There has been over the years numerous cycles of house demolitions in Jaramana Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus. They have caused untold problems and successive waves of homeless refugees, all for the construction of the southern ring road, the long highway that shortened the distance and connected Damascus International Airport to the heart of the city without having to pass through its roads and neighbourhoods. It was the bad luck of the inhabitants of Jaramana refugee camp – stretching over an area of 30 thousand square metres – that their camp fell within the area allocated to the road. This forced the authorities to embark on a programme of demolition of many houses lying near the road in stages over a number of years, starting in 1982 up to this moment.

The Syrian government has compensated some Palestinian refugees, and allocated some residential flats to them in place of their homes, especially those affected by demolitions in the years 1994-95. The rest are still waiting for a solution to their problem, as they have not been offered financial compensation for loss of their homes and possessions. Noteworthy is that Jaramana Camp is situated on the main road to Damascus Airport, the lands on which it is established are owned by the Syrian state in form of the General Administration for Palestine Arab Refugees (GAPAR). The lands were rented by UNRWA from the GAPAR, when it started to build the camp. In 1995, work started on the southern ring road, and the road connecting to it, splitting the camp in half.

During some stages of the demolitions in the project caused by the widening of the southern ring road, many houses belonging to refugee families were torn down in successive years, including what was demolished in August 2002. Added to this were the houses of 130 families lying on the side of the road in June 2003. The GAPAR paid the sum of 2,000 Syrian Lira (US$40 only) as a handout to help those families who lost their homes in June 2003, to tide them over, until substitute housing could be secured for them. Five months after the demolitions, a decision was made to re-house 60 of the original 130 families who had lost their homes then.

During July 2004, another cycle of demolitions started, through which a fresh number of Palestinian refugees lost their homes. Added to the previous waves of refugees who lost their homes in past demolitions. The ring road project has become a nightmare for Jaramana Camp, and giving rise to successive tragedies for its Palestinian and Syrian inhabitants, renewed in every cycle of demolitions.

Palestinian refugees in Jaramana camp speak about the demolitions

Her small family was afflicted by many types of illnesses of such extent that it was above her ability to cope…Maysaa Al-Deeb has two children both suffer from Sickle Cell Anaemia, in addition to weak sight. As for her, she suffers from chronic inflammation of her veins, and her husband has a hole in the lung. In view of the massive tragedies endured by this family, they are considered to be in grave difficulty and are provided with symbolic aid by UNRWA once every three months. In spite of all the suffering of this family, this was not enough to avert the decision to demolish their home, and they were one of those families whose homes were torn down… During our tour of the camp, we met her and she talked to us of the bitterness of that time when her house was demolished, remembering all the painful detail, the pain was clear in the tone of her voice, and the expressions on her tired face, she said:

“On the same day that the secondary school students finished their examinations, an engineer knocked on our door, and told us that we had to vacate the house in two days only, we did not believe what he said, and we went out of the house looking for him to understand the matter better… We looked for him, but he was not to be found, he had left hurriedly. We did not believe the matter, only when the bulldozers were on top of us and all around us. We thought of not leaving the house, hoping that this would halt them, but one of them advised my husband to leave the house immediately… They were difficult moments indeed, we did not know what to do, we saw people running to vacate their homes, quickly trying to save some of their furniture, without thought, we found ourselves doing the same, bringing out what we could of our furniture, placing it on the pavement opposite the road”.

She moved to Husseiniyah population centre for Palestinian refugees, due to the low rents and cost of living, in her despairing attempts to find a solution to her problem and save her family, Maysaa knocked on the door of many institutions, but to no avail.

Maysaa asks the relevant authorities to provide a replacement home for her family, even unfurnished… even if only four walls and no roof, just a place to shelter her children and her sick husband, in place of her old home, built on land owned by the refugees authority, that was demolished in June 2003, according to her.

I hold the papers of ownership of the house and land for 30 years… and have received nothing.

The bitterness of leaving her home before it was pulled down, were the most difficult moments in her life. She used to live in a house made up of three rooms and attachments, and she had a well in Jaramana camp for the past 30 years, and lived modestly, until they received the judicial order to abandon their home, because it was to be demolished, those were the bitterest moments: “I cried at my luck and life, for my husband has been dead for 13 years… and one can only be saddened at the hardship and hard work and that of their husband. The toil of long years was gone in a moment, with the demolition, they told us that if we vacated the house they would give us replacement homes. A whole year has passed, and we have received nothing..”, says Mrs Fatima Um Qasem.

Living with Um Qasem are six of her children, the males try hard to find permanent jobs to support their mother and sisters. However permanent jobs in the private sector, especially for manual workers are a farfetched dream, as these tend to be seasonal. In spite of their difficult circumstances, Um Qasem has refused the idea of allowing her daughters to work, even though job opportunities for females are more than for males.

UNRWA has a tarnished image regarding the issue of the people of Jaramana. Of these is the story of Um Qasem with the employees of the agency. Um Qasem relates: “I was visited by a lady working for UNRWA, who told me they were going to provide a small amount of food aid (subsistence package), and asked for a massive quantity of paperwork… by Allah they dried our throats”, and after all that they gave us the aid one time only, and when the time for the second one came –three months after we received the first one - they refused to give us and said we had to enquire at their office in Jaramana. When we went there and after a long wait our turn came, they said to us “the people of Jaramana whose houses had been demolished do not have aid”, and took away the aid card and tore it in front of my eyes, so I returned to Husseiniyah and am still waiting for the mercy of Allah…”

As for ownership of the land and her demolished home, Um Qasem stressed that she still had the deeds that proved her ownership of the land and house, in addition to a document from the notary, and that after the demolition she had gone to the judge and proved her ownership of the land and her house, so they said to her that she had the right to a substitute house… she still hopes for that replacement home, even though one year had past; her living conditions being as they are, and no signs to show that she can have a substitute home… Every day she sends one of her sons to the city council to enquire of the matter, to no avail… to this moment.

There was no urgent need for the demolitions… we are not against development and civilisation

They were difficult moments indeed those experienced by Yaqoub Abu Luay, when the bulldozers tore down his dwelling. Time moved rapidly, he lost consciousness of what he was doing, with which piece of furniture to start, what to save and what to leave, where he would take these items, who would help him bring them out… In the extreme crowding of the pavements with his and his neighbour’s possessions, and everyone’s preoccupation with saving their furniture and things. It was good luck that the police started to help people salvage their furniture, among them Yaqoub. This brought immense financial damage to Yaqoub’s family, as it was only three years since they had bought the house that was demolished.

With much sadness and bitterness, Yaqoub spoke of the period after the demolition of his home in August 2002: “My wife and I lived in her parent’s house, which was severely overcrowded. It was only two rooms in which ten people lived. In spite of their difficult circumstances, they put us up for a long time, for seven months. This allowed us time to settle down, and find a dilapidated house, which we rented. The demolition of large numbers of houses occupied by Palestinians and Syrians caused a massive housing problem, and it became very difficult to find a house or even a single room to rent. The house we rented after that consisted of one room with no electricity or water, so I managed to get water and electricity connected to it. I bought doors for the kitchen and bathroom… that is I prepared it fully such that it became fit for living in, even though it was rented not my own”.

As for the reasons of that tragedy and its results, Yaqoub explains that it isn’t the fault of the citizen who receives notice that he is to vacate from twenty years ago, to suddenly have his house demolished now, that is not logical. He adds: “We do not oppose development and civilisation, but we are human beings, …two years ago our house was demolished, and I received nothing in compensation to this moment, no one and no authority has provided help to us, at the very least they could have given us a house to replace ours, and allow us to pay its price in instalments over a number of years. When we went to enquire at the relevant authority, they quickly passed us on, each to the other and so on… Our rights lost in between them… we have presented applications for documents proving our ownership of our homes, because we do not have the deeds, so we sat with the judge and brought witnesses, and proved our ownership of our houses. In my case, they told me I was not eligible for a replacement house, as I had no proof of ownership of the land, and most of the land is owned by the Administration for Refugees, and there are many like me…

The problem is that they demolish the houses and do not use the land. I have paid in rent for a house many times more than what they can compensate us for, and we still wait. In contrast they have not started work on the project, and two years have passed since the demolitions, meaning that they were not forced to demolish, and there was no urgency to do so”.

Fatima Mahmood Shehada (Um Muhammad) has a number of children we did not know, but presently two sons and daughters live with her. Her home in Jaramana refugee camp consisted of two floors, in each was a number of rooms and conveniences, in which she had lived since 1956. Then it had been only one room, but her husband had extended it little by little… until it was in that state when it was torn down. Her husband passed away, seven years ago, and her children had taken to work to support her.

Leaving our homes was sad

“It was a sad event, mother… By Allah it was a sad situation when we left our home in which we had lived for fifty years. We abandoned our homes to live homeless, as though we had left behind a deceased person, we cried and lamented our luck, but there was nothing we could do… It was no easy thing, to abandon the toil and hardship of a lifetime, and leave it all behind…!!” With these sad words, and tears she was unable to hold back, Mrs Nadia Muhammad Um Emad born in 1947 in Al-Ja’una, Palestine, related the conditions in which they left their homes and its demolition at the hands of the authorities.

Um Emad did not want to leave her home, because of her inability to buy another home. Her sons however, convinced her of the necessity of leaving her home. She moved to her son’s house temporarily until she could find a solution to her problem and that of the rest of them still living with her. As for financial compensation, Um Emad remembers that they gave her a small aid sum, once only, of 2000 Lira (US$40), with which she paid off some debts before she left the camp, and bought for her children the night before the demolition, chargrilled chicken, and in the morning pastry with Za’atar. Um Emad and her daughter-in-law laugh as she says: “My daughter-in-law advised me to buy food and that we eat our fill, so we fed the children and were happy that night, and next morning we were crying and lamenting our luck”.

As for the ownership of her demolished house, Um Emad explained that the land was from the UNRWA, whereas they had bought their house in the fifties from one of the owners. It consisted of a single room… They then improved it gradually over the long years, until her husband died ten years ago, and she remained with her children in one house until it was demolished”.

As for her son, Emad Hussein Abul’Abd, he told us of his continual enquires to the relevant authorities that had not given fruit except to verbal promises, saying: Many times we went to Damascus City Council and GAPAR and did not gain anything, we took nothing from them, neither good nor bad. They would always ask that we return again in a few days, and when we come back they would say the same thing again. No one has benefited from them to this moment. As for us, we could do not set anything in motion, as we do not hold any ownership documents showing our entitlement to the land and house… At the moment I have rented a house for my wife and five children, and our reliance is on Allah. Researchers from UNRWA have come to survey our situation, and we did not benefit from them at all. As for GAPAR, it sent no one to see these tragic conditions of ours…”.


We took out our belongings quickly

Mrs Fatima Khaleel Um Haytham – Al-Qasas, Safad Province – remembers that they were dismantling the doors and windows of the house, moments before the bulldozers started to tear down what had been their home for 27 years. After the demolition, they continued to go and see the authorities on a daily basis, and each time they are not given a satisfactory answer. To that moment, they had not been provided with a substitute house, financial compensation, or anything else.

Several popular political movements, youth organizations and inhabitants of the camp tried in 2003 to find an emergency solution to stop the demolitions. They formed one team to work together and talk to the officials in the relevant authorities, as well as preparing lists of names and signatures of those families given notices. They wrote a number of communiqués and petitions in the name of the inhabitants of Jaramana camp addressed to GAPAR, the director of UNRWA in Syria, and Damascus council, hoping to halt the demolitions, or save the families, or at least have them compensated, but to no effect. All these efforts only gave fruit to a three-month reprieve, to give students the opportunity to finish the school year. Fuad Deeb Abu Wattan, one of the youths in the camp active in the popular campaign said: “We compiled lists of people, formed a committee, we met with all the Palestinian officials of all political affiliations and views, to stop the matter before demolition started, but the Council authorities took advantage of the elections for deputies to the People’s Assembly, to carry out what they could not do in normal circumstances. So we were not able to find anyone to respond to us, because of the elections. The first day of elections was the day people were to vacate their homes according to the first warning notice. We tried to do anything quickly, immediately we went to see all the Palestinian officials and communicated with them, in their turn they got in touch with the Syrian officials, who postponed the demolition to the end of the school year. In that time, we would leave daily to look for houses to rent, and the demolitions went ahead.

Sadly, there seems to be a missing link between the Palestinians, Syrians and the leadership. People think that the notice letter is but a document for a substitute house. There is a section of those whose houses were demolished in 1985, who have received substitute housing in 2004. They considered the value of the demolished house to be the first instalment for the substitute house, and leave the family to pay for the rest of the instalments itself. There are other families who have received nothing”.

Homelessness and loss after the demolition

After the penultimate demolitions in 2003, the Palestinian refugees tried to demand compensation for their lost homes. They knocked on the doors of UNRWA, GAPAR, and Damascus council… Each authority would throw them over to the other, between the tragedy of the disaster and the need to find a safe haven, … they spent several months in despairing attempts to find a solution to no avail - their mass popular campaign did not find any. What is the role of the General Administration for Palestine Arab Refugees as the official authority charged with the welfare of these Palestinian refugees? What is the political role that has come about recently and what are its results? And, is the case of the Palestinian refugees, whose homes were demolished, and those under threat, humanitarian, political, legal or what?

Between Jaramana camp, Al-Husseiniyah Palestinian refugee population centre, and GAPAR, Damascus City and Rural Council, and the UNRWA, was a long episode and hard journey seeking the truth, details of the issue and ways to solve it… This took us to some information that pointed out some important matters:

An executive decision was taken to save 60 Palestinian families, while the other families still wait for the solution!

Six months after the demolition of the houses of the new batch of refugees in the third phase of the project, the Syrian Minister of Local Authority and Environment, Engineer Hilal Al-Atrash sent a memorandum dated 15/1/2004 instructing that housing be provided for 60 Palestinian refugee families, whose houses were demolished in June 2003, because of the southern ring project, and the lands on which their homes were standing is considered possession of GAPAR or rented for the same purpose.

In spite of the fact that this executive decision did not include the rest of the refugees whose houses were demolished in the same period, or even before, or after, it was still considered a positive step, and new hope for the Palestinian refugees of a solution to the massive tragedy that befell them. However this decision remains unimplemented as yet. Damascus council has neither the resources nor sufficient housing to provide for this number of refugees, nor can it offer any solutions to the other refugees. A large part of Jaramana camp is considered in contravention of rules and laws regulating building, in what is called in the council an area of contraventions. The relevant persons in the council view the problem of Palestinian refugees as a humanitarian and political problem, and not a legal one as regards this issue. Because according to the law, they have no right to demand substitute housing, especially as the majority had settled in land that was not theirs, nor can they prove ownership of it… the case of the vast majority of Palestinian refugees in Syria, who built their houses on top of the debris of their tattered tents, which they had pitched on land owned by the Syrian state and rented by UNRWA.


Role of the General Administration for Palestine Arab Refugees

In our attempt to answer some of the queries posed by the Palestinian refugees, and clarify some of the ambiguous aspects in this complex case, which had dragged on for years without a comprehensive solution to all the affected we met with Mr. Ali Mustafa director general of GAPAR. He explained to us some matters, saying: “This project was decided several years ago, relating to matters of improving the city, especially the road from Damascus International Airport. The area that falls within the project was subject to building demolition, whether part of Jaramana camp or many areas where Syrian citizens were living. In the first phase, housing was secured for our brothers who lived in the camp, of course with special treatment from the relevant authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic, which the Syrian citizens did not receive. In many cases, the money owed by Palestinian refugees was not demanded, who ended up in Husseiniyah because of their reduced and difficult circumstances, and because they were Palestinian refugees, Syria has treated them specially for decades.

Mr. Mustafa clarified that the land of Jaramana camp is not all illegally occupied, but part belongs to GAPAR directly. It was the inhabitants of this part, whose homes were demolished, who could receive alternative housing. Whereas there were around 60 to 70 refugees who had built on land that did not belong to them, nor to GAPAR, nor anyone else, i.e. it was land with no owner. In consideration to their circumstances, GAPAR intervened and sent a list of them, which was ratified, wherein GAPAR as soon as some houses were demolished, in coordination with UNRWA, immediately provided these families with subsistence payment, and considered them worst cases. The GAPAR in cooperation with other authorities provided immediate aid to those families that had their homes demolished due to the project.

Mr. Musatafa added: “there is no stage in which no compensation was made, and last year we treated the issue of ownerless land, and managed to compensate 60 families, as for the rest of the families, they return to rented land or land belonging to the General Administration for Palestine Arab Refugees for Refugees and there is no problem about them. We note that the services and treatment afforded to our refugee brothers is special and better than that given to our brothers, the Syrian citizens. As always, the refugee is given preferential treatment better than that for the Syrian citizen.

In his comment concerning the current stage, in which a new number of Palestinian refugee homes in Jaramana camp have been demolished during July 2004, Mr. Ali says: “this project is implemented over stages, and in the same way that we resolved the issue of 60 families, we shall resolve the matter of the rest of the Palestinian families who took over ownerless land”.

The case of Jaramana camp, and the great Nakba that has befallen a large section of its Palestinian refugee inhabitants, is urgent, complex and important, awaiting a miracle solution to save hundreds of Palestinian families, who live in the camp below the poverty line.

Will the cries for help from the residents of Jaramana camp find attentive ears among the Syrian authorities who have always been generous in their support for the exiled Palestinian people… who have tasted only bitterness, and sadness throughout the years of Zionist occupation of their sacred Arab and Islamic land..!!

Source: Shireen Al-Sharafy - Damascus