The Suwayda Governorate in southern Syria has been a destination for many civilians seeking refuge from the Syrian regime’s shelling and siege of parts of Daraa, Homs, Idlib, Aleppo and the Aleppan and Damascene countryside, and also for those who have fled from ISIS attacks in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.
Despite the apparent calm in the city of Suwayda, there is an undercurrent of violence, beginning in 2012 when the activists Khaldoun Shuqair and Ma’in Radwan were murdered., Higher-level assassinations of the city’s prominent figures followed, including leader of the Sheikhs of Dignity Waheed al-Bal’ous in September 2015.
Displaced families, known locally as ‘newcomers’, are nonetheless choosing to stay in Suwayda, which they see as a relatively safe area that gives them the best chance for survival.
The Red Crescent estimates there are 11,000 families in Suwayda today, with most of them living in the governorate’s capital city and the rest scattered across the countryside.
Many families are missing men who have either been killed, arrested or forcibly disappeared, or are fighting in armed opposition groups in areas outside of regime control.
Since the start of this wave of displacement, three main cities in the governorate have absorbed IDPs: Suwayda, Shabha, and Salkhad. Locals have borne the brunt of the responsibility for providing the displaced with necessities like housing, food and medical treatment, in addition to helping their children return to school.
From 2011 to 2013, the most active local humanitarian groups in Suwayda were made up of youth. But many young people fled, after being pursued by security forces or attempting to evade military conscription. As the conflict went on, the government opened schools to receive displaced persons. An accommodation centre at the former al-Tala’i’ camp, along with the camps at Ara and Kanake,r were later established for the absorption of newcomers.
Suwayda provides job opportunities for IDPs based on where they have settled. Those in the camps work in agricultural plants where they pick apples and tomatoes, while those near the industrial zone in Rasas or Shabha often work making furniture or as car mechanics. Many newcomers living in the city centre work as cart sellers or sales assistants in shops.
According to the Red Crescent in Suwayda, women who stay at home are limited to weaving wool and embroidery. This is why more women are migrating to the city where there is a wider range of jobs, including as secretaries, clothing store sales assistants, seamstresses and house cleaners.
Newcomers who have settled in the accommodation centre at al-Tala’i’ camp also face the problem of not being able to leave except with official approval. Even those transported by ambulance must be accompanied by security personnel to and from the hospital. This policy is part of the so-called ‘political survey’ run by the security forces on every new arrival to the centre.
Many IDP families are struggling to overcome legal obstacles associated with their lack of identification papers as a result of their displacement. Most children aged nine and under are not registered in the ‘Family Record Book’, since registration is normally completed in the city or town where a Syrian citizen is originally from. Registering these minors is not possible in most areas to which people have migrated, including Suwayda.
There is, however, an agreement between the Red Crescent and the directorate of education in the governorate that ensures children without identification papers will not lose their right to education. Nevertheless, children face hurdles to educational attainment, such as the prevalence of child labour as well as a lack of urgency on the part of some families to send them to school due to a lack of financial resources. Moreover, many girls aged 14 and 15 face the prospect of early marriage.
Most newcomers migrate to Suwayda because they cannot leave Syria or their families have been split up, with parents trying to stay as close as possible to their children who have been conscripted or imprisoned. Meanwhile, their places of origin such as Homs, Aleppo and the countryside of Damascus (regained by the regime and no longer being bombed) remain uninhabitable due to the level of destruction and lack of services.
This is further complicated by what the government requires in terms of documentation and procedures for Syrians to return to their once-insurgent cities and towns. There are those who have returned and faced the challenge of starting over from scratch. Others have gone back to care for the elderly in their families who are emotionally attached to their homes. Sometimes, the mother stays behind so the children can attend school while the father returns to tend to farmland and the house, if it is still intact.