Khan Dunoun was founded many centuries ago as a place for merchants' caravans to spend the night while traveling between Jerusalem and Damascus. After the Nakba, the ruins of the caravanserai were converted into a shelter for refugees who came to Syria from northern Palestine. Unlike the residents of many Palestinian camps in Syria, the people in the Khan Dunoun camp have not been displaced in recent years, but living conditions there have deteriorated because large numbers of Palestinians and Syrians moved there from parts of Syria destroyed by war.
The Origins of the Camp
Khan Dunoun camp was set up in 1951 on three hectares (7.5 acres) of land 23 kilometers south of the Syrian capital Damascus. The camp is surrounded to the west and the north by the town of al-Tayba and its farmland, to the south by the farmland of Ein al-Beda village, and to the east by the town of Khiyarat Dunoun. The Syrian government's General Authority for Palestinian Arab Refugees (GAPAR) rented the land. Administratively, the camp is part of Damascus Countryside Governorate, but its status remains undecided at the municipal level; it is not clear whether it is governed by al-Kiswa Municipality, al-Tayba Municipality, or Khiyarat Dunoun Municipality. This uncertainty leaves the camp forgotten and neglected, and complaints from the residents do not reach the right authorities.
The inhabitants of the Khan Dunoun camp trace their origins to the villages in the Safad area: Mallaha, al-Salihiyya, Jahula, al-Dawwara, al-Khalisa, al-Zuq, Khiyam al-Walid, and al-Muftakhira, and from two Bedouin clans from Galilee: the Torma and the Arab al-Sawalima. Most of the inhabitants trace their origins to Mallaha and al-Salihiyya.
About 500 Palestinian refugees settled in the camp in 1948 and by 1995, through natural growth, the population had grown to about 6,000. By 2002 the population had jumped to 8,603 refugees, and by 2009 to 9,479 registered refugees in 2,191 families. In 2013 the population was estimated at between 10,000 and 11,000.
Infrastructure and Urban Planning
The old caravanserai was too small to accommodate the growing population, so people camped nearby on land that GAPAR rented to the west of the historic building. The tents were gradually replaced by more permanent structures, primarily houses made of reinforced concrete. As a result of the many expansions, the camp developed four distinct sections: the old camp with narrow streets and old houses, the extended area to the south of the camp, the western quarters, and the new extension to the north, with regular streets and large multi-story houses.
Despite the improvements to the infrastructure, problems remained and were sometimes aggravated by the increase in population. Water supplies and sewerage were the most complicated of these problems until the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), with European Union financing, replaced the old systems with new ones. UNRWA also supervises garbage collection in the camp through the office of the hygiene inspector, while GAPAR is in charge of the maintenance of the streets in the camp and the Syrian government, through various agencies, provides electricity and telephone connections.
However, some new parts of the camp, such as the Aqqad quarter, still suffer from water and sewerage problems because UNRWA does not consider itself responsible for these services. A Palestinian political group has contracted to have extensions to the network dug into these areas, but not all areas have been reached.
Social and Economic Conditions
UNRWA has taken an interest in developing the economic infrastructure in the Palestinian camps in general, through the youth support projects run at twelve development centers distributed throughout the camps with finance from the European Union. Nevertheless, Khan Dunoun is still one of the poorest camps in Syria, if not the poorest of all. Most of the residents do farm work on the nearby land and some of them work as day laborers in various trades. A few work in factories, in Syrian government offices, or for Palestinian organizations.
Several organizations provide health care in the camp. UNRWA has a health center and the Palestinian Red Crescent has a clinic that expanded its services in 2022 to become the Zaytouna Medical Center in cooperation with the UN Fund for Population Activities. The Safa medical clinic, set up in the camp in 2017, provides services free of charge with financing from the Islamic Republic of Iran, which in early 2023 sent some advanced medical equipment to improve the services that the clinic provides.
Several diseases are common in the camp, such as sickle-cell anemia, thalassemia, and cerebral palsy, which are all attributable to poor living conditions. Early marriage and marriages between people who are closely related in successive generations are widespread. High blood pressure and diabetes are also found. Many residents experience some type of disability.
Four UNRWA schools operate in the camp: two old primary schools (the al-Khalisa School for Boys and the Hawla School for Girls), each with 18 classes, and two new schools (the Beit Lahya for Girls and the Ariha School for Boys). The latter two are in the same building with two shifts, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. This school has a ground area of 300 square meters, with 12 classrooms on three floors.
Poverty affects the education level of camp residents: many children leave school young and enter the labor market.
UNRWA and GAPAR are prominent in managing the camp. UNRWA oversees basic education; some aspects of health care; and certain welfare, social, and environmental services. GAPAR provides building licenses and public record services. The relevant Syrian government departments provide security and some infrastructure services. A government cooperative store in the camp sells goods at close to cost price.
Political and Civil Society Activity in the Camp
Civil society organizations and associations are almost nonexistent in the camp. There have been some local endeavors in the cultural domain, such as the Committee to Protect Palestinian Heritage (“Koushan”), which aims to introduce new generations to the history of the Palestinian people and pass on the knowledge and culture of previous Palestinian generations to the young.
Some camp residents have been active in Palestinian political organizations and in the Palestinian struggle since the 1970s. Prominent residents include Fayez Halawa, an officer in the Hittin forces of the Palestine Liberation Army, who was martyred in the war of October 1973 in the northern sector of the Golan Heights. Most Palestinian political factions have offices in the camp, and they organize events on national occasions.
The Camp after 2012
The recent conflict in Syria has had negative effects on Khan Dunoun camp, as on other Palestinian camps. Although it remained under Syrian government control throughout and never fell into the hands of opposition forces, the camp suffered greatly from an influx of many Palestinians and Syrians. The population tripled to 30,000 at the height of the crisis, so two of the UNRWA schools were converted into shelters for 130 families between 2012 and 2018. As the security situation stabilized and the Syrian state won back the areas held by opposition forces, many people went back to their original homes and the population in the camp dropped to 13,705.
The population increase had negative effects on the infrastructure in the camp. Existing problems were exacerbated and other problems arose. The sewage and electricity systems broke down and the camp had lengthy power cuts because of the pressure on the system. The sewers were blocked intermittently and there were cuts in the supply of mains water, especially in the summer months.
The schools were full of displaced people, which disrupted teaching. Schools had to move to three shifts a day, with each shift only three hours long.
But at the end of 2022, a local study showed that there was a noticeable improvement in the educational situation in the camp and that the plan for the new school year was completely different from the plans for previous years, with respect to teaching strategies, coordination among teachers, and UNRWA oversight of the students’ situation.
Overall, living conditions in the camp have declined: drinking water is lacking, prices are sharply higher, and transportation and electricity are in short supply.. During the approach to Ramadan 2023, UNRWA provided monthly food and financial assistance to camp residents to offer some relief.
Haaland, Astrid. “ECHO Shelter Rehabilitation Aid: Khan Dannoun Refugee Camp, Syria”.
UNRWA. «Khan Dunoun Camp». https://www.unrwa.org/where-we-work/syria/khan-dunoun-camp
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