What if it’s safe enough to return home, but your house is uninhabitable? This is the case for thousands of displaced Syrian families who venture to go back to recently secured and accessible areas. Cordaid helps hundreds of them to repair their houses in urban and rural Aleppo. Shelter expert Marten Treffers reports from the field.
CORDAID SHELTER EXPERT REPORTS FROM SYRIA
Marten, what’s the situation today in cities like Aleppo, Homs and Damascus, compared to when you were there in March this year and last December?
It’s incomparably better. Before, you couldn’t move around safely in the old centre of Damascus. Today, streets are alive, people go out. Same thing in Homs and Aleppo, except that large parts of these cities are still in total ruins. In many neighbourhoods reconstruction hasn’t started yet. So, in one street people are driving around and enjoying themselves in sidewalk cafés, and in the next there’s the eerie silence of rows of destroyed and deserted buildings. It’s schizophrenic. Here and there you see a family who took the risk to move into their old apartment, inside a ruin. Basic furniture, no windows, no doors.
Generally, people are looking forward again. They want to move on, to repair or rebuild their homes, to work. Before, it was just fear and survival. In cities, where commerce and public life is picking up, it’s easier to find a job and settle again. In rural areas, where life is still more or less standing still, returnees have a much harder time.
DAMAGED TOWN BECOMES PRACTICAL CLASSROOM
What is Cordaid doing for them?
We finance and coordinate a shelter program, which is implemented by our Syrian partner GOPA-DERD. We do this both in Aleppo city and half an hour’s drive east of Aleppo, in the town of Dir Hafir. 70% of the houses in Dir Hafir are damaged but can be repaired and 10% is damaged beyond repair. Our efforts here are part of the Dutch Relief Alliance’s Syria Joint Response, which is supported by the Dutch Government.
Some 250 returnees, both women and men and all originally from the village of Dir Hafir, currently receive a 3 months training in either plumbing, electricity or painting. They gather in a training centre and practical sessions take place in some of the many damaged homes of Dir Hafir. So the war-torn town is a classroom in itself.
Participants will not only repair their own damaged homes. As they all come from the same village, they will also share each other’s expertise and help repair each other’s homes. We also think their newly acquired skills will enable them to generate some income. Because apart from a house to live in, returnees most need a source of income in order to carve a future.
Are we also repairing or rebuilding houses ourselves?
Initially, we also wanted to finance labour and material to repair 100 apartments, together with a Syrian contractor. And to provide material to the top 20 students to fix their own houses. Unfortunately, government regulations do not allow that in Dir Hafir. Foreign NGOs are not allowed to engage in actual reconstruction programs. We do understand why. In the past, many houses in Dir Hafir were built without official permits and registrations. Authorities do not allow reconstruction programs in what they consider to be ‘informal settlements’ and thus to legalize a situation which in their eyes is illegal.
Yet the shelters needs are urgent and enormous. That’s why we reallocated the money and will now repair 120 damaged houses in Bustan Al Basha. This section of eastern Aleppo city was badly hit by the war, but at least housing administration and urban planning meet government requirements. Meanwhile the shelter repair workshops in Dir Hafir continue, to the acclaim of all participants, not least of the women.
You also coordinate humanitarian work in Damascus and Homs. What is Cordaid doing there?
In Jaramana, a big city just outside Damascus, we support a community center which is run by the Jesuit Refugee Service. Social workers provide educational and psychosocial care, specifically to women and children. Many Syrian kids missed out on school because of the war. They come here to catch up on their learning backlog. Those who show signs of trauma, receive proper assistance.
In Al Hoffen, north of Homs, we repair 2 schools and dozens of apartments. Not with a contractor but with a Syrian NGO, SSSD, who has shelter staff and expertise. SSSD has its own community center in that part of Homs. They know the place and its people very well and work is done in close collaboration with the local population. Many returnees in Al Hoffen still have displaced relatives in Lebanon. We want to find out whether our support might make it easier for them to return home as well.
Can you tell a bit more about the beneficiaries of these programs. What stories do they share?
All of them have been displaced by war, for months, often for years. They went from place to place, seeking safety among friends, next of kin, in abandoned houses, anywhere. As long as their homes are unfit and unsafe to live in, many returnees now live with friends, family or other temporary places. Take the 3 middle aged sisters I met in Homs. War drove them out of their homes in 2011 and 2012. They survived in nearby villages. They’re not married, have no kids, no family. One is a teacher, two of them are now jobless. Their houses were completely destroyed. They went back to Homs, when it was safe enough. But they rely on support to pay the rent, to pay the doctor, even for basic food.
Or take Walaa, a young woman in Dir Hafir. After 2 years on the run, she went back to Dir Hafir last year. She’s one of the participants in our plumbing training. It’s unusual for a woman to do this. All women in these trainings are pioneers. Walaa also works as a nurse and has 2 kids. They live with their in-laws, as their own house lacks doors and windows, sanitation facilities are broken and all the furniture was stolen. Now her dream is to repair her own house and even to become the first female plumber in the area. She has a keen sense for business. ‘Everybody needs a good toilet’, she said. For plumbers, Dir Hafir is a very good market. On top of that, female plumbers have the advantage that they can enter the homes of single Syrian women and mothers.
How many women participate in the training sessions? Is Walaa an exception?
In a sense she is, as not many women in rural communities dare to participate in trainings such as these. Often they are not allowed by male relatives. Still, about 25% of the returnees who take one of our skills training courses are women. The reason for that is simple. There are very few men in Dir Hafir. Women stand on their own. Their men are either killed, or missing. Or they do not want to return home, knowing the army is waiting for them, forcing them pick up arms in the conflict that had displaced them and their families in the first place. Like Walaa, all women participants have an impressive story to tell. All of them empower themselves as well as their families and communities. And with our shelter program, we can humbly help people to move on and look forward again. And to carry the weight of loss and destruction.
THE STREETS OF HOMS
This is some of the footage Marten took while driving though the destroyed parts of Homs: