This was the response of Al-Hajj Abu Marwan – an inhabitant of Khan Al-Sheikh refugee camp – when he was offered taking part in a course for local community development, sponsored by those responsible for the drinking water and sewerage project in the camp; an undertaking funded by the European Union. However, those in charge of this project assured Al-Hajj that what they were doing was in no way contrary to the refugee’s right to return to their homes.

55 years had passed since the refugees came here. The observer from a distance may well believe that people had grown accustomed to this life and had forgotten their villages from which they had been expelled, and welcomed anything presented to them that improved their life, at whatever price. However the response of this old man aged over sixty, who had suffered the ordeal of living in the refugee camp for such a long time, without the most basic of life’s necessities; drinking water and sewerage. Moreover, ready to continue living like this for decades more rather than accept something that affects his right of return to the village from which he had been expelled.

Such are the people of Khan Al-Sheikh refugee camp located 27km south of Damascus, within the village of Khan Al-Sheikh that had transformed into a true summer resort. Its pure air, cause for some to abandon the city to come and live there, in spite of the rudimentary services and the presence of a “refugee camp”, and who knows… perhaps for its proximity to Palestine…! As it lies facing Jebel Al-Sheikh, and has been historically known as the place where the trade caravans stopped over for the night on their way between Damascus and the other Syrian regions, and Palestine to the South.

This camp was established in 1949 on an area of 690,000 sq. metres, and the number of registered refugees there are 15,731, according to UNRWA statistics up to 30 June 2003.

The inhabitants of the camp suffer a problem that has caused them sleepless nights for many of the past years, which is the lack of drinking water or sewerage. The General Administration for Palestine Arab Refugees (GAPAR) in cooperation with UNRWA had a few years ago created a temporary sewage system in the form of a closed collection pit beside the camp. However this did not fully resolve the problem, as the primitive sewage network that had been made by the camp inhabitants inside the camp, is always breaking down, especially in winter, causing many inhabitants to suffer from the flood of effluents. In addition to the lack of surfaced streets within the neighbourhoods and alleys of the refugee camp, has aggravated this problem with rainwater collecting with the sewage to an unbearable scale. The greater problem, however, is the lack of drinking water, and so the inhabitants have to rely on buying water, which in many cases is polluted.

So recently UNRWA in coordination with GAPAR, and funding from the European Union started a project to supply Khan Al-Sheikh and Khan Danun refugee camps with drinking water and a sewage system. The objective, behind this project costing 8 million Euros, is to guarantee improved public health conditions and environment, and meet the basic needs for drinking water for the inhabitants of the two camps and neighbouring areas.

The European Union is considered the funding body for this project, and UNRWA the implementing party, and contracting authority. It is expected that the number of inhabitants benefiting from this project, Palestinians and Syrians, reach 350,000 by 2025. The contribution of the Syrian government to this project is 400,000 Euros on top of the European contribution. The projected completion date is 2007. The current planning stage is to continue for 12 months, while execution will continue for a further 18 months.

The project consists of several phases, comprising; design, establishing infrastructure in Khan Al-Sheikh camp, including water supply and sewage networks, paving streets and pedestrian routes within the camp. Within the project remit, enter preparation and implementation of initiatives for developing the local community. These had met with acceptance from some, while others with reservation. Some described these initiatives as precursors for settlement, and had no relation to the objective that the project had been designed to achieve.

The Return Review interviewed a number of members of the development committee that had been formed recently in Khan Al-Sheikh refugee camp with the task of liaising between the inhabitants and the project’s management.

On the idea behind the committee, its plan, and relationship to the project, Ustaz Sameer Mansour, head of the committee spoke to us:

The development committee was formed based on the directives of the General Administration for Refugees, and the Palestine branch of the Ba’ath Party. It is composed of 21 members from diverse camp inhabitants.

The mission of the committee is tackling services, health, and social development, and is the link between the local community and the relevant authorities, following-up with the management of the water and sewerage project in Khan Al-Sheikh refugee camp. The committee was not formed for the sewerage project only, but also has other responsibilities, the project being but one of these.

One of the responsibilities of the committee is to gain greater participation from the local community in the daily running of their camp. So the committee has established branch committees, among these; women’s, environment, health, social, and sport committees, and representatives from the various camp neighbourhoods; most are university students. All this to organise meeting the needs of the camp’s inhabitants.

We in the committee are at the early stages, striving to establish service projects. Of the work that the committee will do with the management of the EU project is planting trees in some of the camp’s streets, and building a hall for a public library in the camp and also a computer lab.

The committee is considered a people’s committee and not an official body, and so it communicates with the General Administration for Palestine Arab Refugees in all aspects, and in turn the General Administration corresponds with the authorities. An example of this, is when we spoke to the General Administration about pedestrian bridges across the camp main road after it is widened, as well as establishing storm drains, and clearing the bed of Al-‘Awaj river that passes through the camp, and the General Administration corresponded with the relevant state authorities.

Drinking water and sewage project?

Securing drinking water and a sewage system was an urgent need for the local community in the camp, because of the scarcity of water in the area. The inhabitants depend on tankers from which to buy water; the water from these is most likely polluted. So an agreement was reached between the Syrian government and the EU for the accomplishment of a project for sewerage and water supply for the benefit of the inhabitants of Khan Al-Sheikh and Khan Danun refugee camps. The costs of this project would be met by the EU, as well as the Syrian government, which is always striving to meet the needs of the Palestinian refugees.

Relationship of the project to settlement?

The services provided by UNRWA jointly with the EU are recognition of the international community of the responsibilities it shoulders towards the Palestinian refugees until Resolution 194, and this project does not contradict the right to return to our homeland, Palestine.

A word?

The Return Review also met with Mr. Tariq Hussein, one of the active members in the development committee. He started by talking about the reason why the project’s management was interested in the issue of social development:

The Europeans, when they provide any funding, start by developing the local community first. The local community when it is educated is more capable of safeguarding the new accomplishment provided by the Europeans. Moreover, they strive to develop the individual in the area. The project contributed by fast-tracking the establishment of the development committee. This committee was formed on the request of the project administration, and we are the link between them and the people in the camp. Management of the project is very good. There is a monthly meeting with the ministries involved in the project. On the social front, they are hugely active, in running courses and lectures. One of these was a course by Dr. Mohsen Can’aan, one of those responsible for healthy villages in Syria. This ran for two days on the principles of voluntary work, fundamentals of healthy village organisation, and a course presented by Ustaz Rafiq Ziab, deputy director of the project on the topic of project and viability studies.

Formation of the committee?

Our committee was established to represent the local community, and the administration of the project wants to deal with the community through a select group from it, so as to correspond with the people through it and vice versa. Frankly, we have received a lot of encouragement from the General Administration for Refugees, and Party officials in the area; it was they who invited us to an open session at the Party offices. This was public - open to all the camp’s inhabitants even if they were not members of the Ba’ath Party, and from there the members of the committee totalling 20, were selected from those with qualifications. The committee is periodically renewed in the choice of the active elite. We have become the link between the General Administration for Refugees and the people, and at times combat incidents of trespasses against public property; the squares and streets of the camp. We have stood against a number of phenomena through correspondence with General Administration for Refugees, which in turn contacts the relevant authorities. We are not a government agency, and so whoever contravenes, we visit him at home and advise, and if there is no positive response, we turn to the General Administration for Refugees. We are just social volunteers from the people of this country. I believe development committees have been established in all the refugee camps in Syria. We intend to stimulate voluntary work, and stimulate the people of the area to participate in the campaigns we do, especially cleaning campaigns.

Development of local community?

We cannot read the thoughts of the Europeans, whether they are providing this for the sake of settlement. However the idea of settlement is rejected by all the Palestinian people, because we have a homeland, and our natural right is to return there, and we will not accept any substitute for it, but the refugee in the end is a human being, needing clean water and sewerage. Does this mean that for the Palestinian not to be settled, he must die of hunger, and that we suffer the fate of the camps in Lebanon, and the life of misery led by the refugees there.

We hope that the nations that host Palestinian refugees provide for them as they do their own citizens, I mean in terms of establishing municipal authorities, paved roads, and town planning. These are all human necessities; the refugee should not be deprived of. Is the meaning of settlement, granting citizenship - so that he does not return to his homeland or that we keep him, hungry and thirsty without sewage disposal services, so that the sewers overflow into the houses and in the streets; this is not anti-settlement but anti-life.

The camp’s need for a municipal authority?

A village like Khan Al-Sheikh refugee camp has no municipal authority, while a village like Al-Manshiya that is next door, which is little more than one of the camp’s neighbourhoods, has a municipality that provides many facilities and services. We suffer a lot from the problems of sewage disposal. Many people have the sewage overflow in their homes throughout the winter, and the children play in polluted streets as well, and diseases spread among them. We want a municipal authority to prevent the contraventions committed by the camp’s inhabitants themselves, like unlicensed building, encroaching on roads, such that they become quite narrow and winding. Why this neglect? Is it so that we don’t settle and return to our homeland… Return isn’t secured this way.

Return… is the central focus and through it matters are resolved… This has become the essence of the conflict with Israel… Khan Al-Sheikh refugee camp is one of the areas that bear witness to Zionist aggression and like many in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and other areas of the Diaspora, this constant suffering that will not be resolved regardless of the money spent, only with a full, unconditional return.