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Prayers for rain in Syria dust bowl

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Hard life in Mjebre for Turkya and her family

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Mjebre, north-east Syria

For three years now Turkya has been waiting for the rain to come. For three years, not a drop has fallen from the sky.

In her remote village, called Mjebre, life has never been easy. But back in the days when fields of north-eastern Syria were green, she actually considered herself rich. Today, a dusty satellite dish is the only legacy of her family's vanished wealth.

"All my neighbours have left, and I would go too, but who wants me with my little children?" she asks.

In 1984, when Turkya's first child Marouf was born, life was good.

"We had 100 sheep and fields were green. By the time Sabrine was born in 2005, I had to borrow milk from my neighbours. But now my neighbours don't have anything either," Turkya says.

Too little, too late

Tall and slim, Turkya sits in the shade of her house, stroking the hair of her nine-year-old son Samer.

It is the first day of school, she tells me, but Samer has been turned away because he does not have the right clothes. The school uniform, which costs the equivalent of $11, is now way beyond Turkya's budget.

She is among more than a million people affected by the devastating effects of the worst drought that Syria has seen in decades. Many more people are suffering in Iraq, in Jordan, in parts of Turkey and Lebanon.

Why does the international community come in only when its too late? If we wait all we will find there are bones of those poor people.
Abdullah Bin Yehia, FAO Syria representative

"We had the best land in the whole of Syria, anything could grow here. Look at it now - it's dust," Turkya says.

Unable to farm, she has now sold all the sheep she owned and most of the family budget goes on buying drinking water. Food has to be rationed, lentils and pasta are the only things her children have eaten in months. Is it because of that, she wonders, that little Sabrine has been losing her hair?

"I am so tired," she keeps repeating.

The UN says poverty, malnutrition and disease are on the rise, and that aid is urgently needed to help the people of north-east Syria.

But, so far, there has been very little international response to the numerous appeals for aid that the UN has issued.

"Why does the international community come in only when its too late? If we wait all we will find there are bones of those poor people. Why don't we interfere early?" asks Abdullah Bin Yehia, the Syrian representative at the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization.

"If we act now, we will reduce suffering and the cost of the operation will be much less.

"To wait until the last minute, means that human cost will be high, financial cost will be high and, morally, it's just not right," Mr Bin Yehia says.

The UN and the Red Cross have provided very limited assistance, and the Syrian government has distributed food aid and introduced a system of tax breaks and new loans for farmers.

Water refugees

But none of it is enough, and the UN says the crisis is simply too big for any government to handle on its own.

Children in the north east of Syria
Children are often malnourished due to drought-related poverty

"We are really feeling the effect of the drought across the board," says Motha Najeeb Salloum, governor of Hasake province, which is the worst-hit area. "Poverty is spreading, children are dropping out of schools and people are leaving the region," he said.

An estimated 300,000 people have fled the growing desert. Most of them live in makeshift camps scattered around Syria, and especially near the capital Damascus.

Turkya's firstborn, Marouf, is among the growing number of water refugees. His new home is a tent pitched in the middle of a littered field, which he shares with his wife and two baby sons.

On a good day, when he can find work at a nearby farm, he manages to make $5 a day. Over the past year the family has managed to save $100. Marouf is hoping to buy a fridge for the house back in the village. He knows that he is maybe years away from achieving it.

Marouf says his family has received absolutely no help. In the winter, even though they wrap their tent in plastic, the cold is unbearable.

"I dream of returning to Mjebre, but we can't survive there," Marouf says.

Some 740km away from Marouf's tent, the sun sets over his native village. His little brothers and sisters gather in front of the battered television set, the only valuable thing their parents haven't sold yet. It stands as a symbol of their life before the drought.

Turkya says all she can now do is pray: "Pray for help, pray for the children, pray for the rain."



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