Monday, August 04, 2008

Douma, Damascus

For the estimated 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria the road to receiving aid starts in a suburb of Damascus called Douma. It is here that the UNHCR has developed a site to cope with the large number of refugees in Syria, the vast majority from Iraq, registering and receiving aid. We arrived at Douma on a quiet morning. Outside the camp a small group of refugees stood in front of an information board looking for their names and the date of their interview. Once refugees have registered with the UNHCR they are given a date for an interview during which their needs can be assessed. The waiting time for an interview is currently two months, a drastic reduction from the six months refugees used to have to wait, but still a long way off the two week target the UNHCR has set itself.
The main entrance to the site is through a heavy mechanised gate painted in UN colours. The complex is made up of a number of warehouses, some of which have been adapted into large waiting areas and rows of private interview booths. The building in which registration takes place has rows of metal bars to ensure queuing remains orderly. The waiting area has rows of benches, toilets, a small cafĂ© selling food and drinks and a playroom for young children. When we visited a group of Iraqi clowns, trained by an organisation called ‘Clowns Without Borders’, were putting on a show for the kids. Large TV screens run a programme giving advice to refugees in Syria on a loop.
We visited Douma as part of our project teaching photojournalism to a group of 10 young Iraqi refugees. All of the students live in and around Damascus and all of them have registered with the UNHCR. They may not have visited Douma before, but the registration process is one they have all experienced. We wanted them to document what goes on there so that we could make a sound slide combining their best work. The results were fantastic, especially considering they it was only their second session with their cameras.
The previous day was the introductory session in which we taught them some basic camera skills and got them to take some portraits. We are working in partnership with the UNHCR who have provided the project with outreach workers, translators and a teaching space at their community centre in Saida Zainab, the district in Damascus with the densest population of Iraqi refugees. However, despite all this support our teaching sessions are limited by the strict control the Syrian government enforces on all media organisations. Parts of Saida Zainab are run down. There are dirt roads, large derelict areas of rubble and people begging on the streets. One woman came up to our car window asking for money. These are the things the Syrian government does not want you to see and, without official permission to photograph in such an area, the risk of unwanted police harassment or arrest is likely. Ten students all taking photographs in the same area are not likely to go unnoticed.
Consequently our students are limited to shooting inside the community centre or other UNHCR facilities. Much of our sessions rely on the students taking their own photographs and the community centre offers little more than four rooms and an empty courtyard in which to take photographs. So, with a few anxieties about how exactly the day would turn out, and few options of safe places to photograph, we took our students to Douma.
The site at Douma is the first developed specially for registration of refugees in Syria. The registration and interview process takes time and can be a stressful experience. Many Iraqi refugees are reluctant to register in the first place, seeing it as a failure of their capacity to provide for themselves and their families. Nobody wants to live on handouts. Furthermore, the conclusions drawn from their interview will influence what aid individuals and families are able to receive. Before Douma was set-up registration took place in a residential area in another part of Damascus. People had to wait for long periods of time outside often in the gruellingly hot Middle Eastern sun. Now, in Douma, orderly rows of fans hanging from the warehouse ceiling keep the air cool.
Douma is also the new distribution centre for food aid and other services the UNHCR offers refugees. The aim is for all refugee assistance to be centralised at the site. Although Iraqi refugees reside all over Syria the majority live in and around Damascus. The old food distribution central Damascus forced to close down in April after the government claimed use of the land. Food aid was suspended until Douma was ready in June, something which put severe strain on many of the 128,000 refugees who depend on that aid to feed themselves and their families. Food (provided by the UNHCR, the Syrian Arab Red Cross (SARC) and the World Food Programme) is stored in two large warehouses and two tents which had been erected between the buildings. Large sacks of rice and boxes of other food stuffs are piled high. Forklifts moved pallets of washing detergent around. It is a big operation for a big refugee population.
Despite the organised and hospitable facilities at Douma the desperation which lies so close to the surface of many Iraqi refugees lives was exposed a few weeks ago. As food was being distributed in one of the warehouses, the large and anxious crowd, ended up in a crush. There were 17 casualties, none of them serious. I was shown the area where it happened. A metal fence running from floor to ceiling sectioned off the far end of the warehouse. With a large number of people pushing their way forwards it wasn’t hard to imagine how people could end up trapped against the fence with nowhere to go.
The UNHCR is Syria is facing a funding crisis, only receiving half of the funds it says it needs to run its operation. Out of the estimated 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, just over 200,000 have registered. Pride is often the main reason for Iraqi’s not registering with the agency. It is deemed by many to be a last resort and many families to choose to live off savings or support from relatives working abroad, rather than register for aid. However, with people’s savings running low, and with little chance of the security situation in Iraq improving enough to encourage widespread returns, it seems likely that the numbers of registered refugees will continue to grow, putting further strain on the UNHCR’s funds and increasing the vulnerability of many Iraqi’s living in Syria.


Writearound said...

Always interesting to follow your work and the Clowns without Borders work was also a revelation. Look forward to next post and photographs

Sarah Bower said...

Another fascinating look at a bit of the world most of us know nothing about, and some great photos. Glad you're blogging again, guys.