Highlight

Sayida Zeinab (Qabr Essit) Refugee Camp

Highlight
Sayida Zeinab (Qabr Essit) Refugee Camp

Sayida Zeinab Refugee Camp

2021
Author(s): 
Omar Ahmad

Sayida Zeinab Camp, also known as Qabr Essit Camp (“the Lady’s grave”) takes its name from its proximity to the shrine of Sayida Zeinab [Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter] outside Damascus. Located 12 kilometers south of the Syrian capital, it is considered one of the largest and important Palestinian refugee camps in Syria. It has borne witness to many historical events, and had a unique impact on several key moments in the historical timeline of the Palestinian people and their struggle.

The camp’s population decreased after 2011 as a result of the war in Syria. But the tight-knit fabric of social relations among the camp’s residents and senior figures mitigated the impact of the crisis on them. As the war in Syria escalated, the various political factions and clans in the camp united to protect the camp from the imminent danger facing it.

The Origins of the Camp

Sayida Zeinab Camp was first officially established after the June 1967 war on approximately 27,000 square meters. The land, zoned within the town of Sayida Zeinab, was leased by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Directly north and west of the camp are the towns of Hujaira, Haret Ghurbe, and Tajammuʿ Mafraq Hujaira. To its east is the Sayida Zeinab shrine itself and the adjoining commercial markets; to its south are lands that are part of al-Dhiyabiye region and Sayida Zainab Municipality.

Although the camp was officially founded after the 1967 war, the camp was inhabited by Palestinians in the period following the Nakba. By 1967, it had a population of about 4,000 . After the war, a major surge in population occurred with the arrival of Palestinians from the Golan Heights; they had been forced there during the Nakba, and after the 1967 war they once again were forced to leave. They settled in Sayida Zeinab Camp.

According to UNRWA records, the camp had a population of 27,300 refugees in 2012, just before the conflict in Syria. Then its population dropped to approximately 12,800, but as life gradually went back to normal in the camp as of 2014 and UNRWA began working to rehabilitate its facilities, the population went back up to around 17,000 refugees in 2021.

The people of Sayida Zeinab Camp are originally from northern Palestine, particularly from the sub-districts of Tiberias and Safad. The majority of the camp’s inhabitants belong to the clans of al-Zanaghira, al-Shamalneh, and al-Talawiya, in addition to some Bedouin clans and residents of the villages of the Houla valley: al-Salihiyya, al-Dawwara, al-Abisiyya, al-Zuq al-Tahtani, al-Zuq al-Fawqani, al-Heib, al-Mansura, Jahula, al-Qudayriyya, Mallaha, and al-Wahib.

Given the clan-based social character of the camp’s community, the residents of Sayida Zeinab are well-known as a tight-knit community. The camp has maintained its cohesion despite the breakdown of this social model in recent times.

Infrastructure

After the large wave of forced migration in 1948, the Palestinians who came to Sayida Zeinab lived in tents distributed to them by UNRWA. This continued for six months, until housing units measuring 60 square meters were built for each family.

Over time, large residences (three or more stories high) were built using cement. Some of the camp's neighborhoods are small—the Shamalneh neighborhood is one example—and some overlooking the main streets of the camp are large. Most of the camp’s inner alleys are paved. The main street divides the camp into two parts, the northern and the southern. The side streets demarcate the different neighborhoods, such as the Dawwara, Shamalneh, and Ghurba neighborhoods.

In recent years, the residents of Sayida Zeinab Camp built a roundabout plaza in the camp, which they called al-kharita, or the map, due to its shape, which resembles the shape of Palestine. Another square in the camp was built at the same time, called Palestine Square, and it has a sculpture of Al-Aqsa Mosque (Dome of the Rock) at its center. These features illustrate the residents’ continuing attachment to their homeland and to the goal of returning to their original homes and cities.

The camp has steadily expanded since it was first settled and is now divided into two parts. The old camp is the part that was inhabited in 1948 by forty-eight refugee families, and it extends from Beit al-Ratl to the Sidi Mudrik Mosque to al-Amin Sawmill. The new camp covers the neighborhood of al-Janaʾin. UNRWA and the General Authority for Palestinian Arab Refugees (GAPAR) insist there is no official division between the old and new camp.

Water

The camp’s main supply of water came from two sources: the first was the artesian well located within the camp and the second was the water tank belonging to UNRWA. The water was pumped through taps spread across the camp. In addition, residents could fill water containers from pumps in the southern part of the camp; later on, the pumps were replaced by a water tank.

In 2020, the Damascus Water Supply and Sewage Authority completed the replacement of the Ain al-Labweh water pipeline with direct household connections, and the Palestinian factions also undertook projects to ameliorate and enhance the state of the water supply. For example, in 2021, the water generation pump in the camp was repaired and serviced.

Despite these measures, the camp’s water problems have gotten steadily worse. In the summer of 2023, the water supply became extremely scarce and people’s primary reliance is now on tankers for their domestic water consumption. These tankers are expensive and only sporadically available, at a time when people are facing deteriorating economic conditions. The cost of filling one tanker is close to 25 percent of a resident’s monthly salary; one tanker provides enough water for a family for anywhere from five days to a week.

Another problem is related to the sewage network. Old and worn out, it has contaminated the drinking water on several occasions, resulting in poisoning cases in the camp.

Electricity

Most areas in the country experience constant electricity interruptions, one of the consequences of the war in Syria, and Sayida Zeinab Camp is no exception. Since 2020, the power cuts have become extensive; in fact, the daily power supply does not exceed two hours at irregular timings. In mid-2023, some power outages lasted an entire day or even longer.

Socioeconomic Conditions

Camp residents experience unemployment, inflation, and a general state of uncertainty and insecurity. The long war in Syria led to a rise in negative coping mechanisms, such as child marriage, child labor, and drug abuse, in addition to an increase in violence and mental health problems.

Labor

When the Palestinian refugees first arrived, they mainly worked as farmers and agricultural laborers on private farms, especially in the area of al-Kiswa and Douma. They also worked in construction for Syrian contractors on stone crushers and in paving roads. The women mainly worked in agriculture too.

The proximity of the camp to the shrine of Sayida Zeinab, an important religious landmark, gives its residents a chance to improve their economic situation, catering to the tourists, especially those coming from Iran and Iraq. Nevertheless, unemployment remains high, because they find work only during the season for religious tourism.

According to one report, the unemployment rate in the camp is higher than 50 percent, mostly among the youth. Yet even those who are employed make a meager income, which means that living standards are low. In this sense, the camp is no different than Syrian society as a whole after the war.

Currently, most of the camp’s residents work in government jobs or generate income through small shops in the camp. Some work in factories and companies in the private sector, but they are a minority, given that illiteracy is widespread in the camp, and the private sector requires an educated workforce.

Services

Health Care

Camp residents have several options for receiving free or nearly free medical care. The camp has a dispensary affiliated with UNRWA. It also used to have a medical clinic run by the Syrian Red Crescent, but it was closed in 1997 due to a shortage of qualified staff. It reopened in 2009 after Iraqi refugees went to Syria.

Palestinian refugees are eligible to receive treatment in any hospital located near them for a nominal fee, including two located specifically in the Sayida Zeinab area: the al-Sadr Charitable Hospital and the Imam Khomeini Hospital, in addition to the dispensary run by the Syrian Red Crescent. In addition, there are also some associations that provide medical services for very low fees, such as the Mafraq Hujaira Association.

The most widespread diseases in the camp are blood disorders such as sickle cell anemia, high blood pressure complications, diabetes, and kidney failure.

Education

When the camp was first founded and for years thereafter, teaching took place in a tent that functioned as a school. In 1969, UNRWA rented houses on the outskirts of the camp to use as school rooms.

Later on, two buildings were built in the camp to hold four schools, which run on a double-shift system (morning and evening). Two of these schools - Dalata and Beit Jibreen - are primary schools and the other two - Alma and Yarmouk - are junior high schools. There is one other school - al-Naqeeb al-Arabiya - that runs as an evening-only school; it shares the same space with a Syrian government school, which runs as a morning-only school.

Basic education in UNRWA schools is free, and students who complete their education in these schools can enroll in the Syrian government high school located near the camp, or go to a nearby vocational training school, both of which are free.

For university education, Palestinian students can enroll in Syrian universities and institutes; like Syrian students, they pay nominal fees.

A number of kindergartens are open in the camp, some of which are run by UNRWA, and others by grassroots organizations such as the General Union of Palestinian Women and by Palestinian factions. Some are privately operated.

During the war, some of these schools suffered damages, but they were quickly rehabilitated. In 2016, UNRWA re-opened the Dalata-Beit Jibreen school building after reconstructing it with support from the Syrian government and Japanese funding. The school now has a capacity of 1,364 students and is equipped with a room for extracurricular activities, along with computer and science laboratories.

Social Composition of the Camp

There were no clear class distinctions between the refugees who came to the Sayida Zeinab Camp when it was founded; the majority had only the clothes they were wearing, because they believed they would return home soon. All the residents of the camp were poor, with only a small percentage who could be placed in the lower-middle class bracket. Over time, a class developed that was relatively well off when compared to the rest of the camp’s population. This class was mainly made up of those working in UNRWA jobs, which is what gave it its distinctive characteristics, together with families that had at least one person working abroad.

The Camp’s Relationship with its Immediate Environment

The residents of Sayida Zeinab Camp have had with good and balanced relations with their immediate environment, even though their immediate neighbors have changed over the years and come from Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, or different Syrian provinces, such as Aleppo and Idlib. Even during the war, this close relationship between the camp and its neighbors only grew firmer.

Camp Governance

GAPAR is in charge of implementing projects relating to drinking water, sewage disposal, road paving and maintenance, and street lighting, in addition to distributing monetary aid; UNRWA is in charge of providing healthcare, social services, and education. The camp’s water is supplied by the Damascus Water Supply and Sewage Authority.

Civil Society Institutions

A number of civil associations and charities are active in the camp, including Dafa Center and A’idoun Center. A center for social development called the Tanmiya [Development] Center is affiliated with UNRWA; a social club built by GAPAR offers cultural and social services and sports activities.

Nationalist Activity

Many residents of Sayida Zeinab Camp have been killed, wounded, or taken as political prisoners for the cause of Palestinian liberation and the right of return to Palestine. Palestinian factions have been active in the camp and found recruits in the camp among the old and young, and residents of the camp have continued the struggle. In May 2011, residents of Sayida Zeinab Camp joined other Palestinians from Syria and stormed the Syrian-Israeli cease-fire lines. Three of the youth from the camp were killed and others were wounded.

During the Syrian crisis, camp residents from all the Palestinian political factions joined ranks to protect the camp and keep it safe.

Selected Bibliography: 

UNRWA. “Qabr Essit Camp.” https://www.unrwa.org/where-we-work/syria/qabr-essit-camp

“UNRWA Inaugurates Dallata/Beit Jibreen School in Syria Reconstructed with the Support of the People of Japan.” ReliefWeb, 17 November 2016. https://reliefweb.int/report/syrian-arab-republic/unrwa-inaugurates-dallatabeit-jibreen-school-syria-reconstructed-support

"مخيم السيدة زينب بسوريا.. شيء عن الماضي والحاضر".

/https://palinfo.com/news/2023/06/12/839618/

موسوعة المخيمات الفلسطينية. "مخيم السيدة زينب".

https://palcamps.net/ar/camp/51/1/جغرافية-المخيم

الهيئة العامة للاجئين الفلسطينيين العرب. "مخيم السيدة زينب".

http://www.gapar.sy/ar/sayidazainabcamp.html

مقابلات مع:

عمر أحمد: من القيادات السياسية الفلسطينية في مخيم السيدة زينب.

لارا محمد: ناشطة في مخيم السيدة زينب بالجانب الإعلامي.