It is mid-January and Damascus is not as cold as usual. Certainly the winter is at its height and the thermometre drops sharply after the daily Maghreb prayer, still the Syrian capital feels warm. Despite the chilly weather experienced during these days, every single person seems to be united by one cause: helping their brothers and sisters, victims of the terrible conflict in Gaza.
Palestine has always been present in the minds and hearts of the Syrian people, the hundreds of thousands of refugees living here are a solid reminder of the bonds that unite both nations. However, it is now more than ever, that Palestine makes itself present not only in Damascus but all over the country; especially through the "For the Children of Gaza" campaign. Launched by UNRWA in cooperation with a number of partners from the public, private and civil society sectors, the campaign aims to raise funds in support of the children of Gaza and to raise awareness amongst the children of Syria regarding the unnecessary violence and wasteful loss of lives.
"My heart weeps and my soul mourns by witnessing all this bloodshed" says Hussein al-Bab, a handsome 30-year old while holding the hand of his curly-haired blond daughter. "Today, as many others, I'm Palestinian" affirms, with a serious expression, the young Syrian entrepreneur after placing his donation for the campaign in one of the specially assigned boxes placed by UNRWA throughout Damascus, Dera'a, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, and Lattakia.
Officially announced on January 12th, following the First Ladies' Gaza initiative launched in Istanbul, and with the support of Syria's First Lady, Ms. Asma Al-Assad, the Campaign has reached schools, mosques, churches, shopping malls, public spaces and private homes through a massive effort supported by national media, the business community and the government.
"We (as artists, public persons and business people) are trying our best to highlight what's going on in Gaza and get involved in giving a hand to those in greatest need" asserts Jihad Abdo, a Syrian actor, who was involved in a widely publicized Telethon (aired on television and radio) on January 16th.
UNRWA is still estimating the funds required to meet the immediate needs of the people of Gaza, given the critical health conditions of the most vulnerable -women and children who are being cared for in desperately overstretched and undersupplied hospitals- and the imminent alimentary crisis. So far, the 'Children of Gaza’ campaign has raised over 60 million Syrian pounds (over US$ 1 million) a figure that is expected to grow over the next few days through a number of up-coming fund raising events, like a concert by renowned Lebanese singer Marcel Khalifa and a food festival organized at the Damascus Training Centre by a group of committed Syrian women.
Since the Campaign started, all levels of the Syrian society have been involved in one way or the other: embassies, banks, businesses and private and public institutions; civil organizations, and individuals; UNRWA staff and beneficiaries. Either by making donations or lending their time, volunteering or spreading the voice, raising awareness or promoting solidarity; everyone in Syria is taking part in what’s going on in Gaza.
"We know what they are going through and we can’t be indifferent to their suffering" says 11th grade student Haya Tawah, from al-Watimah Private School in Damascus. "Just thinking any of us could be in their place makes me feel I have to help in any possible way" confides me the fair and young girl who, along with a dozen school colleagues, volunteered to collect money for the Campaign at the Cham City Centre shopping mall, during a three-day support Gaza initiative, even though all of them are in their mid-year vacation period and could be doing something else with their time. "Right now I can’t think of doing anything else" concludes Haya with a smile, while greeting a long line of people willing to put their donations in the box she proudly carries around.
"The solidarity of the Syrian people with the Palestinians in Gaza has been clear from day one. This campaign is a response to this call from the Syrian people to express their support and love for the Palestinian People and their adherence to peace", declares Panos Moumtzis, UNRWA Director in Syria.
And peace is precisely what thousands of children stood for during a country wide stand up for Gaza organized at UNRWA schools on January 13th at the beginning of the campaign. "Peace means to go back to Palestine" affirmed cute 10-year old Dana Kalfie from Yarmouk Camp on that day. After donating 50 Syrian pounds (US$1) standing amid a silent crowd of little heads with signs that read the likes of "do not kill the happiness of children" and "we are all for Gaza".
The wishful thinking of little Dana might one day, inshalla, come true, but for the time being, in spite of the harsh winter, a wave of warmth washes over Damascus, bringing it closer to Palestine than ever before.
Text by Diego Gomez-Pickering
Photos by Pawel Krzysiek and Alexander Binek