UNRWA mobile health clinic brings a sign of hope to the devastated Yarmouk camp

11 January 2021
Ninety-year-old Kadraa al-Mawed (left), a returnee to the Yarmouk Palestine refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus, receives some medical attention from an UNRWA medical worker at the UNRWA Mobile Clinic. © 2020 UNRWA Photo

“I had tears in my eyes when I heard that UNRWA started returning services to my camp. I had to flee from Palestine as a young woman in 1948, to Lebanon first, and then to Syria. Before, I lived a beautiful life in Saffuriya, close to Nazareth, and I still remember the smells and the colours of all the orange and olive groves.

Yarmouk then became a second home for me, and UNRWA part of my life. When the war started, I felt like every bomb, every explosion took away some hope. I was devastated when I saw Yarmouk in ruins, not even a shadow of the vibrant camp it was before. All that was left was rubble, shells of buildings that look like ghosts during the night. My family was torn apart, most of them fled the country. But I didn’t want to leave. I refuse to move again, unless it is back to my homeland. I will die here or in Palestine. And I live with my memories.”

Ninety-year-old Khadraa Mohammad al-Mawed, known as Hajjeh Umm Subhi, is the oldest member of one of the approximately 430 families currently living in the camp. Many of them returned because they cannot afford increasing rents anymore. Living conditions inside Yarmouk are however still incredibly difficult, with no services available until very recently.

UNRWA, in an effort to offer services to particularly vulnerable persons in Yarmouk, has worked closely with the General Authority for Palestine Arab Refugees (GAPAR) to resume essential primary health care and disease prevention in Yarmouk. As of 23 September, a mobile health clinic – one of the Agency’s 25 primary health-care facilities across Syria - is visiting the camp every Wednesday to provide services from the yard of one of the destroyed UNRWA schools.    “I am very excited to see the clinic. UNRWA already provides transportation for the children so they can go to school. I hope they will soon be able to go to a school in the camp, and that we will have a real clinic. But this is a beginning, it makes us feel that we are not forgotten. And I don’t have to pay expensive transportation fees anymore to get my checkups and medical care outside the camp. It was also very tiring for me,” Umm Subhi said. She suffers from diabetes, coronary heart disease and joint pains. With the needed health services now close to her home, she is also better protected from COVID-19 and doesn’t have to take unnecessary risks by using public transportation. “We also received food, blankets and kitchen utensils from UNRWA some weeks ago, for the first time in many years the distribution took place inside the camp,” she added, with a smile on her face.

“We were able to treat about 900 patients over the past weeks in our clinic. Every Wednesday, we can receive an average of 65 patients, many of them with chronic diseases and respiratory infections,” says Dr. Imad Hamdan, an UNRWA doctor who works in the clinic.“I think many older persons avoided seeking health care before, as it was too difficult to access. It is heartbreaking to see the conditions they are living in and it makes us very happy to see their sparkling eyes when they come to us. It means a lot to them, not only to get health care, but also just to be able to talk. We are like a family to them. It is a tiny bit of normality that came back. We also believe that sometimes symptoms they show are triggered by fear and stress, after the horrors and atrocities they went through.”

Dr. Hamdan also highlighted the important role the clinic plays in awareness-raising and explaining preventative measures to avoid the spread of COVID-19 in the camp. “It would be a catastrophe here, people in Yarmouk cannot bear any additional burden,” he said. “What they need now is hope. Life needs to return to Yarmouk camp, I feel that our clinic is a start of this.”

Before the beginning of the conflict in March 2011, Yarmouk was home to approximately 160,000 Palestine refugees, making it the largest Palestine refugee community in Syria. Located eight kilometers from Damascus, it had a symbolic value for the Palestinian diaspora.

In December 2012, fierce clashes erupted in Yarmouk, causing numerous civilian casualties, severe damage to property and the displacement of thousands of Palestine refugees and Syrians. The camp was under siege from July 2013, drastically restricting the entry of commercial and humanitarian goods. In January 2014, UNRWA had access to Yarmouk and conducted direct distribution to besieged Palestine refugees. The Agency continued distribution until April 2015, when armed opposition groups captured over 60 per cent of the camp, containing over 90 per cent of the remaining civilian population. This not only made UNRWA unable to carry out any distributions inside Yarmouk but also displaced most of the remaining 18,000 Palestine refugees and other civilians to the neighbouring areas of Yalda, Babila and Beit Saham (YBB).

Later in 2015, UNRWA managed to access the remaining 6,000 Palestine refugees in Yarmouk and YBB through cross-border missions to Yalda and continued until May 2016 when access was blocked. Almost all the remaining Palestine refugees left during the final government offensive for Yarmouk in April-May 2018, after which the government retook control of the camp left in ruins.

Due to the Agency’s unprecedented financial crisis, critical health-care services like those extended to the returned Palestine refugees in Yarmouk are now in jeopardy, putting #PalestineRefugeesAtRisk.