(Damascus) September 7, 2013 — As Pope Francis leads a vigil for peace this evening in St. Peter's Square in Rome, the people of Damascus face another day of fear, violence and uncertainty in the face of a conflict that seems to grow in ferocity with each passing moment.
It has been no ordinary summer for the residents of Damascus. Escalating fighting in the surrounding areas of the city means that mortars, rockets, shelling, explosions and stray bullets have become part of everyday life within the city centre.
Amidst the stress and danger caused by the ongoing fighting, and the fear brought on by the uncertainty of potential military strikes by foreign powers in response to allegations of chemical weapons attacks, tensions are high in Damascus.
The Lebanese-Syrian border has seen a dramatic spike in numbers of Syrians seeking to cross into Lebanon in the past week. This week the number of refugees from Syria passed the two million mark; that is nearly 10 percent of Syria’s population. For comparison, an equivalent proportion of American refugees would be more than 30 million people.
For those still in Damascus, life goes on despite the uncertainty.
"There aren't really any safe areas anymore, a mortar can land anytime, anywhere," said Nader*, a Jesuit Refugee Service staff member based in Damascus.
"But life goes on, we do what we can, when we can, death has become our daily reality. Every morning when I leave my house, it could be the last time I see my daughter."
Prices of daily commodities — bread, fruits, vegetables and dairy products — are exborbitant for Syrians, and increasing numbers of families need assistance in the form of food baskets. Medical assistance for people suffering from chronic illnesses continues to be an area of main concern for JRS as the health system in Syria is essentially non-existent.
The British medical journal The Lancet last week noted that “The disruption to routine health services for children, women, and those who rely on stable supplies of medicines and health services…will inevitably cause substantial increases in preventable mortality. The cruelty of the destruction of the health system is one of the deepest tragedies for Syria today.”
JRS summer activities
During July, a clothes distribution took place in Bab Touma at the Jesuit Refugee Service St. Albert Hurtado center. Children each received a pair of jeans and two t-shirts.
"We distributed to 1,750 children whose families have been displaced, some [displaced] more than once. The displaced families aren’t only Syrian — there are Iraqis and other nationalities who are also trapped inside Syria for one reason or the other — they are also in need of support."
The clothes distribution took place over four days and was facilitated by 65 volunteers who usually assist in JRS activities in Bab Touma. The bravery and dedication of the network of JRS volunteers throughout Syria is remarkable.
Life in Rif Dimashq
In many areas that are classified as Rif Dimashq (Damascus countryside or suburbs) living conditions have deteriorated drastically as the fighting has escalated. Water and electricity shortages are common, with water sometimes not available for 48 hours at a time. All drinking water has to be purchased in these areas. Displacement of people from these areas is high as families flee them in search of less dangerous locations.
In the area of Jdaydeh Artouz — on the outskirts of Damascus — summer activities were hosted for children aged four to 14 who live in collective shelters. Every day for three hours, 120 children participated in sports, theatre, art, music and handicraft activities.
"The aim of the summer activities isn’t only to entertain the children but also to help them cope with the pyschological ramifications of the conflict. It also allowed adults the chance to volunteer to help, and focused on developing the children’s individual and collective skills."
JRS also runs two field kitchens in Rif Dimashq, providing 4,285 cooked meals daily. These meals are then distributed to displaced people living in shelters, abandoned buildings, or makeshift accommodation where they do not have the facilities to prepare their own cooked food.
"There is a feeling of hopelessness amongst Syrians, and in Damascus there is a sense of great fear because no one knows what will happen next."
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