‘Those people the world calls IDPs, we call our families’


June 13, 2016

The rebel-held Aleppo town of Atareb sits along the highway to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey. Thousands of displaced Syrians, mostly from the cities of Aleppo, Hama, Homs in recent years, doubling the population to 50,000.

What makes Atareb different from other Syrian towns hosting the internally displaced is that residents are taking their compatriots into their homes.

“Not a single person has had to stay in a camp because the people of the city have opened their homes,” Abdul Karim al-Omar, assistant coordinator of the Atareb organization “Be Free,” which maintains a network of local civic-minded volunteers, tells Syria Direct’s Mohammed al-Haj Ali.

Q: How has Atareb been affected by the fighting in Aleppo? How has Atareb dealt with the resulting wave of mass displacement?

Atareb has seen a massive influx of displaced people largely coming from the northern Aleppo countryside as well as the cities of Aleppo, Hama and Homs. These are places that have either been encircled or are the site of major clashes.

When it comes to these displaced communities, our top priority has been to ensure the availability of food and shelter. In response, the people of Atareb have opened their homes so that these displaced individuals do not have to stay in the camps.

It’s important to note that not a single person has had to stay in a camp because the people of the city have opened their homes.

[Ed.: Between 1,500 and 2,000 displaced Syrians reside in a camp in the town of Sarmada, 12km northwest of Atareb. An airstrike killed 28 people in the crowded camp in early May.]

 “Be Free” volunteer workers place new street signs in Atareb. Photo courtesy of Abdul Karim al-Omar.

Q: Describe the Atareb community’s reception of those who have been displaced.

The Syrians who have fallen on hard times and have ended up in Atareb do not have the financial means to pay monthly rent. The relief organizations, too, have fallen short in providing the necessary resources. As such, the people of Atareb stepped up. Maybe it is because of a sense of kinship or solidarity, but, regardless, the people of Atareb have opened their homes in large numbers to ensure that those who have been displaced do not have to live in the camps. Where others have failed, the people of Atareb have taken it upon themselves to ensure that these displaced families have a roof over their heads.

Q: How is Atareb different from other areas that have received Syria’s displaced communities?

In reality, Atareb doesn’t differ all that much from other areas. Those people whom the world calls IDPs, we call our families, our brothers.

The people of Atareb have close familial ties to many of the displaced populations, and so it was natural for this initiative—for us to open our homes—to come about with the encouragement and support of the Atareb community and local organizations.

Q: Describe the current humanitarian situation in Atareb.

The humanitarian situation is generally average. The cutting off of the main supply road into Atareb from Afrin caused a spike in fuel prices. Food and water have also become increasingly expensive. Also, given the fluctuating strength of the Syrian pound in relation to the dollar, some merchants have taken advantage of this situation by keeping certain goods largely off the market in order to drastically raise prices and gouge consumers.

Q: Are there any specific goods that are in short supply in Atareb?

Atareb constantly suffers from water shortages because it is just too expensive to buy the diesel needed to operate the wells. Everything has gotten expensive, even the price of bread. Today, a kilo of bread costs SP150 (approx. $0.68). While that may not seem like a lot, for the average Syrian it is in fact quite expensive.

Q: Have either the regime or Russia ever bombed Atareb?

Yes, and this has happened more than once. On one occasion, warplanes bombed the city at 1am, striking the Civil Defense offices with five consecutive attacks.

[Ed.: On April 26, an airstrike of unknown provenance hit Atareb’s only Civil Defense station as the on-duty first responders slept. While accounts vary regarding the exact number of missiles fired, the attack killed five Civil Defense personnel and destroyed all of the ambulances and fire trucks parked at the station.]

In most cases, the warplanes will strike a location. As soon as civilians and first responders gather at the scenes, the planes circle back and execute another strike in order to inflict the greatest possible civilian damage.

The people of Atareb listen to our Civil Defense personnel, but when we don’t have a single safe place in the whole city, then what are we to do?  

Q: Atareb recently opened its first police station mostly in order to restore traffic flow after a recent spike in traffic accidents. Does the police force face any other major problems? Overall, how is the security situation in Atareb?

The security situation in Atareb is quite strong given the large role that the rebel police play. In patrolling the markets, they not only ensure order but also make sure that traders sell goods fairly and legally. Through both day and night patrols, the rebel police are able to address most of the city’s issues in conjunction with Atareb’s civil court.

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