Doing the Math in Damascus

01 July 2014
Doing the Math in DamascusDoing the Math in DamascusDoing the Math in DamascusDoing the Math in DamascusDoing the Math in Damascus


Asma al-Salal, 42, puts it simply: "My family's needs are beyond my ability to cope." A Palestine refugee from Syria, she fled besieged Yarmouk last year to seek shelter in Jaramana camp. Widowed, she depends on the help of her siblings to support her divorced daughter, her son and his two children. "Without a steady source of income for my son, and his two children to feed, and the payment of SYP 30,000 monthly rent for our house, life is unbearable", she says. Meat is now an unaffordable luxury, and the family is depending on what Asma calls "handouts", like cash and in-kind assistance from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

Asma's story is not unusual, reflecting the deep need for UNRWA support among Palestine refugees and the immense scale of the demand. It's particularly acute for people like 45-year-old Widad Mohammad Rayan, who, as one of the poorest of the poor, receives quarterly assistance from the UNRWA social safety net. After losing her husband to a violent incident in Yarmouk, she is now the breadwinner for herself and her two children, but depends on the help of her neighbours in the collective shelter in the al-Bashir kindergarten, at the entrance of the camp. Cash assistance, she says, "will help me survive with my children in these difficult conditions of displacement and hardship."

For Palestine refugees like these, everyday life has become about calculation, trying to find a way to stretch resources that seem more and more limited to meet needs that only increase. Nizar Juma'at, who has been displaced three times in his journey from Yalda, in the Damascus countryside, to the city's Rukn Eddin area, now shares an apartment with his brothers. They have no furniture. "It's quite frustrating and depressing for us to find sources to cover the rental of our house and provide food for our family", he says. Assistance from UNRWA is helpful, "but food prices have risen and the rentals are skyrocketing since the crisis started". He'd like to receive assistance on a monthly basis, which would help pay the rent on time. Meat, too, only comes once a month - "I cannot afford it frequently", he says, "and we have to battle hunger from time to time."

In all these calculations, displaced Palestine refugees have a goal in mind. As Abdul Qader Za'balawi, who fled al-Mlaiha village for a rented house in Damascus's al-Tijara area, says, "We are doing our best to meet the growing needs of our children." He now works as a labourer in a towel store.

"Nothing is worse than not knowing where your children's next meal will come from", says Manal Hasan al-Hajjeh, who, with her husband and their four children, fled Yarmouk for the Martyr Children School in 'Adra, Damascus. "UNRWA assistance comes in times of need, but it is not sufficient", she and her husband add.

Unfortunately, it's becoming very hard for parents to protect their children. Manal says hers have become more aggressive, and are failing in their classes. Traumatized, they need psychosocial support, which is out of reach - in remote 'Adra, even groceries are far away, and on one journey, the driver of Manal's taxi was shot by a sniper. Most of the passengers died when the taxi overturned; Manal was one of the lucky ones, only receiving injuries.

She worries most about her children, however. "They have experienced displacement and military operations, and the long effects of the ongoing conflict worry us", she says. She and her husband are trying to get through each day, keeping hope for the future alive. "My daughter's wish is to have a house and refrigerator", Manal says, "instead of a doll."

Since the start of 2014, UNRWA has distributed 165,153 food parcels and provided cash assistance to 104,567 families in Syria. In Yarmouk, only 350 food parcels have been permitted to enter since 14 May.