DAMASCUS: These are the new “tourists” in Damascus: families fleeing the violence in their hometowns who now live in decrepit hotels, packed into tiny spaces where they even cook in bathrooms.
Since the March 2011 outbreak of the conflict, 4.25 million Syrians have been internally displaced, while more than 2 million more have fled the country in what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Tuesday called a “disgraceful humanitarian calamity.”
In one lower-end hotel in the working class district of Marjeh, Hana fondly recalls her big traditional home made of basalt stone in an old district of Homs, the third largest city in Syria that has been devastated by war.
“There was a pretty patio, many windows overlooking the road. I’ve been told it’s been completely destroyed,” she says, stopping at times to choke back tears as her two sons and daughter look on.
Hana lost her husband at the beginning of the war, which started out as a rebellion against the regime of Bashar Assad and has since evolved into a fully fledged armed conflict.
Her husband was kidnapped and killed by unknown assailants.
Over the past two years, the 30-something widow has changed hotel three times. For seven months, she has lived in this room where four beds are crammed in front of a television set.
In a corner lies a suitcase, the only one she was able to bring as they fled the deadly violence engulfing Homs. “We spend all day looking at television series or cooking,” she says.
“Look at my ‘kitchen,’” she adds, pointing to a little rusty stove standing next to the toilet.
In other rooms, the wallpaper is withered with damp, neon lights flickering constantly as moisture oozes from air conditioning units.
The hotel used to be full of Iranian pilgrims who had flocked to visit Sayyida Zeinab, a Shiite holy shrine near the Syrian capital.
But now, the displaced from Homs mix with those from the Damascus area, occupying half of the 40 rooms, according to hotel employees.
Hana says she sometimes borrows the washing machine from her “neighbors, who are displaced from Harasta,” a suburb of Damascus where army forces are battling the rebels.
“My husband was a taxi driver in Homs and earned a good living, I didn’t want for anything,” she says with a sad smile as she adjusts her multi-colored veil.
A woman helped her before recently leaving the country, and Hana is now entirely without resources. “I owe the hotel three months” in rent, she says.
Her 16-year-old son prepares embers used for nargileh water pipes in a nearby cafe.
“He sometimes gets tips of 500 Syrian pounds [around $2] a day, which helps us to survive,” Hana says.
“When I think about my situation, my head’s ready to explode.”
For many displaced, it is the feeling of loss that hurts the most.
“I had a shop selling mobile phones, I felt important. Now, when we go ask a charity for help, we feel just like beggars,” says Abu Amer, who has lived in the same hotel for a year and a half. “You know who helps us most? The churches in Bab Touma” in old Damascus.
The lobby and stairs in the hotel have turned into a playground for the children of the displaced, who like to skid down the ramp or chat on the floor.
“I’m from Jubar,” says a pale-looking boy of one of the flashpoint suburbs of Damascus.
In the hotel dining room, deserted by the waiters, Abu Amer and his friends sit at the tables, playing cards.
Rarely do tourists venture into the hotels in this Damascus district now, bar a few Arab businessmen.
So the establishments have lowered their room rates, and some say they house displaced people for free.
But they too have to earn money and meet their costs.
“We used to pay 25,000 Syrian pounds a month, but now the hotel wants 30,000 pounds as fuel costs are increasing,” Abu Amer says.
By and large, though, most of the displaced say they prefer their rudimentary lifestyle to that of being a refugee. “At least we’re in our own country,” Hana says.