Focus on Palestinian refugees

Take a 30 km drive out of the heart of the Syrian capital, Damascus, to a relatively poor area, down dusty roads and you arrive at the Khan Eshieh camp, accommodating some 17,000 Palestinian refugees.

The camp has become a small town in its own right with many houses, six schools, a health clinic and community centre, as well as shops and other facilities to help the refugees live a better life.

Some children play happily in the streets, and as the school bells ring the sound of excited students pouring into the playground can be heard all around.

This is the second generation of Palestinians who have not been to their homeland but have only heard about it from their parents.

The community at Khan Eshieh is part of some 417,350 Palestinians in Syria today. Three quarters of them live in Damascus with the rest being in the cities of Homs, Hama, Aleppo, Lattakia and Dara'a. There are 10 camps in total countrywide, with five of them around Damascus.


According to Lex Takkenberg, director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Syria, the Palestinians in Syria are accepted and helped by the government. "Most Palestinians are integrated in Syria and some even hold positions within the government," he told IRIN in Damascus.

At present UNRWA is working on upgrading camps in addition to its regular work provision of health care, education and social services.

The largest refugee area in Syria is Yarmouk, a Damascus suburb, housing 137,000 refugees. "The General Authority for Palestine Arab Refugees (GAPAR), a government body that liases with UNRWA, provides infrastructure and administrative services in the camps," Takkenberg explained.

The main flow of Palestinian refugees to Syria took place between 1948 and 1949 when the State of Israel was being established.

The second movement was in 1967 during the Israeli/Arab war when large numbers of Palestinians went to the Gulf States, Jordan and other areas of the Middle East, including Syria.

"Life is made miserable for them and it is a big problem for Palestinians, especially those with children in Gaza or the West Bank," he stressed, adding that emergency appeals were being made in Gaza and West Bank where Palestinians were "literally starving".

Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, UNRWA was established by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 302 (IV) on 8 December 1949 to carry out direct relief and works programmes for Palestine refugees.

The agency began operations on 1 May 1950 and, in the absence of a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, the General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA's mandate, most recently extending it until 30 June 2008.

Since its establishment, the agency has delivered its services in times of relative calm in the Middle East, and in times of hostilities. It has fed, housed and clothed tens of thousands of fleeing refugees and at the same time educated and given health care to hundreds of thousands of young refugees.


The residents of Khan Eshieh came mainly from northern towns in Palestine. The land they now live on was allocated by the Syrian government. Shelters were built initially from mud and eventually turned into brick houses. The refugees have found work in farms and workshops.

UNRWA provides education services in six schools. But refugee shelters are old and need repair. "The curriculum is based on that of the Syrian Ministry of Education. As well as the usual subjects such as maths, religious studies and science, children also learn English and French and computer science," UNRWA Damascus Area Officer, Mohammed Johar, told IRIN at Khan

Pressure is now mounting on teachers to offer additional subjects, but with the school already holding two shifts they say it is impossible.

"Teachers are already working long hours and we need more of them and more money to pay them for extra shifts," Johar said. Some 413 children are attending one of the schools at the camp, which only has 13 teachers.

Teachers complain that the building is old with large cracks appearing in the soiled walls, many of which are neither plastered nor painted.

Despite this, the children, around 40 per classroom, sit studiously, eager to answer questions.

Dressed in a royal blue uniform with a headscarf neatly tucked around her face, 14-year-old Shaima told how her family came to Syria from Tiberias in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT).

"I was born here, but my parents talk about Palestine," she said with a big grin on her face. Most of the second generation living in Syria have never been able to visit home.

"I know it is not perfect, but I like coming to school. It's fun and I have a lot of friends," said the girl sitting next to Shaima. "My parents said life was hard for us back home," she added.

Others expressed a desire to see their homeland. "I would love to see my homeland, but there are so many terrible things happening there.. But one day I will, inshallah!" Barea'a, 14, told IRIN. "I feel so sad for the people there, they are suffering," she added.


The camp has become a village with preventive health facilities and specialised clinics focusing on disease control, diabetes, dentistry and any other refugee health needs. "This health centre is overcrowded and we need to recruit more staff," Dr Muna Haj Hussein, medical officer in charge of the agency's Khan Eshieh Health Centre, told IRIN.

She outlined the main health problems in the camp which include hereditary sickle cell anaemia and blood diseases, as well as respiratory infections during the summer affecting mainly children.

Waiting patiently, refugees spoke about what life was like for them in Syria. "I suffer because I want to go home. I feel depressed. Life would be better if the fighting stopped back home and we could all return," refugee Hosam Awad told IRIN at the health centre. "I am an engineer, but I am doing
any job I can find whenever I can find it," he added.

One of the main problems at the camp is the water supply. At present a project is under way to improve the water and sewage system.

The 8 million euro project, funded by the EU, will ensure that residents have safe water on a daily basis, as well as a clean environment.

At present they receive 14,000 cubic metres of water per day, but their needs are three times that. There is no piped water available in the camp, causing intestinal diseases.

"There is no treatment for sewage in the camp. It is being discharged into rivers and valleys and this causes major health concerns," Project Manager, Mohammed Suttari told IRIN at the project office.

A recent survey by the World Health Organisation (WHO) showed that 10 percent of the population of Damascus suffered stomach problems.

Additional services offered to the refugees include a community centre which doubles as a women's programme centre, where they can learn skills such as sewing, pattern-making and hairdressing, as well as a nursery for children.

As well as the basic services provided by UNRWA to the refugees in Khan Eshieh, those who are in a more vulnerable position receive increased assistance. Some eight percent of the refugees are in extreme hardship and receive food and cash aid.