Alia, 25, doesn’t want her children to go through life like this. For the past three years, the 25-year-old girl and her 12-year-old daughter, Walaa, have always left home at 7 a.m., walking two hours to the Tell Beydar landfill in northeastern Syria. They did not return until sunset, when the family was at home starving.
“I’ve always dreamed of my daughters getting an education, but now they’re just like their mother, unable to read or write,” Alia said. “People look down on us, calling us trash.”
After more than a decade of war, the United Nations estimates that 15.3 million Syrians fall into poverty and need humanitarian aid, four-fifths of which lack food.
For people like Alia and her daughter, the US military’s landfill is their only source of food. “We came to find meat, to find food because we were hungry,” said little Walaa.
Northeast Syria is currently controlled by the Kurds. The fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) group has devastated the local economy. Fierce wars, severe drought make Alia despair.
Alia’s husband used to work on a farm. But when he passed away 10 years ago, her family was in dire straits.
At the dump, the children rushed forward when a truck appeared. Digging through a pile of black trash bags, 15-year-old Amer found leftover pieces of chicken. He sucked on the excess bones, constantly digging through the trash.
“I’d go somewhere else if I had a job, but now there’s nothing,” Amer said.
In his teens, Amer was the sole breadwinner in a family of 11. Every day he earns about 3,000-5,000 Syrian pounds (about 1-2 USD) from selling plastic waste at the landfill, just enough to survive.
“Everything became difficult after the war. We couldn’t even afford bread,” he said.
Amer’s brother fought with US forces against IS in the area, but was recently injured while on patrol and was unable to earn enough to support his family. “Americans need to help us more,” Amer said.
In 2015, the US deployed troops in Syria to support the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the fight against IS. In 2019, the US and the SDF declared victory.
Vast swaths of farmland and oil fields in the northeast were once the country’s main source of income. But skyrocketing food prices, escalating security threats, a doubling of the population, and the influx of hundreds of thousands of people have increased poverty rates.
“What’s happening in the northeast is a consequence of worsening domestic conditions,” said the head of an NGO in charge of development projects in the region.
Many people are dependent on humanitarian aid, but it is difficult for them to access aid because of scarce funding and logistical constraints. Security threats also continually hinder development project funding plans.
In 2019, Turkey launched a military operation to repel the SDF, the coalition led by the People’s Protection Units The Kurds (YPG) took the lead, from a strip of territory along the border with Syria west of Tell Baydar. Ankara considers the YPG to be related to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey considers a terrorist. Ankara recently said that it was planning to carry out a similar operation. The risk of ISIS resurgence is also lurking in this area.
There are currently about 900 US troops in Syria to assist the Kurds in countering these threats. It is unclear how long the US bases will remain operational.
Meanwhile, the number of people looking to landfills in northeastern Syria is increasing. Children like Amer or Walaa spent their adolescence knowing nothing but war and despair.
“I wish we had some money so we could go to school and find a job, that’s all we wanted,” Amer said.