AMMAN — With the end of the latest major military campaign by the government forces and its allied militias in northwestern Syria, which took place between April and September, almost one million Syrians joined around 320,000 already internally displaced persons (IDPs) in northwest Syria along the Turkish border, many of whom lack adequate shelter.

There are “1153 camps, including 242 makeshift camps, 131 of which appeared in recent months,” Muhammad al-Hallaj, the director of the local humanitarian organization, Response Coordination Group, told Syria Direct.

Although these newly displaced people survived the bombing campaign, they are now struggling to make it through a severe winter, especially as 121,832 of them are still sleeping out in the open, according to al-Hallaj. 

Further, many of the IDPs live in tents made from flimsy cloth or plastic that offer little protection from the wind and rain. Thus, some have begun thinking about creating concrete structures, similar to airplane hangars. 

Ahmed Bakkour, a 25-years-old, was displaced from Khan Sheikhoun along with his family of 15 (including his parents and siblings). They slept out in the open for almost “three months” before deciding to take matters into his own hands.  

“We never found housing, as there are thousands of other IDPs. We recently built a room out of cement bricks because winter is coming and my little siblings can’t handle the cold,” he told Syria Direct.

“We don’t have enough money to rent a house that is big enough, and [we’re] a big family.” 

A construction worker stands in front of a recently constructed airplane hangar-like home in the northern countryside of Idlib province, 10/12/2019 (Syria Direct)

A construction worker stands in front of a recently constructed airplane hangar-like home in the northern countryside of Idlib province, 10/12/2019 (Syria Direct)

The cost of building “one room with a bathroom is around $200”, al-Hallaj said. This cost may seem reasonable compared to rents in the region, which range between $100 and $350 a month; however, the construction of the building is shoddy, as it “can’t withstand the tremors [i.e. the pressure of bombing around it]. As for the [building’s] dome, it’s unsafe, and could collapse at any moment because it’s not reinforced,” al-Hallaj warned.

Limited charitable projects

Some local and regional humanitarian organizations are implementing projects to create shelter for IDPs in the area, but the scope of their work remains limited.

A recent housing project completed in the village of Sousian near al-Bab city “provided free apartments to displaced families in the western countryside of Aleppo,” al-Hallaj said. The project, which was funded by the Qatar Red Crescent and implemented by Saed Charitable Organization in coordination with the local council for the city of Al-Bab, placed a priority on “families headed by a woman, or which include orphans or people with special needs.” In total, the program reached 120 families, according to al-Hallaj.

In August, Bonyan, a Syrian humanitarian organization operating in Syria and Turkey, also launched a project to rehabilitate 80 apartments in the countrysides of Aleppo and Idlib on condition that displaced families could stay in the apartments, alongside the original inhabitants, for one year, Bonyan’s project coordinator, Mohamed Ahmed, told Syria Direct. The project, which was completed last month, “benefited 340 families, including 260 displaced families.”

One of the project’s beneficiaries, Ahmed Ibrahim, owns a two-story house in the Idlib countryside. He and his family live on the second floor, while three displaced families reside in three large rooms on the first floor. Ibrahim agreed to let Bonyan rehabilitate his house in exchange for housing three families for one year.

"The restoration provided by the organization benefited me as a resident, especially since I lived in a rented house previously, and it also benefited the displaced who are suffering from tragic conditions," he told Syria Direct. “This is a beautiful initiative; we live in one house and have a positive attitude like one family.”

As for the 35-year-old Abdul Razzaq who was displaced from Maarat al-Numan, residing in Ibrahim’s house meant “protecting my children from the winter cold. I was relieved from paying rent for an entire year.” 

However, he is worried about the future of his family after the year is over. "I don’t know where I’ll be a year from now," he told Syria Direct

Despite these efforts, "the response of organizations in general with regards to [IDPs] is very weak," Al-Hallaj said. "It does not even meet 2% of their needs."

‘Government’ housing: Shrouded in mystery

Last October, the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), which was formed in early November 2017 by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), announced it would begin building residential units on publicly owned land close to the border town of Bab al-Hawa in Idlib province. The housing projects will be able to accommodate 18 thousand displaced families.

According to the announcement, those who wish to live in the new housing must register their name with the local councils in the province, then pay for the properties in installments as construction progresses. To be eligible for the new residential project, the IDP’s “property must have been occupied by the regime, and they must not own any permanent shelter in the liberated areas [controlled by the opposition].” In addition, they must not be benefiting from any other housing project,” the director of the Technical Services Department at the Ministry of Local Administration of the SSG, Quteiba al-Khalaf, said.

“Several pre-construction feasibility studies have been completed for the project,” he told Syria Direct. The project “includes 104 residential blocks, each one made up of 16 apartments, to make up a total of 1,664 apartments—including the necessary administrative and service buildings.”

“The bidding process was announced and a construction contracting company won,” he added.

Al-Khalaf, however, blamed the delay in the project implementation on “Operation Peace Spring east of the Euphrates, and the continuing fuel scarcity in the northern liberated [areas].” Both factors have led to an increase in the cost of building materials, which “caused us to delay the project for a bit,” he said. 

Munzer, an IDP from the countryside of Hama province, who spoke under a pseudonym for security reasons, registered with an SSG-affiliated local council to get an apartment in the new housing project.  

However, he expressed doubts about the transparency of the process to select the beneficiaries of the apartments. “Patronage is rampant in all [Salvation] government foundations; the situation won’t be any different in the housing project,” he told Syria Direct

“We all know that the Salvation Government projects are for the benefit of the leading religious figures and their relatives, and who is in their favor.” 

In the same vein, a source who has been monitoring the recent housing project told Syria Direct, under the condition of anonymity for security concerns, that the SSG is placing an undue financial burden on the IDPs who wish to live in the new residencies. 

Even though the project is being established on “public land that is not owned by anyone, IDPs are still being forced to pay its price as part of the apartments,” the source said. 

They further added that the project’s announcement did not include any information about pricing and that “the IDPs are kept in the dark about the amount of money they will [have] to pay.” In addition, once an IDP registers their name to receive an apartment, “they won’t be able to register for other residential projects, despite the lack of a set date for the completion of this project.” 

Additionally, several IDPs who spoke to Syria Direct expressed fear that organizations working in the area would be pressured into assisting the construction of the housing project while the SSG collects all the fees paid by IDPs who have registered for an apartment. 

Shelter for privileged IDPs 

After arriving in Idlib from the northern countryside of Homs province, Emad al-Mahbani decided to open a branch of his contracting company in the town of Sarmada in the northern Idlib countryside. He opened the new branch after seeing IDPs suffering from “problems with rent and [multiple] displacements,” which causes some of them to “resort to buying an apartment for shelter,” he told Syria Direct

The biggest obstacle for most IDPs seeking shelter is the “first payment,” he said. “While the installments can be secured through their [income and salaries], according to what I have been told by most of my customers who are IDPs.” 

There are two ways to pay for an apartment in the al-Mahbani housing projects. The purchaser can pay “90% of the price and get the apartment immediately, and then pay the remainder when registering the property at the real estate agency,” according to al-Mahbani. 

In the case of the installment plan, the purchaser will pay “the $100 registration fee to the realty office, and $1000 as a first payment to the [development] company,” he said. They will later pay “$500 at each stage, and as for the remaining fees, they will be paid off in $100 installments until the entire price of [the apartment] is paid.” 

It was this installment plan that enabled Amran al-Rahhal to buy a home in Sarmada after fleeing from Homs province. Al-Rahhal had gotten fed up with “the landlords’ rude treatment,” and had always wanted the stability that comes with owning a home, he told Syria Direct

“The landlord was asking for $29 a month, but then he raised the rent to $150 with the excuse that one of the new IDPs was willing to pay this amount,” he said. Without any alternative, he was forced to pay the increased rent. 

However, to secure the funds to buy a home, he was forced to sell his car and a patch of land through one of his relatives in al-Houla in Homs. 

He sold his possessions “for half of their actual price because the merchants there know the type of situation [IDPs] are in and know that they have to sell,” al-Rahhal said. “They were both worth $14,000, but they were sold for six.”

The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Nada Atieh, Seth Thomas and William Christou.