11 February 2009
by Annika Folkeson
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic:
On 5 December 2008, approximately 125 volunteers set out into various neighbourhoods all over Damascus to clean up the city.
After leaving the meeting place of Melab Al-Fayhat at 8.30 in the morning, they dispersed into Sumaria, Kafr Souseh, the Old City, Mezze and Baramkeh - equipped with cleaning sacks and gloves – hoping to raise awareness and inspire more people to do their part for a better environment.
The street cleaning was only one of many activities taking place on the International Volunteer Day (IVD) this year, as part of a wider environmental campaign. The volunteers, mainly mobilized by the Red Crescent, came together with NGOs, UN agencies, private companies and Government ministries to work toward the common goal of increasing environmental awareness.
One of the street-cleaning groups went to Sumaria. Within minutes of stepping off the bus, the 30 women - all members of the community organization Zaharat Al Madain - had received their tools, and immediately started to clean up trash along the roadside.
When asked about what inspired them to volunteer for street cleaning, they answered in unison, “we do it for our children”.
“I want my children to have a clean, safe environment when they grow up”, said Um Ranim Zatut, a mother of five. “I always worry that they will get sick or injure themselves when they are playing out in the streets.”
Faced with the daunting task of cleaning up the unbelievable amount of trash spread out over only a few hundred metres, the volunteers of Zaharat Al Madain dealt with it in different ways, their attitudes ranging from humour-filled enthusiasm to strong feelings of insufficiency.
Susan, 22, fell into the first category. “We have to do this! It is so important and I really believe that people who see us cleaning up the trash will think twice before throwing something next time.”
She continued cleaning amid shouts of faux-surprise from her co-volunteers, “What is this?!” “Maybe something I can use!” Susan joined in, “This I will bring home as a gift to my husband.” “Aha, a new table!” she added, giggling while filling sack after sack with trash.
Tarek, an employee of the Ministry of Agriculture (the Ministry provided manpower and trucks for collecting the bags of trash), was gloomier in his outlook, “I feel depressed. I can never clean up all this garbage. We need more people!”
Echoing Tarek, Hounada Sadat, one of the driving forces behind the street cleaning in Sumaria, added, “We don’t need 30 people, but 300, to really make a difference here. Next time we will organize the schools and bring the children with us when we clean, that would really have an impact.”
As the volunteers were cleaning, a couple of passing cars stopped to ask what was going on. “Good job!” and “Great idea!” where the reactions when they learned about the street cleaning. Although none of the drivers offered to help, the volunteers felt encouraged by the small, but honest recognition of their effort.