In the past, public parks in Damascus would be teeming with life in the daytime. After nightfall, however, they would be abandoned, turning into a dismal wasteland, devoid of anything but the few who scavenge for a hideout, or lovers with no other place to steal nightly embraces. But never have these parks been as full as they are today.
This newly-arrived population is not made up of park strollers or picnickers; they are the masses of recently-homeless, roaming these parks in search for shelter.
In Damascus, today, one need not wander far before stumbling into these displaced people. A visit to the Historic District suffices to catch a glimpse at the children sprawled on the floor at night, some of them selling small copies of the Quran, others make do selling flowers, sweets, or bread.
A more difficult task might be actually speaking to them; they fear the curious questions of strangers, with their prying cameras, having inherited an unabating fear from the years of war.
Through this article, we attempt to become acquainted with some of them and their lives.
The Bread Seller
Naya, 12, sells bread with her two sisters, Lama and Mai, in the streets of Old Damascus. She goes to school in the daytime, and in the evenings, after dinner, she begins her trade.
She grew up in Al-Amin neighborhood, but soon found that she would have to go out to seek a livelihood in whatever way she could.
Displaced in Syria, homeless in Damascus
Displaced in Syria, homeless in Damascus
“I sell bread to support my family. I buy a bundle of bread for 50 Syrian pounds, and I sell them for 125 pounds. In the morning, I go to school. I’m in sixth grade now. When the war started, I hadn’t begun school yet,” she tells Raseef22.
About 100 meters away, her mother is seated in dark clothes, watching her daughters as they work out of fear that somebody might kidnap or attack them. She refuses to allow curious passers-by or journalists to take pictures of them, keeping her eye on them to protect them from the authorities who seek to curb begging on the streets.
“I am forced to let my girls work. My husband has been missing for four years, and we know nothing about him, nor is there anyone else to provide for us,” Naya’s mother says.
She was able to ensure their education during the daytime on the basis that they would work in the evening. In doing so, they have been luckier than many other Syrian children, both domestically and abroad, whereby the number of Syrian children outside of the educational system has registered 750,000, according to Human Rights Watch. Instead, they receive their education in the streets, rather than in a classroom.
The Situation Within Syria
Approximately 83.4% of Syrians live below the poverty line, according to the United Nations; a huge number when considering the fact that the GDP growth rate has contracted by about 30% each year since the eruption of the war, which has overturned people’s lives and the conditions in the country since its outbreak.
The war has left 7.6 million Syrian internally displaced, in addition to the 4.2 million refugees it has produced, mostly in neighboring countries, as well as those were able to reach and settle in Europe.
Not all the internally displaced are homeless; many live with relatives or in shelters, or were able to buy or rent a new house. However, thousands have been left behind of the destitute who didn’t have any of these options available to them.
The overcrowding in the capital, which is considered safer than its suburbs and other Syrian cities, has led to a rise in rental prices, making housing unaffordable for many.
Abu Fayez: A Fixture of the Streets
Abu Fayez, 70, is among those who have made their home in a public park. He has become a fixture of the historic neighborhoods, in his preferred position by the bath in the market, where he can be found at any time.
“I’ve been sitting here for two years, and at night I go to sleep in the nearby park. I eat and drink from the money that I get from benevolent souls,” he tells Raseef22. “I leave each day awaiting my death.”
The war displaced him from his home in Ein Tarma, a suburb of Damascus. With no children and no family, he begs on the streets, then sleeps between the trees.
In the same park, dozens of others get their rest on pieces of cardboard or sponge, searching for cover from the cold.
The state has designated some shelters for the homeless, but there isn’t enough space to meet the demands of those who have been left outside in the streets.
Siblings on the Streets
At the traffic light in the upscale residential area of Al-Mazza stand four children: Ahmed, and his siblings Alaa, Mais, and Noor. The spend their days begging from passing cars, seeking the sympathy of strangers.
Ahmed, aged nine, tells Raseef22 that they lost their parents during strike by opposition forces in their neighborhood in the Yarmouk Camp, and so they resorted to begging, finding no other options.
“I feel responsible for caring for my siblings, and ensuring that they have something to eat and drink. I have to take them everywhere with me all the time, to make sure nothing happens to them while I’m away,” Ahmed says.
The four children don’t seek shelter in one single park, the way Abu Fayez did. They spend all day wandering the streets of Damascus, and rest in whatever place sleep finds them.