Aleppo, April 2008
UNRWA Embarks on Large-Scale Camp Rehabilitation with Support of UAE Red Crescent Society
With more than 9,000 people crammed into an area 650 meters by 200 meters, Neirab camp near Aleppo has a population density that sadly rivals Gaza. Most of the population lives in small one-room shelters. Depending on the time of day, these tiny rooms may serve as living rooms, salons or bedrooms.
Um Hashem, Neirab resident, outlines in gestures how six people can sleep in twelve square metres: four people lay sideways across the room. Meanwhile, Um Hashem lies lengthways, clutching her two-month-old son.
It has been close quarters in Neirab camp since the first Palestine refugees fled their homeland to Syria in 1948, where they were put up in abandoned WWII barracks. Originally, each barrack in the former British and French military base housed sixteen families. With successive generations the camp population increased, however the size of the camp has stayed the same. To address overcrowding, an infrastructural overhaul has become necessary.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has donated USD five million to UNRWA to alleviate the slum-like conditions of the camp through Phase II of the Neirab Rehabilitation Project. Through this initiative, Um Hashem’s family hope to see their home enlarged to the UNRWA standard 71m2.
In Phase I of the Neirab Rehabilitation Project, UNRWA built new shelters for Neirab refugees in the nearby camp of Ein el Tal, which does not suffer from the same overcrowding. This phase is drawing to a close with 300 families relocating to new shelters. Their decampment will provide additional space for the refugees still residing in Neirab.
In Phase II of the project, starting this month, UNRWA will begin by demolishing the old shelters in Neirab. The new open space will be used to develop green areas, improve infrastructure and renovate shelters for families. Currently children have no green spaces in which to play, as there are no public parks – instead, groups of young people struggle to play soccer in one of Neirab’s many narrow alleyways; most of which do not exceed 1 metre in width.
The Agency will also increase the capacity of UNRWA’s health, education and relief services. As such, a considerable part of the donation of the UAE Red Crescent Society is earmarked to build a new health centre and to provide new equipment, including an ambulance. The improvement of public services is complemented by micro-finance and micro-lending schemes to alleviate the widespread poverty in the camp: more than half of the population of Neirab lives under the World Bank international poverty line, at less than $2 a day.
Um Hashem’s family decided to stay in Neirab as her husband is an imam of the Neirab mosque. Close quarters can also foster a strong social safety net. "We have strong community ties in Neirab," says Um Hashem. "Even if we face privation, it is the only place I know."
Um Hashem is glad that an ambulance will soon be available to Neirab refugees as part of Phase II of the project. Because of the distance to emergency care facilities, sometimes routine illnesses can become matters of life and death. Two years ago, Um Hashem’s daughter, Najma, suffered from a bad case of pneumonia and required oxygen. As this occurred during the middle of the night, the camp clinic was closed. Her family is too poor to own a car, so they had to wait for public transportation to take their daughter to a hospital in Aleppo, more than 15 kilometers away. Fortunately, she received the necessary treatment in time.
Volker Schimmel, UNRWA Project Officer for the Neirab Rehabilitation Project, insists that although the living conditions of Palestine refugees in Neirab must be improved considerably, the project is not calling into question their right of return. "We want to allow Palestinians to live in dignity," he states. "Choosing not to live in misery does not mean that they will forfeit their right of return."
By Lachlyn Soper
UNRWA is still seeking donors to carry out Phase II of the Neirab Rehabilitation Project in its entirety. Please direct donor enquiries to Volker Schimmel, firstname.lastname@example.org