World Toilet Day: “They call me the latrine guy”

Osama AlGhssen is a civil engineer working with a CARE partner in southern Syria, where CARE is the only provider of latrines, building over 270 latrines for more than 5,000 displaced Syrians.

Before the war, Syria was a middle-income country with functioning schools, hospitals, industry. Communities were connected to public water supplies and sewage systems. It was not strange for homes to have multiple bathrooms. But today, after more than five years of conflict, with five million refugees having fled the country, there remain at least 6.5 million Syrians internally displaced – many having sought refuge in only a tent or collective shelter. Families who previously enjoyed modern sanitation, have been forced to flee, moving from one location to another. It’s a desperate situation for a people flung into the wilderness.

A year ago, I joined a Syrian humanitarian agency, partnering with CARE in response to the disastrous conditions the Syrian people face daily. We visit communities, assess their needs, and supply them with emergency latrine construction, water trucking and storage, hygiene kits.

If you could see the situation here, you would wonder how people are living. There is nothing, just people, existing in the worst conditions imaginable. There are no sanitation facilities. People are forced to use open areas to relieve themselves. There is no water. People depend on emergency aid, distributed irregularly by different agencies – sometimes a hygiene kit, sometimes food. These are circumstances that no person should have to endure. It is so difficult, especially for the women and children.

It is women who appreciate our work the most, largely because the lack of sanitation facilities affects them in particular. When we install a latrine or supply them with water, they are elated. Without a latrine, women must walk long distances to find privacy. They worry for their safety and security. In the south, in many areas where families have been displaced, the areas are wide open and flat. There is not a rock to hide behind.

In these situations, women often wait all day to relieve themselves, as night provides more privacy, but those with medical conditions suffer. Women in some communities set up a small tent using a tarp, but it is windy and these are easily blown over. It is humiliating for them – imagine, a woman who one day has her own home, a choice of bathrooms, and the next day she is squatting in the desert with nothing.

We build emergency latrines – they are not permanent, but they’re durable, made of steal and corrugated metal sheets. Each has a pit that acts as a small septic tank. These can last a family 6-12 months, depending on the soil. If a family needs to move, they canbring the latrine with them. This is essential when dealing with displaced communities, who may have to flee again if the conflict shifts course towards them.

At first, it wasn’t easy locating families in need. I would find 500 people scattered in one area, and another 500 displaced somewhere else. I visited camp after camp as I found them, assessing their needs, and establishing a plan. Now though, the people contact me. They call me the latrine guy. They find me on Whatsapp and they explain their situation.

Truthfully, I wish we could help everyone. We are the only latrine providers in the south – but our resources are limited. We strive to shine some light on this issue because it gets very little attention. I’m grateful to CARE because they recognized the need. We saw the desperation of people in the informal camps and collective centres. Their situation was appalling. When you think of people suffering the impacts of conflict, security is the obvious issue, but people don’t consider the importance of latrines, water, sanitation and hygiene. For people fleeing, that’s also part of their survival – it is essential.

Last week, I learned of another 1200 families who were living in dire conditions, especially now that it has started to rain. Many have placed their tents under trees, so they have some extra protection. We will respond to them as soon as possible, with hygiene kits and latrines, but each day, there are more people requesting help.

Truly there is nothing left to enjoy in southern Syria. If I can help CARE provide a family with a latrine, I have done my duty. While there may be a high demand for latrines and sanitation, what is really required is an end to this devastating war – this is the root of all the suffering. End the war – then we can rebuild, rehabilitate, restore. Our problems will be solved. Until that time, though, the solutions we’re providing now are only temporary answers for a much bigger problem.

Your support today helps CARE staff like Osama build latrines for people who have fled their homes.