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Surviving a conflict entering fourth year, how much longer to go?

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Notes from the Field: Bio: Irina Prentice, UNRWA Syria Crisis Communications Officer, travelled to Syria shortly before the third anniversary of the conflict. She met with Palestine refugees trapped in the besieged area of Yarmouk and in 2 of the 34 collective shelters now housing 14,000 internally displaced persons.

“Lord have mercy. People have died. What is this world we live in?” says an old man, sobbing. “Does no one care? Where has people’s humanity gone?”

Amid striped sunlight and pools of standing water, standing on Rama Street in Yarmouk camp, I look up in dismay at the burned façade of a building, its third floor gutted by explosive munitions. Entire concrete walls dangle from steel supports bent downward - the building’s structure has been deformed by repeated blasts. On a once bustling street in Yarmouk, Damascus, the ravaged buildings are silent. Their scars stand testimony to the intensity of the clashes that engulfed the area.

Anxious men, women and children cautiously approach across the rubble, hoping to receive desperately needed UNRWA food assistance. They have been living under siege for the past nine months. In Yarmouk, previously home to 160,000 Palestine refugees, 18,000 now remain trapped. They are in dire need of continuous and unhindered humanitarian support. They share with me the harrowing stories of their daily struggle for survival, in search of food and safe shelter.

Aaliya*, a thin woman wearing black, is standing in line to receive UNRWA humanitarian aid. She tells me she thinks she has lost about 20 kg since Ramadan 2013, when the siege of Yarmouk camp began. Recounting the hardship she has faced living under the siege, she has trouble holding back her emotion. “For eight months, children have had no bread, and there is no food to buy”, she says.

Drying her tears, Aaliya shows me her hand. Dirt has filled the cracks in her palms, which are rough and leathery. I ask her how she has been feeding herself. “With a group of woman, we go to the field fields try to find something to eat. If there were no weeds, we would be dead. We eat once at night, weeds and soup”, she says. I ask about her house. “My house was shelled so I am living in someone’s empty apartment. There is no electricity, there is no light. We have been cooking with wood from furniture. Is this acceptable?” she asks me. “Is this acceptable?”

Aaliya’s strength and vulnerability are striking, but everything about her demeanour describes exhaustion. Simply, I ask how she is doing and how she is coping.

“I have been scared to death.” She starts to cry again, dropping her head her hands. “I swear to God, all I want is for people to come back to the camp and return to normal life.”

Today, most Palestine refugees have lost their livelihoods; many have lost their homes; their families are scattered. Over 50 percent of the 540,000 Palestinians in Syria have been displaced within Syria. Tens of thousands more have fled to neighbouring countries. Of the Palestine refugees who have fled violently contested areas, many live in collective shelters across Damascus. They describe stories of heartbreaking loss and enduring sorrow. Many ask whether I can help track down their missing relatives.

In the Jaramana collective shelter, Hanna*, accompanied by two of her young children, approaches me. With an exhausted voice, she asks me whether I can help locate her husband, who disappeared one morning when he left the house to go to work. “I have four children, two are small. I have no work and I simply don’t know how we are going to me make it”, she says. “Do you know how I can find my husband?” she asks me, her eyes welling up with tears.

Before the conflict, 27 per cent of Palestine refugees lived on less than US$ 2 per day, meaning many have exhausted their already limited resources. Young men are particularly vulnerable. Their studies cut short, they struggle with unemployment. The desperate situation of many of the families I met is worsened by the inability to find work.

In the UNRWA Haifa School, which has been turned into collective centre, I meet Ahmed*. He tells me he was a contractor. “I specialized in painting and decorating interiors, but it is really hard to find work”, he says. “Over the past year, I have had four painting jobs only, and the rest of the time I just stay in our room in this shelter”, he continues. “Not working is a nightmare, and the worst is that I feel awful not being able to provide for my family”, he says.

I ask if he is hopeful that he will go back, to which Ahmed responds, “Inshallah”, God willing.

In the fourth year of conflict, the humanitarian situation of Palestine refuges in Syria is desperate. Continued use of armed force has disrupted Agency efforts to alleviate the plight of many civilians. In Yarmouk, UNRWA continues to strongly demand that parties to the conflict cease hostilities and immediately allow the resumption of food distribution to civilians trapped inside. Overall, UNRWA needs to provide continuous humanitarian assistance to over 440,000 conflict-affected Palestine refugees in Syria. Each individual contribution is a symbol of humanity. Please support the Palestine refugees from Syria today.

  • Names have been changed