July 8 2013

Damascus – Eye witness to humanitarian need

“Children in Damascus have become so accustomed to the loud sounds of rocket fire and the sight of smoke rising in the distance, that they no longer take notice,” said Tommy Standún from SOS Children’s Villages. He is one of the few Europeans to witness the current reality facing displaced families as they prepare for Ramadan in the Syrian capital. The moment he visited the Hamza and Abbas Mosque, he heard a loud blast. Then he saw first-hand why humanitarian support is urgently needed.


Caring for the little one -"If this happened in Germany people would be very upset" @ T.Standun
Caring for the little one as rockets fire nearby  -"If this happened in Germany people would be very upset" @ T.Standun
In spite of the shattering noise created by a rocket that has just exploded within a kilometre of the mosque, a little girl does not let go of the toy doll she holds tightly. She simply smiles playfully at the foreigner who has just entered the courtyard. The sight of a European is a welcome distraction for her and the welcoming head of the mosque. He proceeds to show how some of Syria’s displaced people live in a place where goodwill is in plentiful supply, but resources are dwindling.  


For much of the past two years, the rooms normally used to teach the Koran, provide refuge to families who were forced to flee their homes. Mattresses cover the available floor space. Men and boys sleep in one room while women, girls and babies share a similar room at the opposite side of the mosque. "Retaining a sense of dignity is important", explains Rasha Akim from SOS Children's Villages Syria. On our tour of the mosque she shows how displaced families are are house-proud and show gratitude for the support they receive. Without exception every individual keeps their respective living area immaculate.

Out of reach – milk and school
In a small kitchen volunteers prepare up to 500 meals every day on equipment supplied free of charge by the local community. They cater not only for the families who have been living here for months, but also for a rising number people who have come to the area in a desperate search of food.  The price of infant milk and staple foods is now out of reach for many. They share a similar fate with over two million people displaced in Syria today.
Meanwhile, the release of another rocket is clearly audible in the distance as tempers flare in a corner of the mosque. Men can be heard arguing. Their stress is a by-product of their confinement here.  The disagreement is not a political one, but rather a trivial matter relating to the use of the mosques limited toilet facilities by someone who simply wandered in from the street.


Back to school? Her hopes of becoming a teacher have been dashed as she could only attend school for a month this year.
Back to school? Despite her best efforts after being displaced by the war, Byan only managed one month at school this year.@ T. Standun
The issue is peacefully resolved as a despondent looking ten year-old girl looks on. Byan, tells us that her hopes of becoming a teacher have today been dashed. She has just received the results of her fourth grade exams; she failed. Like all Syrians, her parents understand and appreciate the benefits of a good education. Despite their best efforts, they are deeply saddened that their bright daughter could only manage to attend school for one month in the past year. Holding her one-year-old baby in her arms, her mother dearly hopes that Byan can catch up in September. She and three other siblings pray that they can resume their education. They fear that they could be further disrupted if the authorities are forced to convert more schools into shelters for more displaced families.


SOS Children’s Villages supports the good work of volunteers
“Approaching the holy month of Ramadan, the resources of the local community are dwindling and the cost of meat and other commodities is rising rapidly. SOS Children’s Villages supports the good work of volunteers by providing food and other goods. But, much more is urgently needed to help care for children and keep families together during Ramadan, and thereafter,” said Rasha Muhrez. The Syrian, now spearheading SOS Children’s Villages’ emergency response, is grappling to deal with spiralling inflation in a city where people have learned to adapt to an environment that appears far from normal to an outsider.   


Volunteers prepare for Ramadan - They need support to cater for 2.25m internally displaced people in Syria @ T. Standun
Volunteers prepare for Ramadan - They need support to cater for 2.25m internally displaced people in Syria @ T. Standun
Twenty minutes into my visit another explosion.  Rani Rahmo says this is totally normal here. The National Director of SOS Children’s Villages Syria has always kept his ear to the ground. By doing so he has ensured the safety of the children, youths and mothers from the children’s villages in Aleppo and Damascus. “You too will get accustomed to the sound of rockets within two days,” he tells me. “I run while munitions fly above my head – I am used to it.  Everyone is used to it. Look at the children, they show no fear, this is totally normal.  Look at the little one, she is not in the least bit nervous.  If this happened in Germany people would be very upset.”  


As we left the mosque he pointed across the bustling street which stands on the government held area of Damascus. “A month ago heavy fighting took place on the street over there. Tanks were destroyed and soldiers died. I was very close to it, I witnessed it.  Because this is a mosque both sides generally refrain from attacking it. But, it could happen that a rocket could accidently hit this place; something that has happened elsewhere. A mosque, school and houses have been hit. The buildings collapsed on the people,” he said.
Families on every side of the firing line who are lucky enough to survive the on-going conflict share much in common. They need immediate humanitarian support from those who can afford to give it.