Jolien Veldwijk, CARE Syria Country Director, speaks about the harsh winter and flood conditions facing Syrians.
What is the current situation of people in Syria during this winter?
The suffering of people in Syria during the winter is unimaginable. Temperatures drop well below the freezing point. In Northwest Syria, hundreds of tents have been washed away by the floods since December last year. Millions of people have been internally displaced in the Northeast and Northwest of the country, most of them live in camps and informal settlements. The tents people live in are makeshift and cannot withstand the heavy winds and rains. The lifespan of tents does not exceed one year. Humanitarian partners report seeing people walk around in ripped shirts, and children in flipflops. People can see their own breath when lying on their thin mattrasses on the cold floor of their tents. One of CARE’s Syrian partners reported that every third person knows someone who has died or got sick because of the cold. Especially those with preexisting health conditions are struggling. Cold and respiratory issues are rising and spreading, let alone the threat of COVID-19 in overcrowded camps without sufficient healthcare. Most displaced people report that they are not able to afford buying masks or other ways of protecting themselves against spreadable diseases. Food, medicine, and clean water are unaffordable. Displaced persons have resorted to burning clothes, tires, and other hazardous materials, resulting in dangerous environmental impacts. In some camps, fires have broken out and people have suffered from suffocation.
Has the situation deteriorated in the past years?
Snowfall and sub-zero temperatures are not unusual in the Middle East, but during the past years, climate change has made the situation even more difficult. There is more flooding and rainfall, simply washing away the tents and the few belongings people were able to take when their houses were bombed. People have no more resources left after eleven years of war. Inflation, sky-rocketing prices for food and the global COVID-19 pandemic have left people with no financial buffer. In many parts of Syria, drought and heavy rains have also destroyed the harvests, forcing people to spend all their money on buying expensive food on the markets. The winters are harsher and deadlier, while people are less and less able to cope with freezing temperatures.
What are the people in the camps telling CARE staff about their situation?
People are horrified by the situation. They are standing deep knee in mud, their tents under water. Women are holding their small babies and children tight to try to give them some warmth. One woman has told us that she doesn’t sleep at night, because she keeps checking whether her children are still alive. It is difficult to imagine the stress and horror of women having to deal with such a situation! Before the winter, CARE surveyed over 1,250 people in 101 camps and settlements in the Northwest. People remain worried about the high numbers of vulnerable people in the camps, especially elderly people, pregnant and lactating women, as well as people who have a disability. The health conditions of people are particularly under threat in the cold winter weather, and many of them have to fear for their lives when they fall sick.
Also, out of the over 10,000 tents our teams assessed, 51% were in really bad condition. With heavy rain and harsh winter conditions, the tents will simply collapse. The situation for those who live in shelters such as unfinished buildings is also of concern. Over 40% of the displaced people live in partially destroyed houses or places which do not protect them against the cold.
How is CARE helping people in Syria get through the winter?
During and before the winter, CARE has started repairing tents in the camps, insulating them against the cold and the rain. Also, CARE is helping people cope during the winter by distributing items such as heaters, blankets, weatherproofing kits and fuel to refugees. We are also distributing cash and vouchers to tens of thousands of families. The people themselves know best what they need to stay warm and how they can spend the money most effectively. We are also distributing hygiene kits including soap, shampoo, masks, and hygiene pads for women and girls.
What more needs to be done?
CARE and other organizations, especially Syrian organizations, are working very hard to help people cope with the cold winter and the current floods. But the funding situation after more than a decade of war is really dire, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. We urgently need more money to repair more tents and refugee shelters and distribute more cash so people can buy urgently needed blankets, warm clothes, medication and food. While needs continue to grow, fatigue with the crisis, funding cuts and sanctions make the delivery of humanitarian assistance incredibly difficult. CARE Syria urgently calls on donors to ensure that more funding is available for the protection, recovery and resilience gains made so far, and for helping communities strengthen themselves well into the future. We particularly need to ensure that the needs of vulnerable women and girls are being met.
CARE and other organizations are also calling on governments with influence over the warring parties to use their pressure to seek an end to this brutal conflict.
Info about CARE’s winterization work in Syria:
In the Northeast, CARE is supporting 45,222 people with winter support, including warm clothing and blankets. CARE helps people protect themselves against the rain and cold in formal camps, collective centers, and rural areas in which vulnerable host communities are in desperate need of support.
In Northwest Syria, CARE is distributing cash vouchers to 30,000 families, as well as household items to 11,000 people. Also, CARE supplies people with a total of 11,000 hygiene kits, including items such as soaps, toothbrush and toothpaste, and hygiene pads for women.
Across Syria, CARE is supporting displaced people with insulating their tents, strengthening their makeshift shelter to protect them against the cold. In total, CARE is reaching 86,222 people in Syria this winter.