'I Sold My Sister To Save The Family'

A young Syrian widow who lost her husband and four children to the civil war describes a miserable life in a Jordanian refugee camp - and a heartwrenching decision.

A woman at the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan
A woman at the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan
Annabell Van den Berghe

ZAATARI CAMP — Amani just turned 22. Two months ago she fled from the civil war in Syria and left her house in the capital of Damascus. After a dangerous nightlong trip, she arrived at Zaatari, the refugee camp just over the border in Jordan, where her parents and two sisters had already lived for more than a year. In Damascus she lived with her husband and five children, in an apartment in the old city center. Like many other Syrian girls, she got married when she was still a child. She had just turned 15 when she found the man of her dreams and decided to wed.

“In Syria, things are different,” Amani says. “Girls get married very early. It is a habit and a tradition. But it doesn’t mean we are all married off to strangers. I got to choose my husband and he got to choose me. We could never be more happy than when we were together.”

Five children later, the civil war broke out in the country that she loved for its uniqueness but disliked for its unfair policies and corrupt government. Living in the capital where the government of Bashar al-Assad was still in control did not make life easier for her and her family. Her husband took up arms from the first days of the armed revolt and began fighting with the Free Syrian Army. Soon, he became the leader of one of the biggest battalions fighting against the regime in Damascus.

Amani herself was also fighting with the rebels, despite the five children she had to look after.

“Women aren’t as strong as men, but sometimes they are more strategic. One can’t work without the other,” she says. But a deadly attack on their apartment building brought sorrow and sadness. Her husband and four of her children were killed on the same day.

Amani escaped and managed to save only her youngest daughter.

“When I heard the air jets of the regime approaching, I hid my little daughter underneath the sink of our kitchen,” she remembers. “She just fit in the small space between the sink and the garbage. She was just a baby. The other kids had run to their dad to seek protection. And I, in panic and to see what was going on, ran into the street. Seconds after reaching the street, I witnessed an explosion destroy the entire house. Within the debris I could only find my little baby.”

Retreat but no respite

After the tragedy, Amani decided to make the dangerous trip from Damascus to the refugee camp in Jordan, to protect her daughter’s life. But life in Zaatari has been anything but a respite.

“We are locked up like monkeys in a cage. The moment you walk in the camp, there is no way out anymore,” she says.

The camp is overpopulated. A sea of sails is spanned over 3.3 square kilometers and currently accommodates 150,000 refugees — three times the number that it was built for almost two years ago.

This artificial settlement, in the middle of a dry desert, is afflicted by sandstorms and disease. The little humanitarian aid that reaches the camp cannot help all the people who need it. Those who want bread or blankets to protect themselves against the bitter cold have to purchase them from the few individuals who receive this aid for free, but then sell them illegally. Some sell the aid because they are desperate for cash. Others are bored and regard it as the only way to fill their days. But what is clear is that an entire underground economy has taken root in the camp, making it even more difficult to properly organize aid. The struggle for food is fierce, and earning enough money to sustain a family is limited to the lucky few.

“I work seven days a week, for at least 10 hours a day, for an NGO that takes care of the smallest children here in the camp,” Amani says. “After working an entire week, I get three dollars. With an ill mother, an elderly father and a baby to take care of, this life was untenable. My older sister and her husband still have all their children, thank God, but this means five extra mouths to feed.”

Nourishing a family of 10 with only $3 quickly became infeasible. Amani brought her younger sister, Amara, to work at the same NGO. But even doubling the income was not enough to take care of all of them. There was only one way to get money quickly, a route that many families took before Amani, and that was to sell one of the girls. Amani married off her younger sister.

“It isn’t rare in Syria to marry at the age of 16,” she says. “Most Arab men are aware of this, and often come to Syria to find a young bride. These days, they come to find them at the camps, where almost everybody is desperate to leave. I have seen Jordanians, Egyptians and Saudis passing by the tents in search of a virgin to take along. They pay $300, and get the girl of their dreams in return.

“I didn’t have a choice. I knew she wasn’t in love, but I also knew that he would take care of her.” For a moment, she clams up and the room is filled with an awkward silence.

“I would have sold myself, but Amara was the only virgin in our family. We had to sell her, in order to allow the rest of us to survive. What else could I do?”

Amara was 14 when she married a Saudi who passed by their tent and asked her father for her hand. But that was after he had met Amani, who informed him of the family’s financial desperation and that her younger sister was still not married off. It was seemingly the only way to make it possible for the youngest sister to leave the camp, which is more like a prison than a home, and build a proper life. And with this marriage, Amani secured critical money for her family, at least for the time being.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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