Urban development plans guzzle homes of Darayya’s refugees, IDPs
Enab Baladi – Saleh Malas
“After the first massacre took place in Darayya, we were terrified, and me, my children, and my husband ran from our home to the Rukneddine neighborhood where we settled for three years, during which they arrested my husband for a month, and after that, we decided to seek refuge in Europe, as many people did.”
Samar al-Farra, 48, tells Enab Baladi the story of her asylum from Darayya, the western suburb of Damascus when the Syrian regime forces stormed it and committed the first massacres there in 2012.
Samar, her four children, and her husband were living in the al-Mahkamah area in the western neighborhood of Darayya, near the Abu Suleiman al-Derani Mosque, where many of the neighborhood’s residents were killed in cold blood by the Syrian regime forces in August 2012, when many were summarily executed.
Al-Farra spoke about her family’s suffering by seeking refuge in Europe in 2015 by sea until they arrived in Denmark, a country that recently issued deportation decisions for dozens of refugees on the pretext that Damascus is a safe city as the Danish authorities claimed in 2019.
The town of Darayya recorded its early presence in the Syrian revolution in 2011 when the majority of the people participated in peaceful demonstrations against the Syrian regime.
Al-Farra, who participated in the demonstrations and distributed medicines to the wounded who were bombed, was subjected with her family to several violations, but she managed to escape and leave Syria with the aim of settling in Europe.
Damascus not safe
Al-Farra applied to the Danish Refugee Grievance Authority to obtain political asylum in 2020, amid the fears of thousands of refugees in the country about deportation decisions, on the pretext that “Damascus is a safe city,” but on 29 July 2021, her application was rejected.
“They asked me to leave Denmark within 15 days, and they gave me a compensation to receive at the time of deportation, but I refused the money and refused to be deported, and now I am fighting a battle to stay in Denmark by appointing a lawyer to follow up my case,” al-Farra says.
Returning to Damascus means a great risk to the future stability of her family because of the damage to her home in Darayya and the risk of her right to return to it being robbed under real estate laws, she added.
Where to go back?
While Syrians suffer from the difficulty of securing their geographical stability outside Syria and the tendency of some regional and international governments to return refugees to it, the Syrian regime is working to complicate this by plundering their real estate properties through urban plans that erase the features of their original areas with investment projects that they cannot be part of, as is the case with Samar al-Farra.
The Ministry of Public Works and Housing published on its official Facebook page on 24 April 2018 what it called “the initiative of the Urban Planning Directorate and its vision for the re-planning and reconstruction of damaged areas in the town of Darayya.”
At the time, it published a new urban plan, proposing intervention in four areas with a high rate of urban damage and to address the problem of random housing in those areas: the town center, the southern region, the southwestern district, and the northern district.
The urban plan of the town has been approved since 2004, but it is incomplete, according to what the engineer, Mohamad Mazhar Sharbaji, who previously served as the head of the Engineering Division in Damascus countryside, told Enab Baladi.
The engineer, originally from Darayya, explained that “the preparation of zoning plans takes place when there is a need for expansion and reconstruction and the establishment of new areas as a result of the needs of the increased population, and this is within a specific time period.
“Every three years, the city council has the right to amend the master plan, and every five years, it has the right to reopen a new master plan if there is a need,” he added.
In 2011, the town’s zoning plan was new and unpopulated, meaning that not the entire area of the town was built according to the master plan.
The main risk in this plan is that it did not address the problem of slums based on accurate and studied criteria, as the plan included completely destroyed areas, such as the northeastern district (known as the Gulf) adjacent to the Mezzeh Military Airport, and this area has no urban residential areas or slums, but it was completely bulldozed, after it was destroyed by the regime forces, according to Engineer Sharbaji.
As for the town center, whose construction began in 2003, it is an organized residential area, and its real estate areas have been divided and organized according to laws and administrative decisions, and there is no need to include them within the new urban plan.
At this point, Sharbaji says that there is a great possibility of seizing people’s property under the pretext of addressing the problem of slums and implementing the new urban plan by converting metric real estate ownership into share ownership.
It is not within the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Public Works and Housing to regulate urban planning but rather within the jurisdiction of the Local Administration Ministry, according to Sharbaji.
Some areas inside Darayya have reached 100 percent of urban damage, and in the town center, the damage rate is about 85 percent, while some completely destroyed areas were not covered by the urban organization.
At the same time, there is a proposal that the town center be a commercial, investment, and tourist center in a civilized and modern style, affecting the original residential area, the engineer warned.
“It is clear to us that what is meant here by making the town center a tourist center is religious tourism related to the shrine of (Sayyida Sukayna bint al-Hussain) and nothing more,” Sharbaji says.
This matter has political and security dimensions (the shrine of Sayyida Sukayna was established by Iran in 2003, amid the residents’ suspicion of the existence of a religious shrine in their area in the first place), he adds.
The entity in charge of this matter is the town’s local council, which approves the area’s urban development plan in terms of population area, commercial centers, and the area of the green mass.
Darayya is famous for its wood industry, furniture, and home furnishings. This does not contradict the establishment of commercial centers that would create job opportunities for a wide range of the local community in the town. However, the desired urban development in its entirety does not preserve the property of real estate owners.
The current plan is not based on urban foundations similar to what the town was like, in terms of community structure, about ten years ago.
The new urban character in the zoning plan is based on the construction of high-story housing complexes, up to 14 floors, rich, modern, and luxurious for the wealthy class, to replace homes, shops, and workplaces that were designated for the town’s residents who were exhausted by the conflict and its consequences of asylum, destruction of their homes, and loss of their rights.
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