Thursday, October 25, 2012

Syrian refugees face a difficult winter

When you think of getting ready for winter in D.C., it seems straightforward enough: you pull out a heavier coat, a hat and gloves; throw a comforter on the bed; and set the climate control to 68 degrees. Quick and simple, right? But for the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who are receiving humanitarian assistance, winter is a much more ominous prospect.

In Jordan and Iraqi Kurdistan, the main refugee camps for Syrians consist largely of tents set up in the middle of an open desert. If you remember your third-grade social studies class, you know that even though we think of deserts as oppressively hot, at night temperatures can drop dramatically. In the wintertime, that can mean sub-zero chills, accompanied by strong, dry winds blowing clouds of loose sand. The lack of tree cover and natural shelter means that winds whip across the landscape without interruption. And in more mountainous places like southeastern Turkey or central Lebanon, there will be rain, snow, and ice. 
When we think about preparing for winter in such an environment, we might think first of distributing blankets, and perhaps reinforcing tents. While these are important and useful ways of preparing for winter, much more is required. In places where tents are staked to the ground, they often have to be replaced entirely by containers that have walls and roofs that can withstand wind and precipitation. Where more solid structures like cinder block frames are available, ground covering and reinforcement against the wind are both essential. And these are just the issues pertaining to shelter. Winter means providing warm coats, hats and gloves, and sturdy shoes for families who escaped from Syria with only the clothes on their backs. Everyone will also need Heaters and fuel, carpets and plastic sheeting. They will need shelters that won’t make them even sicker when the inevitable colds and coughs set in. 
When I and my Refugees International colleague visited Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq earlier this month, winterization of the camps had barely begun. The delay was due to a range of problems: the lack of funds, the lack of materials, and also the fact that aid agencies have to focus all their time and energy on simply registering the enormous numbers of new refugees who arrive every day – not to mention providing emergency medical care for the scores of wounded Syrians arriving every week. Although everyone is thinking about winter, it’s been difficult to get preparations underway, even as the weather turns colder and winter illnesses like respiratory infections begin to crop up. The latest version of the UN’s Regional Response Plan for Syrians includes money for winterization activities, but the plan is not even one-third funded. The fact is that even if aid groups start work now, their efforts will be inadequate unless the U.S. and other donors meet these funding shortfalls.
Think of those days in winter when you feel like the season will never end and the sun will never properly shine again. Now think of spending those days outdoors in a tent without heat, with only a t-shirt and sandals to keep you warm, and the nearest bathroom a hundred yards away in a cinderblock box. Imagine trying to go to school, take a shower, or cook dinner for your family once the cold has seeped into your limbs and numbed your senses. That is the kind of winter Syrians now have before them. That is the kind of suffering they will face if the world doesn’t act fast.