Inside Emergency Damascene Shelters
by FRANKLIN LAMB
Al Zahera neighborhood, south Damascus
This brief update is not focused on the deteriorating and very grave conditions of Palestinians and Syrians that are displaced or trapped inside dangerous areas of Damascus--areas this observer had been visiting, including some of the 24 Damascus public schools now used as shelters.
Rather, it seeks to highlight the spirit of solidarity, resistance, and good will among Palestinians, forced from Yarmouk and other Syrian refugee camps, and of how they huddle together preparing for a harsh winter, a winter which one senses is not far off.
This is not to say that every shelter is a fragile social experience for Internally Displaced Persons, or IDPs as aid agencies refer to them. In these schools, doubling as shelters, there is no matzot (oil) available to fuel their furnaces. Thus "high-thermal" blankets, warm clothing, shoes, knitted caps for kids--all of these are in demand.
Fortunately there has been continuing cooperation between the Syrian government's Ministry of Education and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The latter has converted many of the schools into emergency shelters, while the former has scheduled double classroom shifts, offering youngsters the 7 a.m. to noon slot followed by a second shift from noon to 5 p.m.
Prior to the armed conflict in Syria, Yarmouk, located in a suburb south of Damascus, was home to more than 160,000 Palestinian refugees. Since December 2012, at least 140,000 Palestine refugees have fled their homes there as armed opposition groups established a presence inside the camp, while government forces maintained control of the periphery. Up until June 2013, civilians were still able to access UNRWA assistance at the Zahera entrance to Yarmouk. However, since July, thousands of Palestinian refugees have been trapped in the area with little or no freedom of movement.
In south Damascus, near Yarmouk, are four school-shelters, with an additional eight in neighboring al-Vahra, some of which this observer has visited. "The Fayadeen" elementary school currently houses 56 families, totaling 260 people, and includes a clean and very large make-shift kitchen. Here approximately half a dozen families are secluded together. NGOs and the Syrian government deliver emergency food packages, most of which are designed to feed a family of five for 15 days. There is also a high level of sanitation facilities and clean latrines, as well as a heavy-duty Italian washing machine, donated by a Palestinian businessman, which is shared by all. Three times a week medical teams arrive to administer free government health care. Unfortunately, US sanctions have cut off some urgently needed medicines, especially for cancer patients, and in some cases where weekly pharmaceutical doses are required, often only monthly doses are available.
Shelter rules are strictly enforced. For example, if a family does not enroll their 6-15-year-old children in local schools they are evicted. This observer was briefed and shown around by two Syrian pro-basketball players, Hani and Mohamad, who have placed their careers and family life on hold to manage four school shelters in south Damascus.
Several Palestinians in the shelters asked this observer for news about their countrymen still trapped in Yarmouk camp. Concern is rife due to reports of desperate need for humanitarian assistance. Also, despite promises of "humanitarian corridors" to be opened, and despite numerous UNRWA appeals and attempts to achieve such openings, 32,000 Palestinian civilians remain trapped in Yarmouk with, as mentioned above, little to no freedom of movement, and without access to humanitarian assistance. It is a daily struggle in which they live under continuous threat of injury or death due to the armed conflict. Psychological trauma, malnutrition and a lack of health care are all taking their toll. The UN Security Council's Presidential Statement on the Syrian humanitarian crises, adopted 2 October, 2013, stipulates that all parties should grant full humanitarian access and "compliance with their obligations under international humanitarian law." But the problem, as ever, is implementing it.
Hope among the 100,000-plus refugees displaced from Yarmouk camp rises and falls with conflicting announcements concerning whether or not the militia will leave the camps to civilian Palestinian administration. Just this week a settlement, supposedly reached after intense negotiations mediated by the PLO and aimed at ending the fighting in Yarmouk, collapsed after opposition fighters close to Hamas insisted that they be included among the groups that will manage the camp affairs. PLO officials had arrived at a preliminary agreement with various Palestinian factions and opposition armed groups that would lead to a ceasefire, but had excluded Hamas and the PFLP-General Command led by Ahmed Jabril. Within 72 hours another proposal was announced, this on November 22. Under the terms of this "agreement" Palestinian Popular Struggle Front leader Khaled Abdul Majid announced that the armed groups in Yarmouk, aka the"Palestinian Resistance Alliance factions," would be withdrawing "very soon". In statements to Al-Watan, Abdul Majid said:
"What is happening in Yarmouk is that most of the armed factions have reestablished contact with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- General Command, as well as factions of the Palestine Resistance Alliance, after the initiative of the Palestine Liberation Organization (to solve the camp's crisis) failed. These factions thus expressed their willingness to regulate their situation, handle the issue and withdraw from the camp."
He added that the discussions with these groups were conducted via mediators, or in some cases through direct contact.
Since November 17, this observer has witnessed almost complete calm prevail over the camp as services teams from the Palestine Aid Committee have cleaned its streets--and while some refugees are hopeful, most expressed pessimism in interviews with this observer that the latest initiative will be any more successful than the previous dozen or so. The coming days will provide the answer.
Palpable fear is also evident because a fast approaching winter is setting in and there are predictions it will be especially harsh--not a happy prospect for the 250 camps in the nearby Bekaa valley, where one finds plastic walls, roofs and make-shift tents. These camps are shared by Syrian and Palestinian refugees, and 25 of them are particularly flood-prone.
Our brother and sisters' keeper"
Hopefully subsequent updates on conditions in Syria will allow for more detail regarding examples of Palestinians engaged in self-help community projects. The example provided by one wonderful family comes especially to mind. Presently living at the "Aaher al Jazari" public school shelter is the Khalid al Jrahi family, of Haifa. Mr. al Jrahi granted permission to this observer to use his name because he wants relatives and friends with whom he has lost contact to know that they are all still alive. The al Jrahis are a spectacular family that includes five teenagers-to-early 20s--three girls and two boys. What deeply impressed this observer are the spirit, charm, and dedication among these sisters to helping others among the approximately 260 refugees sharing the school, this while eschewing complaints about their own plight. The Al Jrahi family lives in a space probably ten feet wide and 20 feet long. Foam mattresses are neatly stacked along the walls while pillows and clothing are observable in the corner. Along one side of the room runs a clothes line--walled in by a UNHCR white and blue lettered plastic tarp that separates them from their neighbors. Shocking? Yes, but inspiring certainly. The girls, whose English is quite good, explained why and how they set up a school for pre-K's, both here at Aaher al Jazari as well as at another shelter. And how organized it all is! They displayed for me the "teaching manual' they had written, explaining how they run their schools, with pencils, crayons and notebooks donated by Palestinian NGO's and foreign visitors.
We did not discuss politics, but two of the sisters remind me of Jane Austen's characters Eleanor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. Hala is the serious, reserved one, the eldest of the daughters, and it is she who is in charge of the lesson plans for the shelter's "sisters' school." Hala carefully instructs her younger impetuous sister, Zeina, about school rules for the children, trying to keep her sister focused, though pausing occasionally and proudly opening for this observer's inspection her own English grammar notes that she had compiled from a tattered UNWRA grammar book. Pointing to her perfect cursive hand-written notes, she asks me about "present participles", "dangling modifiers" and "past perfect tense"! When I last heard these terms it was half a century ago, and I have no idea what they even mean-- if I ever did, which itself is questionable.
Zeina, on the other hand, is 100 percent Austen's character Marianne. She refuses to check her emotions and dramatically insists that she is ready to return to Yarmouk "despite the dangers, even if I am killed going back home!" Her mother, Fatima, grimaces, while Hala is disapproving, in turn, when Zeina proposes outdoor lessons for the children--in tree climbing as well as dancing in the street--so that they "can properly express themselves under the sky."
Rather wistful and not wanting to depart from either the family or the shelter, this observer and his companion nonetheless took our leave, wondering if Ms. Sense or Ms. Sensibility would triumph and if these two remarkable sisters would continue to balance one another out as they serve their fellow countrymen in emergency shelters. We have a strong suspicion they will.