Refugees struggle to make themselves at home in crammed Damascus hotel rooms
Families try to establish routines as they settle into long-term stays
Once a favourite haunt of tourists and archaeologists the Sultan hotel in Damascus is now a refuge for the homeless and for Syrians coming from outside Damascus to get official documents and medical care.
Nour, her hair in tight braids with red clasps, emerges from the lift. Smiling, she makes for a table in the dining room, takes a book from her fat, pink backpack and reads in whispers.
She is in first form at the Liberation School, once a French lycée, near the central bank. Her mother, Leila, in conservative black, arrives. Swinging the backpack over her shoulder she waves goodbye. She walks Nour to school before going to her job at the municipality.
They are refugees from the Palestinian “camp” in Yarmouk township, south of Damascus. They have been here in the Sultan Hotel for more than a year even though it is beyond their means. Leila’s brother and other relatives help out – her husband has divorced and deserted her. Last week she learned her house has been destroyed.
Most of Yarmouk’s inhabitants fled when rebel and fundamentalist forces occupied it on December 16th last year.
Once a favourite haunt of tourists and archaeologists – mystery writer Agatha Christie stayed here with her husband Max Mallowan in 1976 – the two-star Sultan is now a refuge for the homeless and for Syrians coming from outside Damascus to get official documents and medical care.
A mother and son who had left early for the station to catch a bus to Homs, get out of the lift to get the key to the room they share. “There is fighting on the road,” she sighs.
Bucket and broom
Umm Muhammad, a northern nomad from Raqqa, a provincial city held by al-Qaeda-linked radical fundamentalists, collects a bucket and broom from the Kurdish staff. She does not trust them to clean her room properly. Wearing a brown headcover and thick cloak, she pauses at reception to tell Hussam behind the reception desk of her moment of rebellion.
“Those Salafis ordered me to cover my face. They tell women not to wear make-up. One pushed my shoulder. I said, ‘You have no right to tell me what to do. The regime does not do this. I prefer the regime to you.’”
“The Bedouin want their sheets changed every day,” says Hussam after Umm Muhammad disappears around the corner. “They’re charging clients in Raqqa for getting documents. The only official papers are from the government.”
The men, dressed in kaftans and red-and-white checked head-dresses, ignore the “No Smoking” signs and sit and talk in front of the television in the lounge. The hotel is fully booked. Entire families stay in one room, for which they pay $10 a night, the fee fixed by the tourism ministry. I pay $37.50. Six months ago, guests were permitted to cook in the small kitchen but no longer. They bring food from outside.
In the Old City, half an hour’s walk along the Biblical “Street Called Straight”, more internally displaced families are having breakfast at tables near a fountain in the courtyard of the five-star Beit Zaman. It is a boutique hotel, with three courtyards, bar and a Turkish bath, and popular with tourists who can afford $185-$400 a night.
Jamil, a Palestinian also from Yarmouk, introduces friends who insist I join them. Muhammad’s job pays just enough to keep his wife and two girls in one room but hotel owners in this area are now demanding a rise from $30 to $36 a month.
“They removed the grand furniture and put in simple beds,” says Jamil, who shares with his father and a friend, both unemployed. “My father cooks for all of us. They let us use the kitchen.”
His mother and two sisters are in Dubai staying with a third sister employed in a bank. “This is the first time the family has been separated,” says Jamil.
The flag-stone courtyards with their trees and flowers give the children a place to play, and the women a refuge from the war half a kilometre away in the eastern Ghouta.
The constant thump of mortars is a reminder that this area, the Christian Quarter at the eastern gate of the Old City, is a favourite insurgent target.