In this question-and-answer discussion, UNICEF Regional Emergency Adviser Bastien Vigneau describes what he is seeing in Tartous, Syrian Arab Republic, UNICEF’s work there—and what more needs to be done.
AMMAN, Jordan (January 31, 2013) — We spoke with UNICEF Regional Emergency Adviser Bastien Vigneau during his mission to Tartous, a key port city in the Syrian Arab Republic, on the Mediterranean Sea.
Vigneau is working on assessing the needs of children and their families who have been displaced from other parts of the country by the conflict, and laying the ground to expand UNICEF’s programs.
Q. What is the humanitarian situation, in general, in Tartous?
A. Tartous is an area that has so far been spared the violence and conflict that is raging in many other parts of the country, so you initially get a sense of relative quietness here. It is a coastal city that has thrived on the industry of ships, but now, according to Syrian Arab Red Crescent, it houses more than 25,000 families—which translates to more than 150,000 persons who came to the city fleeing the violence from other parts of the country, mainly from Aleppo and Homs. The influx of people is putting tremendous pressure on the existing basic services infrastructures.
The city is about 45 minutes away by car from Homs, where fighting is still ongoing. Displaced persons here are mainly hosted by community members or living in collective centers. They live under tough conditions in the humid and cold weather, especially in the mountain areas, many of them without hot water or adequate sanitation facilities.
Others, like some of the families that I met, have nowhere to stay but in the dark rodent-infested caves of the ancient ruins of historical Tartous. The municipality is doing what it can to support these displaced families, but with too few means, and no more housing options and no more public spaces to host them.
Q. Can you tell us about the situation of children, in particular, that you saw?
A. What I saw in the collective center, for example, was mostly desperation, with about 40 families sharing one toilet and one shower. Because of the cold and humid, harsh weather, many children are falling sick with acute respiratory infection. Some children I met had to drop out of school when they fled their hometowns and have not been able to enroll back in school, either because schools are already overcrowded, or to help support the family—or because they have missed the registration period.
A young woman I met who had to drop out of university when she escaped the fighting in Aleppo said that she now teaches Arabic and math to those out-of-school children who share the cave with her. A mother whose husband is missing told me that she had to pull her 11-year-old son out of school so that he can help with earning money to support his younger siblings. I asked a nine-year-old boy about the two things he likes the most about going to school, and he said to me, “One, I like to learn. Two, I like to learn.”
We really need to make sure that the cycle of education is not disrupted for children. We are working with partners to provide school materials and furniture, school bags for children and increase the number of classes.
Q. What is UNICEF doing at the moment to help families get by this harsh winter?
A. We provided winter supplies including warm clothes, blankets and other non-food supplies like plastic mats and cooking stoves for more than 260,000 vulnerable people in various parts of Syria. Tartous is one of them.
For Tartous, in particular, family hygiene kits and heavy blankets arrived this week and, with our partners, are being distributed to 4,000 families. We also received today winter clothes packages, which will be distributed in the coming days to 5,000 displaced children living in the mountain areas and collective centers. The package includes one waterproof winter jacket, warm sweater and trousers, winter shoes, hat and one underwear set.
We also support children by helping them and their families access safe water, and we help children participate in social and fun activities in safe environments. Children whose regular schooling was interrupted receive remedial education.
But we are constantly facing challenges because the needs are growing fast, and we need to keep up with the scale of the crisis. For this, we certainly need more funds immediately with strengthened partnerships on the ground. We are working to increase our presence and work with more partners so that we can reach all children in need, which is our target. So many people are relying on us.
It is important that we keep in mind that urgent humanitarian needs are not only in the conflict areas, but they exist in the whole country—like I am seeing in Tartous.