The images and reports from Ukraine triggered painful memories for many Syrians, who recently commemorated the 11th anniversary of the Syrian uprising. What began in March 2011 as a peaceful protest quickly became the decade-plus-long Syrian civil war, in which Russia intervened with the exact same military technics and committed similar war crimes against civilians.
In Lebanon too, it brought back painful memories from the times of the civil war. Salam, who knew the war as a child, remembers:
“When I saw the videos of all these families fleeing with their children, it reminded me of what we went through during the Lebanese civil war and how much we suffered. I had flashbacks of my father and our family fleeing in our car.“
Our sympathy also goes for the families in Russia who will be directly affected by the crisis. Those who are being detained for protesting the war, but also those who are already vulnerable and will likely be disproportionally affected by the international sanctions against Russia. Layal, a Syrian woman we work with in Syria, explains how international sanctions impacted civilians in her country:
“The sanctions only made it worse for civilians. They made people weaker and more vulnerable as they affected every single detail of their lives. They created unemployment and shortages of the people’s most basic needs, as well as strong inflation. Civilians are always the ones paying the highest price.“
The conflict in Ukraine is already worsening the humanitarian needs in our region. It started to deepen the food crisis we have been going through, as both Ukraine and Russia are leading exporters of agricultural products to the region, such as sunflower oil and wheat, and disruptions related to the war are exacerbating already-rising food prices and deepening poverty.
In Lebanon, more than 80% of the Lebanese population has been plunged into poverty in the past two years and bread and other grain products make up 35% of the population’s caloric intake. In 2020, about 80% of the country’s total wheat imports came from Ukraine, and another 15% from Russia. The central bank, which has been subsidizing the purchase of wheat by private importers, is now on the verge on bankruptcy, prompting fears of shortages and increased prices, in a country where the costs of food already increased by 2,076% between 2018 and 2021. As a consequence, Lebanon started rationing wheat, only allowing it to be used for bread, and people have started stockpiling wheat and yeast, as well as sunflower oil.
Syria has been suffering from severe wheat shortages for years because of a debilitating economic crisis and the destruction of infrastructure due to a decade of armed conflict. Today, a staggering 13.4 million people is food insecure. With its highly insufficient domestic production of wheat, Syria primarily relied on Russia to close the shortfall. But this deal is now suspended, and the Syrian government issued austerity measures to mitigate the economic ramifications of the conflict in Ukraine, such as fuel price increases and shortages of essential foodstuffs and other commodities.
In both countries, the global increase of oil prices will have a catastrophic impact on the cost of fuel, which has already increased more than 10 times in a year. It will have a knock-on effect on prices of all goods and services, driving further inflation. This situation raises concerns on instability in the currency markets and will accelerate the reduction of Lebanon’s current foreign exchange reserves, in turn risking a broader collapse.
Last but not least, there is a growing concern that the Ukrainian conflict will place pressure on global humanitarian and development assistance budgets, as many countries scale up support for Ukraine. Much of the media coverage is now on the Ukrainian crisis and that is what people may continue to massively support in the coming months, possibly to the detriment of other long-term crises such as Syria and now Lebanon.
Despite all these concerns, we keep our eyes fixed on God, praying that He would put an end to this war and be a very present help to those afflicted by it, near or far. Samar, another woman we work with in Syria, shares her own experience as a war survivor and her prayer for the people of Ukraine:
We don’t wish to anyone what we have been through as Syrians, and we feel so sorry for the Ukrainian people. War in any country is always a disaster. I pray that God gives them all the strength they need because I know how much they are suffering right now. I pray that their suffering doesn’t last as long as ours. It has been 11 years for us, and I can’t say that we got used to it, but we definitely grew much stronger in the process. God stayed by our side and helped us keep going, also sending help through organizations like yours so we can stand on our two feet.
Russia’s Ukraine war builds on tactics it used in Syria, experts say; The Washington Post, March 31,2022
Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Exacerbates Hunger in Middle East, North Africa, Human Rights Watch, March 21, 2022
Lebanon expects food security problems ‘within a month or two’, The National News, March 11, 2022
Russia’s War in Ukraine Will Also Hurt Syria, The Century Foundation, April 5, 2022
Ukraine crisis likely to render many more Lebanon residents dependent on humanitarian assistance, L’Orient le Jour, March 24, 2022
Flash Update: Humanitarian Impact of Ukraine Conflict on Lebanon, Relief Web, March 2022
How war in Ukraine is affecting food supply in Africa and the Middle East, The Guardian, April 2, 2022