It is 8 a.m. in the Khan Dunoun UNRWA collective shelter, 23 km south of Damascus. The shelter is home to Palestine refugee families who have been displaced as a result of the brutal six-year-long conflict, which has torn Syria apart. It is winter, when temperatures can drop below freezing. To stay warm, Ali Hussein plays football with the friends he has made living in the shelter.
Ali explains the difficulties of living in a shelter: “We live in a room with tiled walls, which makes the room colder during the winter. Once, when my sister came back from kindergarten, she cried because of the cold. I gave her my jacket and I went play outside to keep warm." Upon entering the cold room he shares with his mother and four siblings, he wraps himself in a thick blanket.
Speaking to Ali, it is hard to believe that he is only 12 years old. He has spent half his life only knowing the merciless conflict in Syria. When Ali lost his father, and he had to leave the comfort of his home, his friends and his relatives in Sbeineh camp, near Damascus, with his mother and his four brothers and sisters. The family found shelter in an UNRWA school in Khan Dunoun refugee camp, which has become a collective shelter for hundreds of displaced Palestine refugee families.
Al-Ariha school was transformed to accommodate the refugees. It is among the nine shelters UNRWA runs for about 800 families in different parts of the country. The classrooms were emptied of the usual chairs and desks and are now filled with mattresses and hanging sheets to attempt privacy for the families sharing the space. Even the schoolyard is filled with tents where families live, exposed to hot summers and cold winters.
Life in the collective shelter is not the only difficulty facing Ali’s family. Ali’s mother, who is now solely responsible for the family of six, is struggling to provide Ali and his siblings with food and clothing. The family relies entirely on UNRWA for food, education and medicine.
However, Ali has found, if not a remedy, a means to help him cope with his difficult situation: singing. “I often sing to try to forget the miserable situation,” Ali says, just before he starts singing a lively traditional Palestinian song.