communication officer with UNICEF in Damascus describes how ordinary people are
the essential partners of international organisations responding to the crisis.
Children, women and families receive help at a Damascus school converted into a refugee centre.
DAMASCUS, 24 July, 2012 — These have been really difficult times for everyone
in Damascus. Thousands of people have had to
leave their homes to seek refuge in safer areas, often in schools and mosques.
By the weekend, at
least 15 schools in Damascus and 18 more in outlying areas were full of
local communities and the Syrian Arab
Red Crescent (SARC) are working day and night to provide assistance to this population
in need. They've been doing an amazing job.
Ordinary people quickly
formed rescue and relief teams in the hosting neighbourhoods. UNICEF and other international organizations are in turn working to support SARC and these local
Young people are
particularly involved. Some of them have braved the violence to go out looking
for anyone needing a place to stay and taking them to the schools and mosques
housing displaced people.
At one of these
places I met Oum Mustafa. She told me that after her family fled their home on Wednesday and spent the night in a public park.
"The next day, some young people escorted
us to a school," Oum told me. "I am so fortunate that my three girls and little
baby boy are with me, and my sister in law's family as well."
sheltering in the school looked at her nine-year-old daughter sleeping on a thin
mattress on the floor. "I am glad she's asleep," she said. "We haven't
slept for the past three nights because the sound of shelling and helicopters was so loud, it was as if they were in our house."
Some families have taken
displaced people into their own homes. A woman I met named Manal, who has two
children of her own, has been hosting her extended family from Homs for the past three months. Earlier this week, they all had to relocate and
took refuge in a school.
Such generosity is
becoming harder to sustain. Many shops are closed, so it is difficult for local
residents to buy enough food and other basics to meet their own needs, let
alone those of their guests.
Conditions in the
schools are not easy. In one school in Masaken Barzeh, seven toilets have to be shared by 600 people. UNICEF has supplied the school with cleaning kits that contain detergents, shampoos, sanitary
napkins, soap, towels and other personal hygiene items.
children themselves are stepping into the gap.
Maya, 14, has been relocated twice along with
seven other family members. Now living at the school in Masaken Barzeh, she calls herself a "hygiene expert".
Volunteers were so impressed with her
knowledge that it was agreed that Naya would be the school's leader for
hygiene awareness. Naya promised to spend her free time going around telling other
children how important it is to flush the toilet and clean the bathroom
after they use it. "Younger kids listen to me, but I'm not sure about the
grown-ups," Naya told me, laughing.
Another problem is
keeping the children occupied. It is too hot to run around in the yard, and
there is nothing to play with. UNICEF is providing the schools with
recreational kits and sports kits through its local partners and SARC.
Razan Rashidi is a communication officer with UNICEF in Damascus.