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Damascus report: “I’ve no choice but to stay”

Trócaire’s Niall O’Keeffe, Head of Region – Asia and Middle East, writes about a recent visit to Damascus in conflict-torn Syria.

hai hamdi family damascus

I met with the Hai Hamdi family who moved to Damascus in February 2016 from rural Kobani in the north of the country because of the conflict there. Pictured are: Badia Mhemeed, Taghreed (2 yrs old), Jihad (3), Maher (9), Mahmoud (6), Ahmar (17) and Talal (12).

As we approached Damascus, we see a sprawling city covered in a haze from the sun and 40 degrees heat. 

Ten kilometres from the city we are moving slowly through a security checkpoint into the city. The checkpoint gives a sense of security and a belief that at least explosive materials are not being smuggled into the war torn city.

As we get nearer the checkpoint, however, we see the driver of a van hand the military official a bottle of ice water and being waved through without a check.  We re-think our sense of security.

On the surface, there is a normality about the city. There is traffic on the streets, people go to work, and restaurants serve traditional Syrian dishes. 

In the evening our hosts proudly show us around historical sites such as the Straight Street, referenced in the Bible, and the Umayyad Mosque with a tomb purportedly to hold the remains of John the Baptist. 

But as we walk around, our hosts point to what looks like a repaired pothole and explains that a bomb fell there.  A damaged building is pointed out – glass in the front of the building is shattered and some of the structure is destroyed.  And our hosts tell of other buildings which have been hit by bombing and some have been repaired. 

“It’s good to repair things if possible, it makes things look normal” our hosts tell us. 

We hear bombing in the distance. “The first time a bomb fell, we all stayed indoors for a day or two,” we are told, “but the last time one fell, we were back on the street in 20 minutes.  We have become used to it over the years.” 

Syria has 7 million people who have moved to other parts of the country for safety reasons and Damascus is one of the safest areas.  In the southern suburb of Jaramana, project staff say that the suburb’s population has swelled from 500,000 pre-conflict to an estimated 1,500,000 now. 

It’s a dusty area, visibly poorer than the city centre with block after block of apartments.  

Families who have moved to areas like this have often gradually sold off most of their belongings in the hope of getting through to the end of the conflict.  

Eventually, a displaced family usually has no belongings, no assets, and simply seeks a safe place.  For families who have nothing, Jaramana is one of the most affordable options. 

The Hai Hamdi family moved to Damascus in February 2016.  They are from rural Kobani in northern Syria, near to the border with Turkey.  They were farmers and while they weren’t well off, they made a living from their land.  Conflict had hit their village on and off over the past few years and they had previously come to Damascus for safety, but found it difficult to survive and had returned home. 

They travelled to Damascus again in February and this time found a room and decided to stay.  

The conflict had destroyed their home in Kobani and they were no longer safe, but leaving had its own problems and involved making payments for smuggling – going to Turkey was more expensive than travelling to Damascus, and the journey with its various stops and negotiations took a month.

Their new home in Jaramana is a shell of a one room apartment, unfinished and with no windows installed.  They pay SP10,000 per month (less than €20).  

Their room is no protection from the elements – temperatures frequently reach over 40 degrees in summer and less than zero in winter – but it is safe relative to Kobani. 

The children are attending school locally and Shawakh Hai Hamdi has got labour work in the market which covers the rent and some of their food needs.  But they continue to be dependent on support from others to cover some basic needs and particularly for ‘additional’ items such school copy books, clothes and medical needs. 

As we talked to the Hai Hamdi family, I hear more bombing which seems a bit closer than other bombings.  I look out the window but nobody else takes any notice of it.  

Two days before our visit, the town of Darayya nearly 20km to the south of Damascus, was heavily bombed shortly after receiving humanitarian aid.  

The Government of Syria was responsible for the bombing.  

One day before our visit, there were two explosions in the southern suburb of Set Zaynab.  The ‘Islamic State’ claimed responsibility.  We ask people if these two sets of attacks mark a shift in the conflict in the areas around Damascus, or an advance in one direction or another.  But no, each attack was simply making a statement –“‘we are here and look at what we can do”.

As a visitor in a war torn country, unsure of your territory, you don’t discuss politics.  So we discuss what people’s hopes are for the future.  

“I’ve no choice but to stay” is a regular response and we learn if the choice is because of a lack of means or stubborn desire to stay in their home country. 

Others talk about waiting and seeing if the situation improves – they survived the heavy attacks in central Damascus last year so maybe things will improve.  

They have jobs and can sustain themselves and their families.  But there is little certainty and no optimistic discussion of new plans to be achieved.  

While visiting one of the project centres, a colleague of theirs from Aleppo turned up at the door – she had gone from being a staff member providing support to vulnerable people in Aleppo to now being displaced and looking for support.  In our discussions, there is some mention of hope, but it is a dream, an abstract with no clear pathway.

Back in Lebanon and talking to displaced Syrians there, they feel angry and cheated that they had to leave their country.  Why should anyone be put in a situation like those we spoke to in Damascus?  

Being a refugee might offer safety, but it too offers little hope.  Syrians in Lebanon hope to return home someday, but can’t see any clear pathway to that goal either. 

 I ask their opinions of the Syria peace process (facilitated by the UN).  They don’t describe the international community and the UN as poor facilitators of the peace process – they angrily describe them as abandoning the Syrian people and being motivated only by self interest. 

The international community needs to significantly increase efforts and find a solution to this senseless conflict.

Learn more about Trócaire’s work supporting those displaced by the conflict in Syria.

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