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Syria crisis: winter in Zata’ari

Written by Faris Kasim, Information and Communications Coordinator, Jordan.

On my way to Zata’ari, the largest Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, I read our Out in the Cold report which gives a voice to refugees preparing to endure a cruel winter.

Powerful testimonies and photos of children and parents from camps in Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon made me wonder how they’ll survive freezing temperatures and snowfall without the appropriate shelter, clothes and other basic items they desperately need.

But now I’m no longer wondering. Instead I’ve seen with my own eyes and felt in my bones both the bitter cold and harsh realities facing those who call Zata’ari home.

A Syrian refugee in Zata'ari camp, Jordan, braves the elements after a heavy storm.

Brutal storm

Last week, a brutal winter storm struck Jordan, unleashing winds exceeding 45mph, 70cm of rain, and constant snowfall for two days.

Widespread flooding occurred in Zata’ari, swamping tents and muddying the camp’s desert terrain. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) one in every nine tents was destroyed, while aid agencies worked around the clock to provide blankets, warm clothes and heating kerosene.

Desperation and rioting

Faced with the onslaught of lethal winter conditions, tempers flared in Zata’ari. Frustrated refugees attacked aid workers with sticks and stones after their tents collapsed. Several Save the Children employees were also attacked, but thankfully no one was seriously hurt.

Operations were stalled for the day as police and aid agencies worked with Syrian families and community elders to maintain law and order. Amid heavy snowfall and thick fog, services resumed the following day.

“We cannot blame anyone for getting angry” said one Save the Children staff member. “If my family had to endure such weather in an open camp, I might also lose my temper.”

Saving children’s lives

Save the Children, the United Nations, the Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organization (JHCO) and all other agencies in Zata’ari are working tirelessly to help those in need.

More than half of all families in the camp have been moved to new caravan-like structures, made of winter-proof materials. While the remaining families, currently living in canvas tents, are in the process of being relocated to safer shelters.

Nadia

I met Nadia three weeks ago. She’s eight years old and has been living in Zata’ari for the past three months, sharing a tent with her parents and three elder siblings.

When asked about home she talked of the constant gunfire and aerial bombardment her village, near Daraa, endured. And though she’s happy in Save the Children’s child-friendly space – drawing, colouring, reading and playing with her friends – she misses her school and doesn’t know when she’ll be able to go back home.

Like thousands of other refugees, Nadia and her family are dependent on aid to survive this winter.

Responsibility

Despite the efforts of humanitarian actors, the international response isn’t sufficient considering the scale of the disaster: nearly 60,000 fatalities, upwards of 500,000 externally displaced and 2.5 million internally displaced people.

In 2012, only half of the UN appeal for the Syria crisis was funded. As described in Out in the Cold, the international community must ensure funds are available to those working on the ground.

It’s imperative that we all act now if we are to continue to save innocent children’s lives.

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