‘Damascus Dream’ project to rebuild means eviction notices for slum residents

In December, a municipal representative came to Abu Majd’s neighborhood to inform him that he would be evicted from his home in southwestern Damascus, again.

His family home was demolished two years ago as part of the urban rebuilding initiative Decree 66, or the “Damascus Dream” project, as state and pro-regime media outlets often refer to it.

The dream is to replace the Mezzeh district of Damascus, considered slums by most, with new housing units for local residents, as well as schools, businesses and green spaces.

The Mezzeh district comprises more than half a dozen neighborhoods. Syrian regime military bases sit north and west of the area, while the Mezzeh military airport lies to the south.

But local activists criticize the razing and rebuilding project as deliberately engineered demographic change by forcibly displacing Sunni, pro-opposition residents in the capital under the guise of reconstruction.

For Abu Majd, the Damascus Dream means he, his wife and two children will be homeless again as of June.

 Abu Majd’s evacuation notice from 2015. Photo courtesy of Abu Majd.

They now live in a one-bedroom apartment in Mazzeh Basateen, a center of anti-regime resistance during the early years of the Syrian war.

Construction crews have demolished nearly 1,200 housing units in Mezzeh thus far, Faisal Surour, a member of the Damascus Executive Office for Planning, told the Syrian Baath Party’s a-Thawra newspaper earlier this month.

“The demolitions are approaching the home where I live,” Abu Majd tells Syria Direct’s Reham Toujan. “When my turn comes, I don’t know where I will go.”

Q: Your home was demolished in 2015 as part of Decree 66, an urban rebuilding project launched by the regime in 2012. How are you and your fellow residents reacting to the news that you will be evicted for the newest round of demolitions?

Today, I’m in a position that no one would envy.

My home was destroyed [in 2015] before my very eyes. Hundred-year-old olive trees were uprooted from the ground.

The demolitions are approaching the home where I live now. When my turn comes, I don’t know where I will go. What will my family do? I’m depressed, and I cannot think. I want time to stop because my thoughts are racing, and my mind is paralyzed.

You can’t imagine the extent of the suffering we’re living through today. People are having mental breakdowns as displacement from the neighborhood increases.

The matter is so unclear and so frightening at the same time.

Schools are closed. It’s difficult to transfer students to other schools especially since some of the families haven’t been evicted yet.

Alternative housing was not provided. It takes a long time to find a new place [in Damascus] and move.

Q: Could you describe for us how you felt when you were evicted from your home in 2015?

How can I describe my feelings about having no house to shelter me, no roof to protect my family? It felt like I couldn’t move, like my spirit had been taken from my body. I pulled myself together in front of my family so I wouldn’t fall apart. I had to comfort myself and my family in the hope that when all of this is over, when we get a rental allowance, then we could find a home in which to settle.

Q: Weren’t you given an allowance so that you could rent a home while your neighborhood was rebuilt? How were you notified of the eviction?

When the municipal inspection committee [for the construction project] came in 2013, I was living in an apartment above my parents’ home. The committee saw that I was still setting up the electrical lines and the sink, so they marked down my home as ‘still under construction.’ Therefore, I didn’t qualify for the rental allowance granted by the regime’s decree.

At the time, I was completely oblivious about the conditions needed to obtain a rental allowance.

One month after the committee inspected the house, I got married.

Then, in 2015, we were warned about the evictions. The notice was addressed to my father [the owner of the land], and we were given a period of two months to leave. We were caught off guard by the decision. Where would we go? It’s not enough time to find another place to live. We didn’t know where to relocate—we were aimless drifters.

We went to the provincial authorities in order to get our allowance. My father obtained a check for two years’ worth of rent. But I couldn’t get mine because when the inspection committee surveyed my home, they wrote that the house was ‘under construction,’ and that I didn’t quality. I’ve gone back to the administration a number of times but to no avail.

The committee grants allowances based on the dimension of the land, not considering how many floors are built on the property.

[Ed.: Abu Majd, like many Syrians, built a home on his parents’ property after marrying, for his wife and children.]

The allowance is 5 percent of the assessed value of the property, based on the size of the property. The allowance [my father received] was approximately SP100,000 ($467) per year, which is not enough to rent a house in Damascus or its outskirts.

Q: Could you tell us about your current living situation?

I’m in Mezzeh, living in one room with my wife and two children, Sham and Majd.

I work as a truck driver. I was injured [on the job] by a sniper on the road near Harasta [a town in the East Ghouta suburbs along the Damascus-Homs highway controlled by opposition forces]. The bullet struck me below my spinal column. Because of the injury, I can’t stand or sit for long periods of time. I hoped that my work would give me [medical] leave because of my injury, but they refused. After my shift is over, I work in plumbing. But I still can’t cover all my family’s expenses. My father helps me at times. Good people from the neighborhood help me cover the rent for my house. Life is hard and moving fast—I can’t keep up.

Reham Toujan

Reham is originally from Outer Damascus. She moved to Jordan because of the war. She joined Syria direct because she wants to write about human rights.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.