Al-Tabalah: The University’s Guantanamo and its Last Exile

By Firas Muhammad Ali | Tharwa’s Exclusive | May 26, 2008

In our previous investigation concerning the university hostel in Damascus, we approached the main section, the residential units in Al-Mazza. There are 20 residential units, three units in Al-Tabalah region and the rest are in Al-Mazza.

Each of the three Tabalah units has a story that deserves to be narrated by the students who live there.

The students call Al-Tabalah “Guantanamo”, while others call it the “exile”, this tells much of the story. And indeed, if you tried to travel there, you would be shocked at the reality of life in a region that doesn’t even have the lowest standard of services. Moreover, it is a remote region that looks more like a desert that has been recently planted to decorate the road leading to the airport. You can never have doubts, even for a second, that the university hostel that lies along the side of the road in total quietness, on both the inside and the outside, is more or less a military guardhouse.

As a result, the students in the university hostel in Damascus have complained about the poor living conditions. They complained mostly about receiving poor services, a delay in announcing the list of residents’ names, as well as the problem of transportation between one residential region to another (namely from Al-Mazza to Al-Tabalah).

 In Al-Tabalah, there are three student residential units (numbers 9, 16 and 17), because two faculties, mechanics and electricity, and a number of intermediate institutes are located in the same area; on the west side of the airport road. The students suffer tremendous hardships whenever they try to reach Al-Tablah, as it is connected to the city by only one line of transportation, called “the industrial area line for immigrants”.

If the transportation crisis is deplorable outside of the walls of the university, the situation inside the university is worse. The dormitories are overcrowded, with up to 7 students “stuffed” in one room. How could a student live, study, rest or have any privacy in such a situation? Moreover, the city itself is in great need of repairs. Unfortunately, the summer vacation is over and no repairs have been made.

The tragedy begins as soon as the students enter the main gate, complete with doors that have no locks and leaking water taps.

When the student receives the key to his room, he realizes that his “furniture” is limited to a “pillow, blanket and a mattress” and that his “luxurious” room is not fit for a prison in India. Even the keys are rusty and the student is responsible for replacing or repairing them if there is any damage or loss.

There are other conditions that contribute to the poor quality of life for the students. Many of them work in restaurants at night and continue their studies late into the morning. In front of the ninth unit there used to be two telephones for public use, now there are none. The students suffer from rising cost of phone calls in booths or small shops located near the university hostel.

No human being would accept the poor living conditions in Al-Tabalah. The university hostel never consistently provides the students with food. There is a small shop that occasionally sells vegetables and some foodstuffs, but the store is usually closed due to its barren shelves. Most of the time students must go downtown and buy in bulk.

In the 16th unit, the number of mice and rats exceed the number of students and worst of all, the bathrooms are infested with vermin. In one bathroom we saw a rat with a 50 cm tail! How could any student bear to use a bathroom in such an awful condition? Instead, most students opt to use the bathrooms in the 9th unit.

Some of the students briefly commented on their situations with extreme sorrow:

Samer – applied sciences, fourth year: “I wish they would consider that we have classes that require attendance, for we were surprised this year of the administrative decision of transferring the dorm rooms of the science students; this has caused a crises for some students. In addition to this, Al-Tabalah is distant from the university, and there is always a traffic jam.” He added with sadness and wonder, “I’m now in the fourth year, and this year is the heavy-year of work and there’s no time to be wasted on preparation of the residence”.

His colleague Mohamed El Sheikh followed him by saying, “Our names were listed in Al-Tabalah” and continued concluding, “The bureaucracy going on  in the hostel’s administration and their delay in issuing the transfer order that makes you lose interest in the university hostel and search for another alternative “.

After the student is completely frustrated by the process he usually finds a place of residence. However, one student may tell another of the lack of services that are provided, services that are guaranteed student rights, which places more worry on the student.

Loaay – civil engineering says : “The cleanliness in the beginning of the year was very bad leading you to resent the residence.  In addition to the maintenance workers who are not fixing the damages, as for the bathrooms and water cycles big parts of them are unsuitable for usage.” And he added wishfully, “If they would give us the choice of gathering each other and settling down in the rooms, instead of the delay in issuing the residential name lists or sending the transferred students to the same rooms with the older ones, which makes it difficult for both to adapt to the new environment.”

Aly Al Hamood (commercial institute): “The situation in Al-Tabalah is worse, where bad smells come out of the garbage containers, and we rarely see the cleaning workers; the bathrooms are unsuitable for usage at all. The residences there are intolerable; therefore we wish to move to Al-Mazza to feel some comfort and care from those responsible for servicing the residential units.”

The tunnel nearby the college of mechanical and electrical engineering, on the road of Damascus international airport, is in dire need of maintenance as it is on an important and vital road and is considered as a connecting link between the college and the Al-Tabalah region. Not only is there a problem of cleanliness and poor lighting, but many female students have reported being sexually harassed by wandering men.

One female student told us of such an incident when crossing the tunnel. She was forced into a state of panic as she could not get rid of the man harassing her.

The relevant authorities are the only ones that can fix this problem. Every day they interfere with lover’s meetings, yet they do nothing about the harassment, lewdness  and smuggling networks that operate in the tunnel.

Hundreds of students from Al-Tabalah residence work in night jobs and stay up until early morning hours. Hussein, a student of economics, is stereotypical overworked student; as he works in a hotel outside Damascus for 8 hours daily and returns to hostel exhausted. At four a.m. he jumps over the wall of the hostel and goes back to his room to get a few hours of sleep.

Guantanamo or not, the future of the students depends on three large buildings that hold thousands of students from different colleges. The 16th unit is a place where students go as a last resort. It is an exile from learning, filled with dust and privation. (The 16th unit was recently evacuated because for renovations).