Damascus Slum Dwellers Fear Eviction

Residents complain of dreadful conditions, but worry redevelopment plan will leave them homeless.

Damascus Slum Dwellers Fear Eviction

Residents complain of dreadful conditions, but worry redevelopment plan will leave them homeless.

Tuesday, 19 May, 2009
When the roof of his house started to cave in, Ibrahim Mohammad, 37, did not complain or consider moving out.

Instead, he tried to patch it up with a piece of plastic as well as he could.

Mohammad, who sells groceries from a cart for a living, lives with his five children and his wife in Ish al-Warour, one of a dozen slums in Damascus.

“I thank God I have, at least, a shelter for me and my family,” said Mohammad, referring to his small home, which consists of a living room, kitchen and bathroom.

“What can we do about this difficult situation?” asked Mohammad, who said he inherited his house from his father.

“If I had money, I would have moved out. Living here is hard.”

Damascus’s sprawling slums are a hodgepodge of unlicensed, makeshift buildings constructed randomly on state-owned land, outside the frame of any urban planning.

First erected in the Fifties in the capital and its suburbs, they have swollen in size over the last ten years. This is due to rising real-estate prices, an influx of villagers into the city and an increase in homelessness, say observers.

A study carried out in 2008 by the housing ministry revealed that the slums cover 15,000 hectares in Damascus and its surroundings.

These impoverished areas, which can also be found in other Syrian cities, lack hospitals and schools, as well as basic services – including supplies of water and electricity, and sewage systems.

Around two million people live in the slums of Damascus and its suburbs, says Adel al-Fakir, an expert on population studies, in a recent interview with the Italian news agency, AKI.

Experts say that there is a need for around 700,000 new homes to alleviate overcrowding in the slums.

According to Adnan Ali, an official at the local governance ministry, living in these areas is the only option open to many poor citizens.

“I feel totally helpless,” said Ossama Jazzem, an Arabic language teacher who rents a small house in one slum called Mezza 86.

“The prices of real estate are very high. I can’t [afford to] buy or even rent a house in a proper neighbourhood. That’s why I moved here.”

The inhabitants of the slums live in extremely poor conditions, said a housing ministry official, speaking under conditions of anonymity.

Sewage is discharged on the streets, posing serious health threats, he said.

According to him, more than 60 per cent of the slum dwellers suffer from lung diseases, including cancer.

Yussef Al-Khalidi, an expert on social issues, said social and economic problems are also prevalent in these high-density areas, “The unhealthy proximity of people and families crowded in small residences generates delinquent behaviour.”

He added that unemployment and illiteracy were higher in the slums.

Some observers accuse the government of having overlooked these neighbourhoods for many years.

The Syrian government recently announced a plan to rebuild the slum areas, but details are thin on the ground. It said it was also negotiating with banks to offer long-term, low-interest home loans to their residents.

“These neighbourhoods should be restored to fit the needs of their inhabitants,” said Mustafa al-Kafri, an economics professor at Damascus University.

Mohammad, who has lived in his poor neighbourhood all his life, said he holds the state responsible for the conditions in which he lives.

But he, like others, is concerned about where he might live if the government proceeds to redevelop the slum areas.

“The state should find us alternatives if it decides to [get rid of] the slums,” he said.

Spokesman for Syrian embassy in London Jihad Makdissi said there are around 300,000 people living in slums around Damascus, not two million cited by Al-Fakir.

He said the government had a gradual plan to rehabilitate the slums, although he gave no further details. But he insisted that no-one would be made homeless.

“No person in Syria is thrown out of his home or will [be thrown out,] without [the authorities] finding him another home [first],” he said.
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