Displaced Syrians flock to Damascus, choking apartment spaces

Friday 29/05/2015
A family takes refuge in a shelter home, in Al Halaja, south of Damascus.

Damascus - Syrians fleeing the hostile suburbs of the capital are thronging Damascus, chok­ing its apartment spaces and state-run shelters across the heavily fortified city.
Elsewhere, Syrians sought ref­uge in other relatively calm areas such as the western Mediterranean coastal cities of Latakia and Tartus as well as Sweida, on Syria’s south­ern border with Jordan.
Electricity Ministry clerk Sulei­man Jassim, 41, said he left his house in the southern Damascus suburb of Sidi Miqdad in 2013, flee­ing fighting between armed oppo­sition groups and the Syrian army.
“Now, I’m facing a dilemma,” Jassim told The Arab Weekly. “My rent in Damascus is 26,000 Syrian pounds ($113) per month and it’s eating up all my salary. I wanted to return to my house (in Sidi Miqdad) as I can’t afford the rent but the se­curity authorities won’t let me be­cause of the continuing skirmishes in nearby areas there.”
Syrian Prime Minister Wael Nad­er Halqi said there were 5.8 million Syrians displaced internally at the end of 2014. He said the number was 4 million in 2013; 2.9 million in 2012 and 1 million in 2011, months after the Syrian crisis began with peaceful demonstrations and later plunged into a bloody civil war to topple Syrian President Bashar As­sad.
In 2013, displaced Syrians flock­ing into the capital were seen sleeping in public parks and on the streets, catching the government off-guard. Since then, 147 shelters were established across Damascus, including 101 in public schools, government offices and charity centres, Waseem Dohni, a member of a state committee assisting the displaced, told The Arab Weekly.
Dohni said he did not have an immediate count of displaced in Damascus shelters but estimated that each centre was supporting 500-1,500 people.
He said hundreds of other shel­ters housing tens of thousands of Syrians were set up across the country.
There is no specific Syrian gov­ernment estimate of the number of displaced who have moved to Damascus, which along with its suburbs had a total population of about 4 million. In the past two years, many in the suburbs fled to Damascus proper. The displaced complain of overcrowding at the shelters.
Ayda Khatib, 44, said she stayed in a shelter for five months in 2013 but left it because it was “too con­gested and I and my five children were forced to share one room with another family”.
As a way out, the displaced who can afford to pay rent are sharing apartment space with one or two other families to cope with the ex­penses, said Adel Ibrahim, 55.
“I rented an apartment in Damas­cus, which came up to my monthly salary, therefore, I asked an in-law to move in with me so that we’d share the expenses,” Ibrahim told The Arab Weekly.
“Unfortunately, this meant los­ing our privacy and our peace of mind.”
Surprisingly, despite the influx on Damascus, apartment rents went up by only 5%, though the de­preciation of the Syrian pound and the insistence of some landlords to be paid in hard currency has added to the expense.
For example, a two-bedroom apartment that used to be leased for 25,000 Syrian pounds a month before the war is now being rented for 150,000 pounds, five times the average monthly wage of a school teacher or a government clerk.
The pre-war exchange rate of one US dollar was 46 Syrian pounds. Now, the prevailing rates are 230 in banks and 280 on the black market.
There are four relatively safe governorates in Syria: Damascus, Latakia, Tartus and Sweida. The re­maining ten are sites of fierce fight­ing between the armed opposition and Assad’s army, or violence by Islamic State (ISIS) militants. The presence of militants and armed groups in those areas poses a seri­ous challenge to those who fled at the outset of the war to return to their homes.
An Interior Ministry clerk who fled his home in Barzeh Balad north of Damascus more than two years ago said he can’t go back.
“The armed militias accused me of taking part in the killing of one of their members and I’m afraid that if I go back they will take re­venge on me,” the 39-year-old said. A 65-year-old retired army officer, who identified himself only as Yousef, said he will not go back to his home in Yalda in the southern Damascus suburbs.
“I am sure the armed militias will kill me and my children at first sight,” he told The Arab Weekly.
For a 27-year-old Syrian house­wife, being displaced meant mov­ing in with her in-laws and eventu­ally breaking up with her husband after a 9-year marriage.
“I never had any problems with them before but after we moved in all hell broke loose,” said the woman, who identified herself as Um Samer. “Soon afterwards I was divorced.”