“Please turn down your voice when talking about Eid, we didn’t tell the children in Syria about the arriving feast,” reads a posting on Facebook by a Syrian resident of Damascus’ restive countryside, signaling the increased bearings of the war on everyday lives of civilians.
Worried about their families inside the country and struggling with hard living conditions, Syrian refugees and their children abroad are also finding it difficult to celebrate the Eid feast.
“To be honest, there is no Eid: my cousin and also my neighbour have martyred just two days ago,” Basel, 31, father of three from Damascus said.
Basel who now resides with his wife and three children, in addition to another five-member Syrian family, in a hotel in the northern city of Alexandria in Egypt, fled violence in Damascus in May leaving his family internally displaced. The UN said on October 18 that the number of Syrian refugees in Egypt is topping 150,000. Even though it admitted that only 4,500 have registered with its officials in Cairo.
The tragedy of the Syrian conflict has brought two Syrian families to live together in a two-room flat-styled hotel. As someone knocked on the door, children dash to see who the unexpected visitor might be – peering curiously with a little smile as if in anticipation of a relative’s visit announcing the start of the Eid celebrations.
Eid al-Adha is a public holiday in many Islamic countries, including Egypt and Syria. It commemorates the prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail in obedience to a command from God, as well as his son's acceptance to being sacrificed, before God intervened to provide Abraham with a sheep to sacrifice instead. It also marks the end of the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.
Traditionally Muslims celebrate the occasion by wearing new clothes – particularly children – and visit family members and friends. It starts with an early morning sermon in the mosque followed by prayer and a visit to the graveyards to pay homage to their dead family members and loved ones. Parents and relatives also give pocket money called Eidyieh for children to go out to play and buy toys and candies.
In addition, in line with the attempting sacrifice made by prophet Ibraham, many Muslims sacrifice (i.e. slaughter) animals, most commonly sheep and calves, and offer its meat to their extended families and poor people.
“If I didn’t go to Eid prayer and then to the graveyard and laid wreath on the grave of my father and grandfather, it wouldn’t count as Eid for me,” Basel said.
With the absence of the rituals of Eid, Basel now said that he puts an effort to smile at his three children who are between one and eight years old. “Even the smile has become a passerby in our life,” he said looking out of the corner of his eye at the Saudi-funded Al Arabyia news channel which was broadcasting scenes of destructions and disturbing images of death from Syria.
Basel had spent the past six months in Libya before arriving in Egypt just a week ago. He and his co-living family of his friend Ahmad were doing constructing work in Libya but they concluded that the country is “not livable”. They described scenes of remaining destructions marred to the lack of housing and limited work opportunities, which led them to leave for the country’s eastern neighbour Egypt.
“To be honest, in Libya all the work available is labour work and we are not used to this,” said Basel, who used to be a truck driver in Syria. He added that he used to earn more than enough money in his home country compared to now.
However, they are already finding it difficult to live in a country struggling with its own sluggish economy.
“I am looking for a job here that allows me to make ends meet,” said Ahmad.
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While the souks of Egypt are buzzing with shoppers and people busy installing children’s swings in a playground as a sign of the start of the four-day celebration, Syrian families don’t seem to share the happiness of their fellow Egyptians.
Whilst overwhelmed with their own needs to find a place to live and means for living, the two families are thinking of the Syrians they left behind.
“I am constantly thinking of my mother who I haven’t seen for a longtime, her image doesn’t leave my mind,” Aliaa, 25, a mother of three said.
She has lost two of her relatives: one was killed in a massacre in the countryside east of Damscus and the other went missing. For her, this Eid is very different: away from family and homeland.
“Every family in Syria has a tragedy now,” Basel said.
Perhaps this Eid is not only different for the adults but also for children who used to enjoy the spirit of social gatherings and playing during the Eid holiday.
“I miss my grandma,” said Aliaa’s 8-year old son Ahmad, who has lost two years of schooling due to the Syrian unrest – feeling embarrassed to speak further. Tucking a plastic pistol in his pocket, Ahmad is still affected by the memories of violence he witnessed in Syria. He doesn’t want to go back to Syria now “because there is a war.”
But the parents are waiting impatiently for the day they can go back to their country.
“I wish I could go back home tomorrow, I only fled for the sake of the children,” the 39 year-old Ahmad lamented. Aliaa agrees feeling bitter about her state as a refugee: “We have the right of return like the Palestinians,” she said half smiling.
The two families don’t seem to have the appetite to enjoy the Eid atmosphere or even feel it – as Ahmad puts it: there is “deep sadness and bitterness.”
Whilst Basel acknowledges that Egyptians are friendly towards Syrians, he doesn’t think that they can help (with living expenses).
“I sometimes leave home and stay out just because I know if my children or wife demanded something, I can’t buy it for them,” Basel said forcing a smile.
The families’ main concern now is not only how to manage living and working in Egypt or whether the children would celebrate Eid – it is more focused on the future of their prolonged crisis.
“We dread that the Syrian situation will remain as it is,” Basel said.