At a school-turned-shelter in an upscale neighbourhood of the Syrian capital, sheets hanging from makeshift clotheslines divide classrooms into separate sleeping quarters for the 238 families that live here.
This shelter in Damascus is considered “5-star”, compared to those elsewhere in the country, where Syrians displaced by nearly two years of conflict have settled in unfinished concrete buildings, exposed to snow and rain through open windows, without electricity or running water.
But even amid the better conditions in Damascus, the displaced here say they are “living one on top of another”.
When a man from Daraya, a town in Rural Damascus (the governorate which surrounds the capital) that has been shelled repeatedly in recent weeks, walks in looking for a place for him and his family to stay, the shelter supervisor, Firaz Tarbouch, has to turn him away for lack of a space.
As the Syrian conflict drags on, shelters are filling up, support systems are breaking down, savings are running out and violence is engulfing an increasing number of communities. As a result, refuge is increasingly hard to find for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing violence, some of them zigzagging across the country in search of safety - often in vain.
As one displaced man put it, “there is no safe place in Syria any more.”
It is a view shared by Radhouane Nouicer, the regional humanitarian coordinator in Damascus, who recently told journalists: “There are nearly no more safe areas where people can flee.”
Towns increasingly “empty”
“Towns and villages across Latakia, Idlib, Hama and Dera’a governorates have been effectively emptied of their populations,” says the latest report by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria. “Entire neighbourhoods in southern and eastern Damascus, Deir al-Zour and Aleppo have been razed. The downtown of Homs city has been devastated.”
Rural Damascus has been the scene of fighting for months. But where people displaced by conflict in one town used to find shelter in another nearby, in recent weeks, refuge has become increasingly scarce as each of these communities becomes consumed by violence, aid workers said.
“Now all of Rural Damascus is affected,” said Sliman Jawabra, who distributes aid from the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in areas affected by the conflict there.
“We know of families who have been displaced as many as six times,” said Alexandre Equey, deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s delegation in Syria, which has developed a separate food basket to better serve the needs of those displaced multiple times, providing them with canned hummus and other ready-made foods that can be eaten without gas, oil or electricity, while families look for more permanent shelter with cooking facilities. “The conflict is so fluid. It’s moving fast, and as a result humanitarian needs are growing sharply,” Equey told IRIN.
The 16 December bombing of densely-populated Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees in Damascus, which was also home to displaced Syrians, is only the latest example, with thousands of people fleeing once more - for the capital and the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon (both already overcrowded).
Estimates of the number of people displaced internally within Syria vary, from two million (UN) to 2.5 million (the Syrian Arab Red Crescent - SARC) to 3.2 million (Syrian prime minister), with some governorate-level officials suggesting the figures may be even higher.
They are staying with relatives; renting small apartments, several families to a room; or living in some 460 public buildings, 2,000 government schools and other schools run by the UN relief agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA).
We’ll keep going until the last cent. If tomorrow, we have run out, we’ll say: `We have nothing. We’ll die with you’.
But as the displacement crisis grows, the informal networks that used to sustain people are slowly running dry. Families that used to host displaced relatives can no longer shoulder the burden.
“People who used to help others are now in need of help,” said JRS’s Jawabra.
When Marwa Alu, 15, fled Yarmouk with her family several months ago, they initially stayed with her grandfather in Damascus. But as more and more of their extended family sought refuge in the same house, eventually, something had to give. She and her family of 11 slept outside in a park for a month and a half before finding a shelter to take them in.
Many businessmen who used to donate have left the country. Landlords and hotel owners who once gave free space to displaced people are now forced to ask for rent.
This is the case in one run-down hotel in downtown Damascus, where 35 of the 50 rooms are occupied by displaced Syrians, mostly from the embattled city of Homs. After several months, the hotel owner recently started asking for rent. With the Syrian economy crumbling, he too needed to earn a living.
Um Hassan’s family has barely left the corridors of the hotel in seven months.
One of her three children is disabled. She sleeps on the floor because there is no space in the small hotel room and does not take her required medicines because her mother cannot afford them. The family survives off hand-outs received from local charities in July and August, during Ramadan, and carefully rationed ever since.
“We’ve become beggars,” Um Hassan said.
Despite the struggle for daily survival, she spends most of her days wondering how she will pay the rent at the end of the month, and where she and her children will end up if she cannot.
“I don’t know what to do,” she says, tears streaming down her face. She is not alone in her confusion.
People affected by violence in Rural Damascus face difficult choices: some are now making their way into the city, where they may find more safety, but can barely survive due to high rent and limited space. Where possible, others have returned to their areas of origin, because they are now safer than the places to which they fled and more affordable than other options.
According to UNRWA, of the Palestinian refugees who fled Yarmouk camp after it was attacked this month, 2,000 left for Homs - one of the areas worst affected by the conflict.
Amid dwindling options, once unthinkable places like Homs and Hama are now seen as legitimate options.
Khadija, her husband and her three children fled the outskirts of Hama without shoes when clashes approached her home seven months ago. First, they stayed with relatives in neighbouring Idlib Governorate, but it too was soon caught up in the violence. They then made their way to the capital, where they can barely afford rent in the poor Jaramana suburb. But since last month, bombs have been going off frequently in Jaramana, and her husband, a labourer, has struggled to find work.
She cannot afford nappies, so she changes her baby only twice a day. Her family has not eaten meat in six months; and in the absence of enough blankets, “we keep each other warm.” Stuffed into her handbag is an old robe she found on the street.
“I don’t know how we will pay the rent this month,” she told IRIN. “We may have to go back to Hama. What can we do? What can we do? Everywhere is in crisis now.”
Not enough aid
Under these circumstances, more and more people are turning to aid agencies for help. The UN and SARC are reaching up to 1.5 million people a month with food, and hundreds of thousands with blankets, kitchen sets, hygiene kits and other items. But with winter here, the displaced need warm clothes, heaters and heating fuel, among other things. Aid agencies acknowledge they cannot help all of the displaced: there is simply not enough aid to go around.
Many of the shelters in which the displaced are living are not adequately prepared for the cold and do not have proper sanitation systems in place.
The Ministry of Local Administration has identified 520 collective shelters in need of rehabilitation. UN agencies and NGOs aimed to fix up 40 by the end of the year.
“Longer term shelter solutions are required,” the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in its most recent bulletin.
On 19 December, the UN revised its funding appeal to nearly $520 million for the first six months of 2013. Previous appeals throughout 2012 were consistently under-funded.
In October, JRS, which gives monthly food packages to 900 families, had 200 new families turn up at its small office in the Dwelaa neighbourhood of Damascus, including 80 families on a single day, stretching the small organization’s resources.
“I couldn’t refuse them,” said Father Nawras Sammour, JRS’s regional director. “But I don’t know how long I can last financially. We’ll keep going until the last cent. If tomorrow, we have run out, we’ll say: `We have nothing. We’ll die with you’.”