Outside Syria, policymakers, international organizations and universities have directed significant attention to the destruction of cultural heritage in Syria, such as the damage caused to the ancient cities of Aleppo, Palmyra and Krak des Chevaliers. This has led to several projects, publications and conferences that have focused on the historical loss in Syria, the possible ways to protect culture in crises and the use of digital innovations to document, scan, produce and reproduce lost or damaged monuments. However, what has often been missing in these efforts is responses to the destruction of residential areas, which in some cases, have been razed to the ground.
In contrast to this emerging debate, local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and charities inside Syria have been undertaking significant work throughout the conflict to address this gap. Their focus has been on lesser-known areas to the outside world, contributing to the recovery of ordinary people and their ordinary buildings, such as their homes and schools. However, their work has been rarely documented in the growing literature on the Syrian crisis.
The housing sector has been one of the most affected sectors in the Syrian armed conflict. In 2014, UN Habitat and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation published ‘City Profile Homs’ which included an analysis of housing stock in the city. The report shows large scale destruction of the city, with 50 per cent of the neighbourhoods heavily damaged, 22 per cent partially damaged and 22 per cent affected. This equates to 18, 8 and 10 neighbourhoods respectively although these figures have changed since then due to the besiegement of the Al-Waer neighbourhood until May 2017. When the damage was analysed by area and land use, it was found that the housing sector was the most affected sector in the city, with 83 per cent of all heavily or partially damaged. A similar pattern was also found in Aleppo, where 66 per cent of total damage in the city has been to residential buildings according to a report of the World Bank on the city’s situation in February 2017.
This mass destruction of homes, and their deliberate destruction known as domicide, has severely affected residents, not only because of the destruction of their physical built environment, but because of the traumatic impact of its destruction on them. Many Syrians have been displaced, sometimes several times, without being able to return to their homes. Some of them are unable to rebuild their partially or heavily damaged homes or have decided to reside in the new areas they moved to during the war either within or outside Syria.
In response to the mass destruction of homes, and the internal displacement of the Syrian people, local charities have been working since the start of the conflict on the ground. Some of these charities were already established before the war but their work has increased dramatically in scope since the outbreak of war. Other charities have emerged since 2011 as emergency responses but their work concentrates on different aspects of urban recovery – including tangible and intangible aspects.
On the tangible aspects of recovery, charities have focused on responding to the damage to the built environment by working on the rehabilitation of partially damaged houses so that internally displaced people (IDPs) can return to their homes. One of the ways they have achieved this is by assessing the damage to buildings by using maps in order to influence future rehabilitation and reconstruction projects. However, the capacity of these charities is challenged by the scale of the destruction of the built environment, the lack of a skilful construction workforce which has largely left the country, the increasing prices of materials and the cost to transport them to construction sites. An assessment of the conflict’s impact on economic and social outcomes in Syria as of early 2017 is well-documented in the Toll of War by the World Bank.
One of the local charities in Homs – the third largest city in Syria – is Jamiat Al-Bir wa Al-Khadamat Al-Ejtemaeia which was founded in 1956. The work of the charity has evolved dynamically since 2011. New projects have emerged to engage more with impacted local and displaced communities including Read my Book, 15 Minutes which aims to spread new ideas similar to TED talks and the Gheras Initiative which focuses mainly on enabling young people through educational and training programmes. In 2017, the charity, in collaboration with the UNHCR, rehabilitated 214 apartments in the city of Homs which has benefited 1,382 people. Such projects enable IDPs to return to their homes and bring life back to damaged towns and cities.
On the intangible aspects of recovery, local charities have concentrated on social and cultural elements of the recovery in Syria by creating new projects and initiatives to help people help themselves and recover from the trauma they have been through. This has led to increasing community participation and growing levels of volunteering in Syria with an array of projects that include reading clubs, training courses, empowering orphans, and providing vocational training for local communities.
Today, there are several charities working on the ground across Syrian towns and cities. They are shaped by the needs of people in different geographies or driven by religious charitable intentions. Some are led by local communities and are for local communities. Others focus on homes which contrasts with conversations over reconstructing Syria’s cultural heritage. But more importantly, these charities have brought hope back to Syria’s cities at a time of destruction and displacement.
It is therefore of vital importance to engage with local charities more and understand their strategies which could be transformed from emergency responses and early recovery initiatives to long-term and sustainable projects.