In March, activists, local leaders and NGOs launched an initiative to facilitate the return of residents to the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus. Their campaign included removing rubble from some streets, albeit without a legal framework to regulate it and without any simultaneous effort to document who owns the debris.
Damascus Governor Muhammad Kreishati visited Yarmouk on March 11 to launch a campaign called Hand in Hand, meant to help revitalise the camp, in partnership with the Initiative of the Civil Society body, which includes a group of local leaders, NGOs, and civil associations and relief groups active in the camp. According to officials in charge, the goal of the Initiative is to coordinate efforts between civil society and the Damascus governorate to rehabilitate infrastructure in Yarmouk.
As part of the Hand in Hand campaign, various civil and relief associations in the camp helped install solar-powered street lighting, set drinking water tanks, planted ornamental trees and distributed free bread to residents, among other tasks. The campaign aims to clean the main street of Yarmouk camp and Loubia and Palestine streets, maintain and construct road medians and sidewalks, and fill in holes. Other initiatives are planned to follow this one, focused on rebuilding the camp and allowing residents to return. Officials in charge did not disclose further details on the duration of the campaigns or funding.
Mr Kreishati said 3,000 civil society volunteers took part in the Hand in Hand campaign, in addition to governorate work crews. The campaign cleared rubble from a large portion of the nearby streets and between buildings. He added that the governorate made significant progress in providing water and sewage services to all the main streets in the camp and was currently coordinating with Damascus’s Directorate of Electricity to activate two electrical substations to meet the needs of the 1,800 families in Yarmouk.
A well-informed source told The Syria Report that the Damascus governorate is the entity that oversees rubble removal. Meanwhile, NGOs and civil and relief organisations provide work crews and secure financial liquidity to cover operating costs. One of the most prominent organisations involved in this work has been the Al-Quds Charitable Association, which brought in 36-member work crews along with three vehicles: a medium-sized truck and two small trucks meant to assist with ten days of rubble removal. The association later said on its Facebook account that it would keep working until it cleared the entire camp of rubble.
Al-Quds Charitable Association was established in 2011. Most of its members were part of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement. The association’s work receives official media coverage. The Ministry of Local Administration has also honoured its members several times. It has been responsible for the most significant activities related to rubble removal, street lighting and the provision of water tanks in the camp.
According to the well-informed source, most NGOs working in Yarmouk are affiliated with pro-regime Palestinian factions. Despite their aid efforts in the camp, their primary focus is collecting donations to fund these factions. This explains the different names of these NGOs and the existence of multiple similar NGOs affiliated with a single faction.
In any case, camp residents have complained about the slow and irregular pace of debris removal. In several instances, debris was moved from one site to another within the camp without being taken away, such as in the Waseem Project neighbourhood. Moreover, roads remain blocked between the camp and adjacent areas due to debris and earthen berms, including Al-Tadhamon, Yalda, and Al-Hajar Al-Aswad. Homes under restoration and repair work have also been targeted by theft, including the removal of iron rebar from ceilings and walls. Such thefts are especially rampant in the March 8th neighbourhood and some areas between Yarmouk and Al-Hajar Al-Aswad.
The Action Group for Palestinians of Syria reported on April 10 that the Damascus governorate changed various signage and symbols in Yarmouk after finishing restoration and rehabilitation work at the camp’s entrance. This included removing Palestinian flags and symbols from the main entrance, replacing the word “camp” with “street” and using the term Yarmouk area instead of Yarmouk camp. Meanwhile, the pro-opposition news site Saut Al-Asima reported on March 16 that residents wishing to return to Yarmouk and Al-Hajar Al-Aswad would no longer be required to visit the Palestine Branch of Military Security or the National Security Office to obtain approval. Instead, they must submit a written request to a recently established military security detachment located on Yarmouk’s Thalatheen Street.