Palestinians in Syria’s Yarmuk yearn for outside help

A man stands in a street near destroyed buildings in the Palestinian camp of Yarmuk southern Damascus on November 1, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 05 November 2018
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Palestinians in Syria’s Yarmuk yearn for outside help

  • Former residents of the Palestinian camp of Yarmuk are desperately counting on assistance from abroad to help raise the once-bustling neighborhood back out of the rubble
  • “We’ve lived through a terrifying nightmare,” said 46-year-old Amina, one of the camp’s very few remaining residents

YARMUK: After years of fighting, crippling siege and bombardment, what was once the Palestinian diaspora’s largest urban settlement in southern Damascus has been reduced to a sea of debris.
Former residents of the Palestinian camp of Yarmuk are desperately counting on assistance from abroad to help raise the once-bustling neighborhood back out of the rubble.
“We’ve lived through a terrifying nightmare,” said 46-year-old Amina, one of the camp’s very few remaining residents.
It “didn’t kill us, but now we need someone to rebuild the houses so our people and neighbors can return,” she said, wearing a long black robe and white headscarf.
In May this year, Syrian government and allied forces retook the neighborhood, which had for years been the Daesh militant group’s only bastion in the capital.
Five months on, it is a ghost town where bulldozers have carved wide passages through a sprawling jumble of concrete debris and mangled steel rods.
Foreign “countries need to help us because we’re like a cripple who needs a crutch to walk again,” Amina said.
Founded in 1957 with tents for Palestinians forced to leave their homes by the establishment of Israel, Yarmuk grew into a sprawling neighborhood of permanent structures that became home to 160,000 Palestinians, as well as Syrians.
In 2012, around 140,000 residents fled clashes, leaving the rest to face severe food shortages under government siege.
And three years later, Daesh militants entered the area, bringing further suffering to remaining residents.
Despite all this, dozens of families including Amina’s remained inside the camp, and others have since trickled back in.
A few children snake between the charred carcasses of buses and cars lining a street on their way to a school outside the camp.
In Amina’s street, one of the only roads in Yarmuk still inhabited, a recently returned neighbor has cobbled together a playground.
Abu Bilal has brought together swings, a small merry-go-round and a slide in an alley adorned with portraits of President Bashar Assad and late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
“I created this space so the neighborhood’s children could be happy,” said the 54-year-old, who now works sweeping streets recently cleared of rubble.
“What I do is not enough for people to come back, but I hope donor countries” will help, he said.
In September, bulldozers started to clear Yarmuk’s main roads of rubble, with funding from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and are expected to take another two months to finish clearing side streets.
“Rebuilding requires (foreign) countries and huge capital,” said Palestinian engineer Mahmud Khaled, a member of a committee overseeing the rubble clearing.
But Palestinian and UN officials say the camp’s future is still unclear, as Damascus has not yet given a green light for any re-building or officially allowed residents to return.
The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, says its 23 premises in the camp including 16 schools are damaged, but it will not fix any if the government does not officially allow residents to return.
“What is the future of the camp? Will the government allow people to go back or not?” UNRWA’s head in Syria, Mohammed Abdi Adar, said.
“Before we can do anything, we must get a clear answer,” he told AFP.
Even then finding funding would be tough, said the official, whose agency has been facing a funding crisis since the United States cut vital support.
“Many donors are saying they will not support the reconstruction in Syria,” Abdi Adar said, though he stressed the aim for UNRWA was simply to re-establish services.
Syria’s war has killed more than 360,000 people, displaced millions and ravaged large parts of the country since it started in 2011.
Regime ally Moscow has called for assistance in rebuilding Syria so millions of refugees can return.
In July, the government tasked the ministry of works to draw up new plans for Yarmuk, as well as other Damascus suburbs retaken from rebels and militants, sparking fears that the camp could fall under a controversial new law for redevelopment.
Under this law, if their land is part of a new development, owners inevitably lose their property but can apply for compensation if they can prove ownership.
Individual Palestinians and Syrians own property in 80 percent of the Yarmuk camp, while the remainder is owned by the Syrian state and managed by its authority for Palestinian affairs.
For now, Palestinian officials say the government has assured them that Yarmuk is under no threat. They are pushing for a 2004 plan to be followed for reconstruction.


Syrian refugees wade through their worst Lebanese winter

A child wades through flood waters at an informal tent settlement housing Syrian refugees following winter storms in the area of Delhamiyeh. (AFP)
Updated 18 January 2019
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Syrian refugees wade through their worst Lebanese winter

  • Aid organizations say they are doing their best to distribute emergency aid to the most vulnerable
  • The Litani River flooded many of the fields stretching across the two majestic mountain ranges flanking the Bekaa

DELHAMIYEH, Lebanon: Snowstorms and weeks of bad weather have turned Lebanon’s lush Bekaa Valley into an unliveable swamp for tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.

The Litani River flooded many of the fields stretching across the two majestic mountain ranges flanking the Bekaa after this year’s second major storm hit on Wednesday.

Some families had barely finished repairing their tents when the most severe winter they have faced yet unleashed another crushing night of snow, wind and flooding.

“We spent all night emptying the tent but the water kept coming in,” said Thaer Ibrahim Mohammed, a red and white headscarf wrapped around his head.

“This is the worst winter,” said the greying man.

Gaggles of children made the most of the afternoon sun and pulled rubber boots on their bare feet to romp in the camp’s sludgy alleys and have snowball fights.

The shelters in “Camp 040,” which lies on the edge of the village of Delhamiyeh and is one of the many informal settlements that dot the valley, are all the same.

They were erected on concrete slabs and their roofs are held down with used tires.

Their tarpaulin walls provide a flimsy protection against strong winds and freezing temperatures.

The camp looks like it could have sprung up just weeks earlier but many of its residents have lived there since 2012, when the Syrian conflict escalated.

Abu Ahmad, a native of Homs spending his seventh winter in Lebanon, said aid was inadequate.

“This year there was a lot of rain. But humanitarian organizations have reduced aid,” he said, standing on a brick placed as a stepping stone in a muddy puddle.

“You just need to look: Do you think this sheeting keeps us warm or keeps the water out? They gave us nothing, no new tarps, no firewood, nothing,” the young man said.

Aid organizations say they are doing their best to distribute emergency aid to the most vulnerable among the estimated 340,000 refugees living in the Bekaa Valley.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said close to 24,000 people were affected by extreme weather conditions.

Some tents were destroyed by the storms that elsewhere in Lebanon have cut the main road to Syria several times, flooded the highway north of Beirut and forced schools to close.

Relief agencies have had to relocate families who were left homeless, once again, in several feet of snow.

Fatima, a 20-year-old refugee originally from the main northern Syrian city of Aleppo, had to leave her tent with her family but opted to squeeze in with neighbors.

“The tent is totally flooded, we can’t live in it. So we took our things and left, what else can we do?”