War has a profoundly disruptive and diminishing impact on lives. This series highlights the long-term effects of the Syrian Civil War, which include injuries, fear, job loss, financial ruin, and migration. Dealing with the Damage is the second photo essay in an ongoing multi-part project on impoverishment.
From the end of their road, Omar and Maha can see a medieval English castle founded in the 11th century. Before they came to Britain to escape the Syrian Civil War, they lived outside Damascus, a city that archeological evidence suggests has been inhabited since the 7th millennium BCE.
At the back of their council house, Omar has made a garden. Before the war, he was a specialist in soil and water contamination and its impact on the environment. He grows vegetables using organic principles; anything not eaten is composted and worked back into the soil.
What follows is Omar and Maha's story, as relayed to me.
The unrest that started in Damascus the year before escalates and spreads more widely. The Syrian Civil War begins.
With occasional difficulty, Omar and Maha continue to commute to Damascus from a small town on the outskirts of the city. He works at a scientific research institute and she works at a large bank. Cynthia, their 21-year-old daughter still lives with them. Their other daughter Sally, two years older and recently married, lives nearby with her husband and his parents.
One October evening, while dining outside, an incoming missile bursts in their garden. Cynthia, who had just gone into the house to fetch something, sustains minor injuries. Omar's arms are fractured by shrapnel. Maha suffers severe trauma to her back, with shrapnel fragments lodged so close to her spine they will prove inoperable. She has a punctured lung and loses part of her left foot. She spends nine days in intensive care.
A few days after Maha's discharge from hospital, the traumatised family - including Sally and her husband - flee to Lebanon. They briefly stay with Maha's brother in Beirut before moving into to a rented apartment. Maha's injuries leave her bedridden for three months.
Omar intermittently returns to Syria to repair the badly damaged family home. With his arms not fully healed, he relies on help from friends for heavy manual labor. The Orthodox Church, of which they are members, donates building materials.
In Lebanon, the influx of Syrian refugees drives up rent and food prices. After six months of spiralling costs, the family decide to return to their partly-repaired house. Sally and her husband move back into their house with his parents.
Omar and Maha learn they have lost their jobs. Omar finds a part-time position with a research centre. He will continue to work for them until 2019. Maha's condition improves, but she is too frail to work. Her pre-existing conditions, including diabetes, become difficult to manage due to medicine shortages.
Later in the year, Omar and Maha become grandparents when Sally gives birth to a girl called Sarah.
Omar and Maha’s home in Syria also had a garden. They were in it when a missile struck and irrevocably changed their lives. Maha, at the time a Departmental Manager at a large bank, was severely injured and continues to struggle with chronic health complications.
Preparing breakfast for me: falafel, tahini, pita, and salad and herbs from their garden. Any migrant will tell you food is an important link with the places and people who were left behind. The dishes and their preparation touch on identity, relationships, and personal history. When you invite a stranger into your home to serve them food that carries this significance you are not just filling their stomach, you are telling them something.
Omar and Maha are unbelievably resilient. When I asked how they feel about their ordeal, Omar said his emotions include dejection and hope. Maha replied with a story. Moments before the missile impact, her daughter got up and went into the house while Maha sat down in the vacant chair. This put Maha directly in harm’s way, but her daughter escaped with only minor injuries.
With fighting and destruction intensifying, Sally's husband undertakes the arduous journey to Germany via Turkey and Eastern Europe. On arrival, he applies for refugee status. Later in the year, Cynthia gets married, but stays with Omar and Maha when her husband leaves for Kuwait to take up work there.
Sally's husband is awarded refugee status in Germany.
Sally, with her daughter, emigrates to Germany to join her husband. The war continues and Omar starts enquiring about academic positions in the UK.
In Germany, Sally gives birth to her second child, a girl called Maya.
After four years, Cynthia is finally granted a visa to visit her husband in Kuwait. During her visit, they arrange permanent residence for her. She has to return to Syria and then re-enter Kuwait for her status to take effect. To date, this is the last time Omar and Maha see their daughter in person.
After many email messages, Omar is put in touch with faculty at a British university. Toward the end of the year, after further correspondence, he is awarded a fellowship to travel to and work there.
In February, Omar and Maha arrive at the host university and find a rental apartment. One month later, Britain goes into lockdown due to the global Covid-19 pandemic.
Without access to the university laboratory, Omar is unable to conduct his research and by August his fellowship terminates. Omar and Maha face poverty and deal with depression, which is exacerbated by the compulsory isolation of lockdown. They draw on savings and generate some income by preparing and delivering Middle Eastern food to the doorstep.
Out of options, later in the month they take the difficult decision to apply for asylum in Britain. While they await a decision from the Home Office, they cannot work and face a period of severe financial strain relying on the last of their savings. One consolation is that Maha is entitled to healthcare.
Omar does a lot of voluntary charity work, both on the ground and in a managerial capacity. Here, he shows me positive outcomes of a recent knowledge transfer initiative. He and Maha also communicate with their family on a daily basis. Both their daughters have left Syria. One lives in Germany with her husband and two daughters, and the other is in Kuwait with her husband and young son.
There is still shrapnel in Maha’s back and she has developed several additional complications. The partial amputation of her foot has not healed. Omar is very attentive and helpful, but occasionally I could tell that, like Maha, he is still dealing with the damage.
Twelve months after their application, Omar and Maha are granted asylum in Britain. They become eligible for financial benefits and move into council housing. Their financial position is tight, but tenable. In Kuwait, Cynthia gives birth to Majd, their first grandson.
Maha continues to face problems with her health and is in and out of hospital. Omar volunteers with three charities that provide assistance to asylum seekers, refugees, and those experiencing poverty.
The Syrian Civil War continues, by now involving many domestic and foreign forces in varying configurations of allegiance and opposition to each other and the Syrian government. By the end of the year, the war has resulted in an estimated 5.5 million refugees1 and 306,887 civilians have been killed.2
Omar and Maha continue to adjust to their lives in Britain. Amongst other problems, Maha receives treatment for the wound on her foot that still has not healed, a new problem with her eyes, narrowing arteries in her legs, and dental damage sustained during the bombing ten years earlier.
Omar and Maha visit Sally and her family in Germany. Kuwait does not recognise Omar and Maha's British travel documents, so they cannot visit their youngest daughter Cynthia. She and her family, in turn, cannot travel to the UK from Kuwait on Syrian passports. Omar and Maha have yet to meet their grandson.
When he is not helping his wife or doing voluntary charity work, Omar tends to a vegetable garden that he has created behind their new home. At the end of the year, he joins the Board of Trustees for one of the charities he works with.
Omar is a cantor at liturgy on Sunday. He and Maha are members of a small parish of Orthodox Christians from very diverse backgrounds - the Lord’s prayer was recited in at least six languages when I visited. After service, the congregation often share a meal prepared by the parishioners. By embracing different culinary traditions, they bridge cultural differences.
‘Don’t Bomb Syria’ appeared on a wall close to my house around 2016. It is not far from Omar and Maha’s new home. At the time, Britain had just joined a coalition of allies for air attacks against the Syrian government. The war has since taken many turns, but the fighting continues. The message remains on the wall and, for me, it has taken on a new poignancy having seen and heard the personal tragedy of war.
- UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Operational Data Portal, Syria regional refugee response. Retrieved 14 November 2023.
- UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Behind the data: recording civilian casualties in Syria. Retrieved 14 November 2023.
This work was facilitated by Morecambe Bay Poverty Truth Commission.