies and chocolates in medium sized cartons. They station themselves at two different doors of the majestic mosque to attract customers.

“I will take home my mother’s favorite sweets and some apples,” says Yasser, whose family of eight migrated from the Syrian town of Latakia 10 months ago. His father, Radwan Hassan, preferred not to live in a refugee camp set up in Gaziantep, a booming industrial city in southeastern Turkey, instead opting to live in an abandoned building with a caved-in roof.

Hassan is teaming up with a local butcher to slaughter animals and make some money. The boys don’t know where Hassan is for the Eid prayer.

Mahmoud was recently orphaned after his father was killed by a sniper in August. Hassan, Mahmoud’s uncle and Yasser’s father, brought him and his mother along with them to Turkey.

Yasser and Mahmoud briskly walk to a bakery and buy a kilogram of baklava. Carrying their bounty, the boys walk for half an hour to their impoverished neighborhood.

They enter a dilapidated, two-story building. The family sleeps in a 20-square-foot room devoid of windows. Four mattresses, one wooden bed, three chairs, and countless flies fill the humid and cold room. The toilet has neither a door nor a roof. 

Hassan’s wife, Noura, has prepared adas, a typical Syrian lentil soup, and boiled rice for breakfast and lunch.

“Unlike last year, I can’t cook mansaf (meat and rice with almonds) and serve my family with ka’ek (a traditional sweet). Whatever we eat here is not charity, but my husband and sons earn it with their hard work,” she explains with pride.

Dressed in gray scarf and black abaya, she says her children have two sets of clothes and only one pair of shoes each.

Noura, who used to be a nurse in a private Latakia hospital, had never imagined that her children wouldn’t wear new clothes on Eid. Amina, her one-year-old daughter, has a cold. Her skin looks pale and dry, and she’s alarmingly underweight. The temperature here often falls below freezing.

As the infant cries for milk, Noura pours lukewarm Turkish black tea down her throat with a spoon.

“My breast milk dried, probably due to lack of good food and our testing circumstances. We can either feed the entire family or provide her formula milk,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks.

Before the family left Latakia, one of the country’s few pro-Assad cities, both had lost 16 close family members either to air raids or artillery fire.

“Prior stepping out of my home, I had laid only one condition before my husband. And he accepted: That we won’t beg for our shelter and food. We won’t live in camps, but earn our living,” Noura said.

“Forget about this Eid, we will slaughter a sheep next year as we always did,” Mahmoud said. For many Syrians, this is their second Eid-ul-Adha in a foreign land.

Indifferent to the gloom, 6-year-old Omer and 5-year-old Usman play with balloons and stuffed toys outside. Though none of the children attends school, Mahmoud’s mother Raabia teaches them basic math and Arabic handwriting.

“I keep myself busy as it helps me forget the tragedy of losing my loving husband,” Raabia said. She wondered aloud when President Obama would eliminate Bashar al-Assad for them. Mahmoud responded, “America won’t help us, mom.”

This Eid-ul-Adha, the war in Syria is even deadlier—neither of the parties announced a ceasefire, unlike in past years. At dawn, Assad’s warplanes pounded the suburbs of Damascus, and the Free Syrian Army responded with rocket fire. Other regime attacks killed three children in Hama and in the Ghouta district of Damascus. Since March 2011, more than 115,000 people have lost their lives in Syria, including about a thousand in chemical weapon attacks.

***

Imad al-Shami, 35, is another Syrian who defected from his government office and took a flight to Istanbul with his wife and two children more than a year ago. Unlike Gaziantep, Istanbul has little room for non-Turkish-speaking job hunters, and Shami has been unable to find work.

“I over-estimated my prospects before leaving Damascus. Istanbul is a very expensive city with cut-throat competition for jobs,” he said.

Shami’s family lives in an extra parking garage that belongs to a Turk businessman. Compared to Hassan's home, his situation is relatively secure—the family has hot and cold water and a toiled about 50 meters from the garage. Still, they are mostly dependent on handouts.

Shami recounted the horrible situation back home. “Many cities under Assad’s siege have run out of food. Local muftis have issued fatwa (religious decrees) that people can eat cats and dogs to survive,” he explained.

Owing to grim ground realities, the UN has revised its Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan, doubling its estimate for refugees to 4 million, and 6.8 million for internally displaced persons, by December.

In Yalova city, a three-hour drive from Istanbul, locals help the Shami family with food and clothes. Sometimes, he gets work on construction sites. His children get free education in a Turkish public school, even though they only speak Arabic.

Though the family continues to suffer, a Turkish real estate developer has promised him a job right after the Eid holidays. Meanwhile, he is applying for asylum in Australia and Germany, two countries where Syrians see prospects for a normal life.

As the conflict intensifies, Istanbul’s parks and uninhabited areas have attracted Syrian refugees at a faster pace. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been the region’s most consistent sympathizer with the Syrian uprising. The country houses over half a million registered refugees, not including unregistered families such as Shami’s.

“The day Erdogan is not there in the government,” Shami said, “Syrians may not sleep with peace of mind.”

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Naveed Ahmad is a freelance writer based in Pakistan and Turkey. 

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