Who are Syrian refugees?

A woman with four young children in Lebanon

Before Syria plunged into years-long civil war, many families there led peaceful, happy and productive lives — they built homes, cared for gardens, looked after pets, attended school, established careers and dreamed of the future.

Today, these are distant memories for the majority of Syrians.

In four-plus years of conflict, many places that represented everyday life — bakeries, mosques, hospitals, homes, schools — have been reduced to rubble. Once-bustling markets and quiet, tree-lined streets are now battered and desolate.

And more than 4 million people have fled the violence, leaving everything behind in desperate pursuit of one thing: survival. READ MORE: What do they bring with them? ▸

As refugees, the familiar lives they once knew — as doctors, parents, students, carpenters or friends — have been replaced with the daily struggle to find shelter, food, water and safety for their families in foreign territory.

Who are these people whose lives have been turned upside down?

Below, get to know just a few people who’ve fled the war in Syria to find refuge in neighboring countries — and find out how we’re giving them the support they need to survive until they can go home again.


A man sits with his barber equipment laid out on the table in front of him
Photo: Sumaya Agha for Mercy Corps

Muhammad was a kindergarten teacher in Daraa, Syria before the conflict drove him across the border to Jordan’s Zaatari Refugee Camp.

He once cut hair as a hobby and way to spend time with friends, but he’s since stopped. The last person he gave a haircut to — his best friend — was killed in the war. Now Muhammed spends his time teaching students with disabilities in Mercy Corps’ resource room in Zaatari.


Houda, smiling
Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

Houda, 13, was an excellent student in Syria with lofty dreams for her future. When the conflict became too much to bear, her family fled to Lebanon — where they’ve resorted to using a cowshed as their temporary home.

“I haven’t been to school in over two years,” Houda told us. “I loved my school and I miss going to class and seeing friends.” She attends programs at one of Mercy Corps’ Child-Friendly Spaces, which provide play and psychosocial support for children who have endured trauma, but she hopes to return to school one day.

“I don’t know what the future will bring, but I have not lost my dream of becoming a doctor someday...or maybe an artist. I’m not sure yet.”


A woman and child in lebanon
Photo: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps

Mariam is a mother of four young children — she and her family have taken refuge at an informal tent settlement in Lebanon, where Mercy Corps provides water and sanitation support.

It’s been difficult for Mariam to adjust to the rudimentary living conditions, and she struggles to care for her family.

“We’re not living in good conditions. In Syria, I used to have a refrigerator and a washing machine and oven. Now I don’t have any of this,” she says. “We live on the basics. We went back to basics and we have nothing. Even when we have something, it’s not enough.” READ MORE: 8 important things Syrians have lost to four years of war ▸


Syrian refugee sitting next to heater in tent.
Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

25-year-old Zeena was a university student with great aspirations until violent clashes erupted around her home in Syria. She studied philosophy and law and planned to become a human rights lawyer, but those dreams were put on hold when her family was forced to flee to Arbat Transit Camp, a tent settlement in northern Iraq.

There, her studying was replaced with daily chores like cleaning the family’s living space, collecting water and taking care of her brothers.

But Zeena has since found a positive outlet for her energy in Mercy Corps’ conflict negotiation program. She underwent training to become an official negotiator in the camp, and now helps settle disputes between its growing number of residents.

Mahmoud & Amneh

A man, woman and young child in jordan
Photo: Sumaya Agha for Mercy Corps

Mahmoud and his wife Amneh have lived in Jordan for two years — their son Muhammed was even born there. They left Syria when they could no longer endure the hostility and lack of food.

“Before the crisis began, we lived in such a safe place. It was really safe for women and children to walk outside,” says Mahmoud. “I used to hang out with my friends after we worked hard in the olive orchards. Life was really good.”

Since they left Syria, their home and olive orchards have been destroyed by bombing. The young family now lives in a small house in a Jordanian host community, which Mercy Corps rehabilitated to make warmer and safer last winter. Life is hard as refugees, and they long to return to their home country.


A young boy in a black shirt in jordan
Photo: Sumaya Agha for Mercy Corps

In Syria, 10-year-old Omran had a fun-loving childhood: He went to school, played with friends and enjoyed helping his dad with his construction work. When the conflict uprooted his family and sent them to Jordan in search of safety — they now reside in Zaatari Refugee Camp — Omran became distraught and angry.

“I miss Syria and my home. I miss school and playing with my friends,” he says. “I miss swimming. I played soccer with my cousins and friends in the field behind our house. I miss my house and the graves of my two brothers the most.”

In Zaatari, Omran plays soccer every day through Mercy Corps’ sports therapy program, which uses sports to give refugee children the opportunity to make friends and cope with stress. “That’s the only thing that relieves me,” he says.

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