Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Yarmouk refugee camp

 

From Syria to Sweden: The story of Stateless Syrian Palestinian in search for Identity

More than 2.8 million Syrians have been forced to leave their country so far. The vast majority of them remaining in neighboring countries, such as Turkey (764,000), Lebanon (1,093,069) and Jordan (597,328), according to the UN Refugee Agency. 

They are often living in dire conditions because countries like Lebanon and Jordan are already under extreme economic and political strain. Few others went seeking refuge in Europe.

However, Europe has only granted asylum to 89,000 people. Though Europe is failing refugees from Syria , Sweden is one of the few European countries to offer permanent residence to Syrians arriving at its borders.

Salim Salamah, found refuge in Sweden after fleeing Syria to Lebanon. I met Salim a few weeks ago in Malmo, the most densely populated area in Scandinavia, but he wasn’t a mere Syrian refugee.

While he was introducing himself, he was not sure if he should say a “Syrian-Palestinian”, “Palestinian from Syria”, “refugee in Sweden”, becoming “Swedish” or maybe just a human being!

As I was confidently introducing myself as a Tunisian African and explaining more about my Africanism, he smiled and replied: “I like that you clearly know who you are because I am still in search for my identity”.

This complex identity of Salim dates back to his family’s displacement in 1948 following the Nakba that expelled Palestinians from their homes.

He was born in 1989 and raised in Yarmouk refugee camp (by Damascus), a historical Palestinian neighborhood established in Damascus during the 50s.

At the age of 24, Salim found himself a refugee “again” and as he says “the journey continues…”

 

Images and dates have been engraved in his memory because of their atrocities… “28th October 2013 I left Syria…Taking that decision wasn’t easy! Because there will be no soon return to Damascus”.

Getting into severe depression during his last few weeks in Syria, he was afraid of loosing himself by “not doing any good” for himself or his country.

A decision has been made because of the suffocation of a peaceful movement yearned for freedom. “From March to September, the movement was pacifist then the security became so tight that we couldn’t move around anymore…people had to fire back and when that happened, I couldn’t have a place for myself there! because I didn’t want to die or kill”.

Life in Damascus has become a nightmare for him with the checkpoints…“Day after day, moving within and outside Yarmouk has become difficult as between two checkpoints, there is another one, so you will never know who will stop you and when you will be arrested! It was just like jumping into the fire”.

The regime then operated an organized process to get rid of activists like Salim, by arresting, torturing or constantly threatening them.   “It was a slow death of the civil resistance and peaceful social movement, I was at risk as everybody was!”

Beside demonstrating, campaigning, and being part of political gatherings, Salim’s special crime was blogging and telling jokes about the Syrian army. His poem “A day in Damascus”, says “passing by the checkpoint, I spit on it to return some of my dignity” and that was accused by the Syrian authorities as undermining the “prestige of the state”.

Once in Beirut for almost four months, Salim tried to recover from war trauma and reconnect again… “breathe again” by writing poetry. Despite dealing with his own healing process, Salim was managing a project with Al Ghawth organization in Syria. “Unfortunately the project ended after few months because we didn’t get the needed funding as international donors and NGOs were not interested in finding partners to respond to the urgent need of Syrian communities and kids under war but more interested to enslave organizations for their own agendas”

Travelled for the first time in his entire life outside Syria and Lebanon, he finally arrived to Sweden on 14th February 2012.

“When I arrived, I was surprised with the snow and the dark short days”. It took sometime for him to adapt to the new weather, language, space, currency, lifestyle and to understand  “the strange situation” in order to find his way in the new place.(It would be good for Salim to read the new book of Alexander Najjar “Millesgarten” about his journey in Sweden)

Despite the terrible situation in Syria, there is an ongoing debate about the legitimacy of the choice of activists who fled the country to seek refuge in the United States and Scandinavia.

Salim has clearly made this choice as an “individual salvation”… “I claimed political asylum because I can’t basically go anywhere as Palestinian from Syria but I made it to Sweden because I was just lucky!”

It is indeed a special case for the Palestinians from Syria.

When the UN adopted the Refugee Convention and established the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, it excluded those falling within the UNRWA mandate from coverage under UNHCR’s mandate.

“Outside UNRWA-mandate area, which is Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, or the West Bank and Gaza Strip, we are without protection”.

A concrete example of Salim’s frustration is the recent case of the four Palestinian Syrian activists detained in Sri Lanka a few weeks ago. “UNHCR Sri Lanka refused to give a statement on the issue. Husam, Muhammad, Ali and Baha are now at Buddha military prison where they have been badly treated psychologically and physically”.

Recently, Palestinians fleeing Syria are denied help even in Lebanon. 

Sadly, the tragic cases of Palestinian-Syrian refugees continue, not only in the global north, but even in the Arab region and especially in countries that sparked the revolutions in the region such as TunisiaEgypt among other countries.. “in Damascus, we were celebrating the day Ben Ali fled Tunisia, today when Syrian Palestinians arrived to Tunis, they remained stuck in Carthage airport with no support”…

As the spokesman of the Human Rights Palestinian LeagueSalim closely follows these cases and releases statements to support Syrian Palestinians without national or international protectionHaving the advantage to understand better such situation, Salim found himself working with refugees though he aims to work more with youth and children.

Beside joining the executive board of the Human Rights Palestinian League earlier this year, he helps a Swedish organization in group development of coming refugees, especially in terms of communication with Arabic and French speaking refugees from Syria and African countries.

“I’m still sad, frustrated… because of this ongoing war that is rewarding to international community powers and Syrian regime rather than the Syrian people but working with people here is also rewarding …”

Partially recovered from the war trauma …  Salim regained his life, strength and energy and he is moving forward in empowering himself and others.  

I contacted Salim again today to ask him of what the World Refugees Day would mean to him as a refugee. He immediately answered “you know… once you are a refugee, you are a refugee forever, at least for myself”.

He then took some silent moments and recalled the quotes of his friend Homi Bhabha

“the globe shrinks for those who own it… but for the displaced or dispossessed, the migrant or refugee, no distance is more awesome than the few feet across borders or frontiers” … then he continues “Today I achieved my few feet, and if I can make one more human being achieve those few feet, I will help!”

Having his family arrived to Sweden 6 months ago, Salim now feels more safe, something he hasn’t felt for a while. Still hard for him to be disconnected “twice” from where he belongs… then to be asked to belong somewhere else…

I don’t identify myself as a citizen of any place…” at least his confusion has gone since our first conversation a month ago and now he can confidently identity himself as human being or citizen of the world…

 

 

Sieges in Syria: Babies starving to death

Israa al-Masri was still a toddler when she lost her battle to cling to life. But the image of her face, pictured just minutes before she finally succumbed to starvation, is becoming the symbol of a wider nightmare.

For Israa, tongue swollen, wearing a chunky sweater and woolen hat that seem more substantial than she is, was just one of thousands of Palestinian refugees trapped and starving in Yarmouk refugee camp, Damascus.

FERNANDE VAN TETS published in The Independent this Jan. 16, 2014:

Innocent, starving, close to death: One victim of the siege that shames Syria

 
Months of encirclement by the Syrian army has cut off the 18,000 people in Damascus’s Yarmouk refugee camp from supplies and medical aid, reducing them to subsisting on a diet of animal food, water with salt and instant noodles and leaves

Beirut: Once Syria’s largest Palestinian camp, Yarmouk has been under siege for almost a year. Most of its 160,000 population fled following violent clashes in December 2012, but at least 18,000 have remained, and months of encirclement by the Syrian army, cut off from supplies and medical aid, have reduced them to subsisting on a diet of animal food, water with salt and and leaves.

Women are shot at by snipers as they try to gather plants to feed their children. Israa is one of at least 50 to have died from hunger-related causes since October.

“The people are now eating grass and have started to eat cat and dog meat as a routine meal,” says Qais Saed, 26, whose last meal was 3 days ago and consisted of water with some spices. He cannot recall the last time he was not hungry.

Pro-Assad Palestinian factions blame the presence of 2,500 rebel fighters in the camp for the length of the siege.

Sheikh Mohamed Abu Khair, the imam of the camp’s Palestine mosque, sanctioned the eating of cats, donkeys and dogs in a fatwa in October after four people had died from malnutrition. That number has now risen to at least 50, says the Action Group for Palestine.

According to our figures somebody is dying daily now,” says Neil Sammonds, Syria researcher at Amnesty International.

A funeral for a resident of Yarmouk

A funeral for a resident of Yarmouk (AP)

A local nurse told the organisation that since mid-November last year, when government forces took control of an area near the camp, several civilians, mainly women, have been killed by snipers while foraging for food in nearby fields.

“Every day we receive around 4 people who were shot by snipers while they were picking plants in the fields. The women say they prefer to risk their own lives to spare the children.

“On one occasion, we received a teenager, probably aged 16 or 17, who was shot dead. His father started talking to him and said: ‘You died for the sake of bringing hibiscus leaves for your siblings.’ It was heartbreaking,” she said.

Residents have recounted a scene of devastation and desperation inside the camp, which was originally built in 1957 to house thousands of Palestinians displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Over time it turned into a bustling residential area, with Syrian as well as Palestinian inhabitants. But today it’s a far cry from the packed restaurants of downtown Damascus, just five miles away.

“There are no more people in Yarmouk, only skeletons with yellow skin,” Umm Hassan, a 27-year-old resident and the mother of two toddlers, told the Associated Press on Monday.

Videos uploaded to YouTube show angry and desperate residents venting their frustration. “We are tired; there is no food,” says one woman. Another holds up a bag full of leaves which is the only food she has to feed her four children.

“Residents including infants and children are subsisting for long periods on diets of stale vegetables, herbs, powdered tomato paste, animal feed and cooking spices dissolved in water,” says Chris Gunness, spokesperson for the UN Palestinian agency UNRWA.

People are so desperate that some are reportedly shedding family members in order to conserve resources. “One father threw his daughter on the street; we found the baby in the street,” says Abu Muhamed, 24 and an activist, who took the child to hospital. “People feel that psychologically they can do nothing.”

The emaciated body of Awad al-Saidi, who, according to locals, died of hunger and sickness there

The emaciated body of Awad al-Saidi, who, according to locals, died of hunger and sickness there (AP)

Reports of robbery, primarily of food, are rife. Contacting people inside the camp is difficult, as sustained electricity cuts have been plaguing the camp for nine months. There is also little water or heating.

“Residents are having to rely on going out on to terraces and burning furniture and branches to warm themselves in the open because wood fires cannot be resorted to indoors. There is a very infrequent supply of tap water – reportedly available for four hours only at intervals of three days,” says Mr Gunness.

The lack of electricity in the camp is also affecting the single hospital that is still in operation, which has in addition run out of supplies. The absence of medical care has led to several women dying in childbirth.

As a result of severe malnutrition, residents, especially children, are now affected by diseases such as anaemia, rickets, and kwashiorkor [a disease of malnutrition related to protein deficiency]. The camp has also not been able to receive vaccines, most notably for polio. That disease has returned to Syria after having been eradicated more than a decade ago.

An UNRWA aid convoy carrying 10,000 polio vaccines and food for 6,000 people was forced to turn back as it tried to enter the camp on Monday, after its Syrian army security detail was repeatedly shot at.

Despite the north area of the camp being easier to enter – as it is held by the regime – the Syrian government withheld permission, citing security fears. This forced the convoy to use the southern entrance and pass through some 10 miles of contested territory.

Residents suspect that opposition fighters viewed the presence of regime troops, including a bulldozer clearing the road for the 6-truck convoy, as a provocation. On Monday, the Foreign Secretary William Hague said the deliberate obstruction of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people is “utterly unacceptable”.

The Foreign Office added that it will be pushing for the “lifting of sieges and access for humanitarian organisations and the immediate end to attacks on civilian areas and medical facilities and respect for international humanitarian law”.

Adding to Yarmouk’s misery, at least four  people were killed in a barrel bomb attack. “The people were saying, if they can’t enter with food, maybe they can send it by plane. But what [Assad] sent was a bomb,” said Qais Saed.

Activists say around 1,000 people descended on the northern gate following the attack, but were stopped by sniper fire, in which one person died. The Independent couldn’t independently verify this claim.

More than 100,000 people have died in Syria’s bitter civil war since 2011 and millions more have fled the country.

The Syrian government is due to sit down with the opposition in Geneva on 22 January  in what would be the first face-to-face peace talks between the two sides. Many have questioned how effective the talks will be, however, with many opposition groups boycotting them.

The agreement to allow the aid convoys to enter the areas was announced in Paris by the US Secretary of State John Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who are working to broker an end to the bloody civil war.

There is no sign, however, that help is close to arriving in Yarmouk.

“Why don’t they kill us with chemicals? It would be done in a few minutes. It’s better than this way,” said Abu Muhamed, an activist.

Syria images of starvation: Verifying the truth

The factors preventing food and medical aid from getting into the Yarmouk camp also make it unusually hard to verify reports and pictures coming out of it.

The UN Relief and Works Agency has spoken of “profound civilian suffering in Yarmouk, with widespread incidence of malnutrition and the absence of medical care”, and numerous sources confirm the severity of conditions in the camp.

But the only visual evidence of these conditions comes from within the camp – from videos posted on YouTube to images posted on Twitter or, in some cases, photographs sent directly to journalists. The suppliers are usually activists.

The image of Israa al-Masri (above), and of a funeral for other victims of the siege, were provided to an Associated Press (AP) reporter by the activist group Palestinians of Syria.

The Independent spoke to the AP reporter, who said they had spoken to the person in the activist group who supplied a number of pictures from within Yarmouk camp, including the picture of Israa, whose image also appears in a separate YouTube video, which The Independent has seen.

Medical advice received by The Independent supports the view that the child identified as Israa does show signs of being “severely malnourished”.

Given the weight of evidence of extreme hunger within Yarmouk, there is no particular reason to doubt the authenticity of other images such as the one above, which is also taken from footage supplied by an activist group, and featured by Al Jazeera.

But despite rigorous checks, there is still no sure way of verifying them.


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

October 2020
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