Published — Thursday 17 January 2013
Last update 17 January 2013 12:17 am
FIRAS Salam struggled to carry the eight-liter jerry can up the hill. When the 13-year-old reached the top, he veered right into a row of tents. But before he could make it to the 220 square foot nylon bivouac, he slipped into the muddy earth, spilling his can.
In the Atimah refugee camp near the border with Turkey, displaced Syrians are doing much more than struggling to climb hills in the rain. With paltry rations and no electricity and heat, they are trying to stay alive as the winter cold nips at their bones and the chilly rains leaves them targets for the howling winds that blow through the camp.
The Syrian civil war has created a refugee crisis that grows with each day. Across the Middle East, more than 511,000 Syrians are refugees and another 2.5 million are internally displaced according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Host nations such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are struggling to accommodate the daily influx. But unlike refugee camps there that receive aid from United Nations (UN) organizations, in Atimah the warehouses are not brimming with supplies from the World Food Program and World Health Organization.
Because Atimah — within eyeshot of the Turkish border — is in Syria, the UN needs the permission of the Syria government to operate there. But Damascus is reluctant to give its imprimatur to alleviate the suffering in rebel held areas. It instead hopes Syrian in these areas will realize that the rebels cannot provide for their needs, convincing them to throw their support to a regime that shows no signs of waving the white flag. With no UN organizations active in Atimah, the burden of caring for the camp’s 13,000 residents falls to the MARAM Foundation, an association of Syrian Americans who banded together when the revolution began to help their brethren in need. MARAM runs the camp and provides much of the funding for its operations.
But without major backing, there are shortfalls. “We don’t have enough to eat,” complains Mustafa Habun, a 34-year old plumber from the town of Idlib 20 miles south of the camp. “The meals are small and they don’t come on a regular schedule.” A Turkish aid organization provides residents small packs of peanut butter, jelly and cheese along with some olives and bread for lunch. But the service is erratic and the portions tiny, leaving the refugees hungry and unsure of when the next morning meal will come.
One basic necessity they know won’t be coming soon is running water. The camp has none. In its place each tent receives several half-liter bottles that never seem to be enough to fill all the stomachs in the large semicircle shaped encampments. When it runs out residents fetch more from portable water trucks drawn from Turkish wells. “It’s unclean,” notes Nour Yassin a 28-year-old mother of six from Kafr Taharim. “The Turks use it only for washing, not drinking.
In the camp’s clinic, a three-year-old is crying. His mother’s soothing words do little to temper his sobbing. “Bronchitis,” explains Dr. Hassan Al-Khawam, the camp’s doctor. “Every day we see a few cases.”
The poor sanitary conditions and overcrowding makes Atimah a fertile environment for the transmission of diseases. But the clinic is understaffed with only four doctors and does not have the medicines it needs to treat the many patients who come every day for care. “If we don’t get what we need soon, there is a chance we could see a camp wide epidemic,” he warns.
The olive trees around the hills of Atimah shake gently with every gust of wind. Underneath the canvas tent tops flail against the bottom flaps that serve as entrances. The cavernous shelters house families from the province of Idlib. They spend most of their day huddled for warmth inside the tents. But even here within the confines of their tents, they cannot escape the hardships of life in a refugee camp. The winter rains have turned the dry earth to mud. Residents lay their thin blankets on the mushy soil, but it is not enough to prevent the soggy dirt from seeping through. “We live in perpetual cold,” says Hamid Jabir, a 46-year-old grocer. “The world is silent as we suffer.”
One man trying to alleviate Jabir’s suffering is Yakzan Shishakli. The 34-year-old Syrian American heads the MARAM Foundation and has traveled here from Houston to run the Atimah camp. His family and donors are funding the camp’s operations, estimated to be around $4,000 per day. “Without the major aid organizations, it’s hard to get the supplies we need,” he admits. “But we are out there everyday trying to improve the situation.