DAMASCUS, Syria, 27 July 2012 – These have been difficult times for everyone in Damascus. Thousands of people have had to leave their homes to seek refuge in safer areas, often in schools and mosques. Report by Razan Rashidi
By the weekend, dozens of schools in and around Damascus were full of displaced families.
Volunteers from local communities and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) are working day and night to provide assistance to this population. Ordinary people have formed rescue and relief teams in neighbourhoods hosting the displaced. UNICEF and other international organizations are, in turn, working to support SARC and these local partners.
Young people are particularly involved. Some of them have braved the violence to seek out those in need of a place to stay, and taking them to the schools and mosques serving as shelters.
At one of these places, I met Oum Mustafa. She told me that after her family fled their home on Wednesday, they spent the night in a public park. “The next day, some young people escorted us to a school,” she told me. “I am so fortunate that my three girls and little baby boy are with me, and my sister-in-law’s family as well.”
Another woman sheltering in the school looked at her 9-year-old daughter sleeping on a thin mattress on the floor. “I am glad she’s asleep,” she said. “You know, we haven’t slept for the past three nights because the sound of shelling and helicopters were so loud it was as if they were in our house”.
Some of the schools now sheltering families are ones that have received UNICEF support in the past. A colleague visited one classroom where displaced people are now living and noticed the pink door and paintings on the walls – telltale signs that it was part of the network of ‘child-friendly’ schools UNICEF has supported over the past year.
Some people have even taken displaced families into their own homes. One woman, Manal, who has two children, has been hosting her extended family from Homs for the past three months. The other night, they all had to relocate, taking refuge in a school.
Such generosity is becoming harder to sustain. Many shops are closed, so it is difficult for local residents to buy enough food and other basics to meet their own needs, let alone those of their guests.
Conditions in the schools are not easy. In one school in Masaken Barzeh, around 600 people are using just seven small toilets. The new residents do their best to keep the school clean, but they need cleaning supplies and awareness-raising about the importance of proper hygiene. UNICEF is helping by supplying hygiene kits that contain detergents, shampoos, sanitary napkins, soap, towels and other personal hygiene items.
Sometimes the children themselves are stepping into the gap. I came across 14 year-old Maya. She had been relocated twice along with seven other family members and calls herself a ‘hygiene expert’. Volunteers were so impressed with her knowledge that it was agreed that Naya would be the school’s focal point for hygiene awareness. Naya promised to spend her free time going around telling other children how important it is to flush the toilet and to clean the bathroom every time they use it. “Younger kids listen to me, but I’m not sure about the grown-ups,” Naya said, laughing.
Another problem is keeping the children occupied; it has been too hot to play in the yard and there has been nothing to play with. UNICEF, through its local partners and SARC, is providing the schools with recreational kits and sports kits to help children cope.