Helen Pattinson of UNICEF UK reports from Za’atari camp in northern Jordan, where tens of thousands of families who’ve fled the conflict in Syria are suffering in an unusually cold winter.
For most families, choosing to leave Syria is not a difficult decision.
I spoke to several men and women at Za’atari refugee camp
whose houses were destroyed by shells or bombs in the conflict. None of these people wanted to move to a refugee camp, but to escape the violence, they literally had nowhere else to go. Their relatives’ houses had also been demolished.
Difficult Journey out of Syria
Children keep warm in the bitter cold at Za'atari refugee camp. ©UNICEF/2013/Pattinson
To get out, families have to travel at night on foot, using back routes rather than main roads. The journey takes hours, a difficult enough trek for most adults, but punishing for families with babies and very young children in tow.
Most families cross into Jordan illegally. They are picked up on the other side of the border by buses that the Jordanian Government provides, and they are taken to Za’atari. The camp has been operational since July last year, taking the strain from smaller, overcrowded transit facilities. Some parts of the camp have been graveled to prevent it from getting too muddy following heavy rains. When families arrive at the camp, they are given blankets. During the recent heavy snow in Jordan, dry blankets were at a premium. When the snow melted, many of the tents were flooded and collapsed. Some families are taking shelter in classrooms, but many have just had to cope in the cold and wet.
Refugees Face Bitter Cold
Right now, it’s bitterly cold—much, much colder than photos of the camp suggest. Temperatures may drop even further over the next month. Many of the families here left Syria over six months ago, during the peak of summer, with summer clothes only. Some of the children I met had winter illnesses. They are cold and frightened, living in a tent in near freezing temperatures, sometimes with no blankets.
Around a thousand people arrive at the camp every day, sometimes many more, with the number depending on the level of violence in Syria. A UNICEF child protection officer told me that she is managing more than ten child-friendly spaces. Several others are being used for emergency accommodation. Over 1,200 children visit the spaces every day. Prior to leaving Syria, children here have been exposed to horrendous situations over a prolonged period of time.
They witnessed bombings, shelling, and the destruction of their homes. Some family members have been tortured or killed. UNICEF works closely with children to help them recover.
Gradually they improve and children begin to express themselves and start making emotional connections again. They even find a way to manage their feelings and reach out to other people. In time, they start to develop hope, and talk about what they want for the future. Without continuing support, a whole generation of Syrian children is at risk of being severely damaged by violence.