Syria crisis

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Reema’s story - a 12 Year old Syrian refugee in Lebanon

Reema (12) lives on the first floor of a house still under construction in Lebanon. There are piles of rubble and concrete all around. There are no windows, no comfort. She sleeps in a small ‘room’ with her parents and four siblings. Rats are frequent visitors.

A year ago her home in Syria was destroyed by the bombings. In the time that followed she moved with her family from place to place, one of the 1.6 million Syrians who have no fled their war torn country in search of refuge in Lebanon, Jordan and further afield.

By the end of the year, close to 3.5 million Syrians are expected to have fled.

“I used to enjoy writing before but since coming here, after this tragedy” says Reema. “I wake up in the morning and I see children going to school and I cry why don’t I have the right to go to school and I sit here and I remember our home back in Syria before the fighting.”

Clockwise from top: ‘I don’t want my photograph to be taken because I’m afraid that when we go back something might happen to us.’ Reema (not her real name) has been writing moving poetry about her situation and desire to return to Syria. This stark, un-plumbed room serves as a toilet and bathroom for Reema, 12, and her family in Tripoli, Lebanon. Remma shares her story with Oxfam Communications Officer, Jane Beesley. Photos: Sam Tarling / Oxfam.
 

A year ago it was destroyed by the bombings. Now she is one of 750,000 young Syrian refugees.

“I miss my friends,” she says, “I miss my teachers. I miss my classes, my English classes, my Arabic classes, my music classes. Now I’m just sitting here every day.”

She spends her spare time writing poetry, remembering her home and longing to go back to it. 

This is part of one of them:

When I take my pencil and notebook,
What shall I write about?

Shall I write about my school,
my house or my land of which I was deprived?

My school, when will I visit you again
take my bag and run to you?

My school is no longer there
Now, destruction is everywhere
No more students
No more ringing bells
My school has turned into stones scattered here and there

Shall I write about my house that I no longer see
where I can no longer be,
Shall I write about flowers which now smell destruction?
Syria, my beloved country
Will I ever return back to you?
I had so many dreams
None of them will come true
 

Clockwise from top: Reema's shoes, the only items other than her clothes she took with her from Syria. Reema's sketchbook. Reema's notebook. Photos: Sam Tarling / Oxfam.

Reema’s family will receive two payments of $150 dollars as part of Oxfam’s cash transfer programme. This money is intended to help families like Reema’s pay their rent over the next two months.

Families like hers are in desperate need of shelter, food, water and medical care. We're scaling up our response to help families through the coming months.

Please give what you can today.

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First impressions mask difficult reality of life in a Syrian refugee camp

Before I arrived in Jordan, Zaatari Refugee Camp in my mind had taken on almost mythical proportions. I had heard that it was initially constructed to accommodate a population of 35,000 but was now rumoured to have a registered population of more than 130,000. And frighteningly, not the largest refugee camp in the world.

As I approached by car, it seems strange to say but I was disappointed by first impressions. Zaatari refugee camp sits atop a relatively flat landscape not far from the Syrian border and without an aerial view the sense of scale I had imagined was impossible to view.

 

Above: The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan is a sprawling city with rows of tents as far as the eye can see. Anastasia Taylor-Lind/Oxfam

Surrounded by a high wire fence for security, it appears orderly with its seemingly evenly spaced rows of regulation refugee tents. It is solid underfoot too with crushed stone to prevent muddying caused by vehicles and human traffic in winter rain. And either side of the road that leads from the main entrance is a remarkable array of market stalls selling everything from fruit, vegetables and cooked food to clothes and toys and household basics sourced from local traders outside the camp. The refugees from Syria have proven themselves to be remarkably self-reliant and resourceful.

“It doesn’t seem that bad,” a companion commented. Indeed there is much about Zaatari that on first appearances “doesn’t seem that bad”…if the alternative is to be trapped in a bitter conflict that has left an estimated 70,000 dead and forced another 6 million (yes, million) people to flee their homes.

First impressions too of course can be deceptive and as the morning and hours passed, the realities of life in the refugee camp became more apparent…more than anything else the sense of confinement, the restricted space, the lack of opportunity to escape even for just a short time from the heaving bustling hive of activity. 

Clockwise from top:  Clothes drying on a high-wire fence in the camp. Caroline Gluck/Oxfam. Oxfam public health staff put the finishing touches to 95,000 litre water tanks that will considerably increase the water storage capacity in the refugee camp. Karl Schembri/Oxfam. A woman and child gather water in the camp where Oxfam has installed tap stands and towers, latrines, bathing areas, laundry areas, water collection points and wash blocks. Caroline Gluck/Oxfam. Syrian children in the camp share a smile. Karl Schembri/Oxfam. Syrian refugees arrive at the camp, originally built for 35,000 but now accommodating more than 130,000. Caroline Gluck/Oxfam.

And as we moved beyond the road that once formed the main axis of the camp, it is with regret that I say my expectations of scale were finally met. Row upon row upon row of tents dominated the horizon as far as the eye could see. This was no camp. This was a sprawling city, ironically the significance of which is only best understood when you see the enormity of the blank canvas of land that has been cleared to accommodate still more tents and, more recently, prefabs.

Later, faces pressed against the fence outside a health clinic where lines of mothers and young children queued served only again to re-enforce the sense of claustrophobia and suggesting that, despite best efforts, supply of services had outstripped demand. It could hardly be otherwise. 

Organisations like Oxfam are working closely with the refugee population to provide access to the most basic of human needs such as clean water and washing facilities but the scale of need is frankly overwhelming…1,500 people arrive on average each day. I wondered how we in Ireland would cope with such an influx. More importantly still, how do the Syrian refugees cope?

Refugee camps are rarely constructed as homes but places of temporary refuge until it is safe to go home or some alternative option is found. Almost as though lives can be put on hold while diplomats, like economists, trade options...and futures...of those whose recent past, and perhaps even lives, have been comprised of choices few of us could ever even conceive.

As I write now amidst a flurry of international activity to bring about a resolution to the conflict, I hear that the influx of refugees across the border into Jordan has almost ceased. And then the question, why? And quickly the realisation that those in Zaatari are the lucky ones...they were able to flee. And it is then you understand the true meaning of “it doesn’t seem that bad”.

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Syria crisis: A struggle for survival

The Syria crisis is rapidly spiralling out of control. More than 1.3 million people have now fled the conflict into neighbouring countries, leaving the organisations trying to help overstretched and struggling to cope with a massive surge in refugee numbers. 
 
With the number of refugees expected to rise to three million by the end of 2013 and promised funds yet to arrive on the ground, the scale of the crisis is outstripping the response. 
 
We are reaching a point where the crisis risks overwhelming the ability of host governments and agencies to respond.
Oxfam aims to reach 120,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. With your support, we can help people like Omayya (30), her husband, son Mohammed (9) and daughter Ghazal (3). 
 
 
Left-right: Ghazal at the door to the family tent in Zaatari camp. Like 90,000 fellow Syrians now living in the Zaatari camp in Jordan, Hussein has been forced to leave his home because of the worsening security situation. Mum Omayya has had to find a new way of making ends meet and supporting her family. Her daughter Ghazal has a medical condition that requires expensive treatment so Omayya has started making and selling popcorn from her tent. Photos: Caroline Gluck/Oxfam
 
Ghazal had a pacemaker and a hearing aid fitted when she was very young in Syria. But when a problem with it emerged, it was too dangerous to travel to the Syrian capital Damascus to have it fixed. 
 
In August 2012, they came to Zaatari camp in Jordan where Ghazal had a second pacemaker operation in January. The medical bills are taken care of. But the batteries for the pacemaker and cables for the hearing aid need to be replaced and paid for, which is increasingly difficult now as they cost 50 Jordian dinar (approx. €54/£46) a month but she makes just 25 JD a month.
 
“I make popcorn from the tent to earn money to help. I sell small bags for 5-10 piastres and I can make around 100 bags a day.
 
“There are three main reasons I have to do this. One is my daughter is the most important thing to me than anything else in the world. Second, my mother is old – she has diabetes and high blood pressure and is not able to do anything and needs my help; and thirdly, in terms of solidarity in our family and anyone else in need. Everyone is in need here; things are very expensive in the camp. Whoever can work should work to help other people.
 
“Also this work involves the whole family; everyone gathers around when I make the popcorn. Someone fries, someone packs the bags; it’s become something all the family can engage in.
 
“It makes me feel happy because I feel you need to get used to wherever you live to survive. It’s not life that helps us get used to circumstances, we need to get used to our circumstances and work on this. 
 
“Other women who know me from Syria know that I’m a fighter; I’m a strong woman who feels that I need to work wherever I can and feels that I need to provide for my daughter. 
 
“I still need to find special treatment for her. She barely speaks and needs therapy; she can only say a few words. I’m not the kind of woman who just sits idly doing nothing. No! I will never give up.”
 
In Zaatari camp in Jordan, we are installing water and sanitation facilities such as toilets, showers, laundry areas to help to more than 15,114 people and will help to build a new water system that will supply water to all 90,000 camp residents. 
 
 
Clockwise from top: A boy plays at an Oxfam water tank at Zaatari refugee camp. A girl collects water from a tap stand in the camp. Syrian children at the Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan. Photos: Caroline Gluck/Oxfam
 
We have also carried out assessments to see how we can help the vulnerable refugees who are living outside the camp and in host communities over the next few months. Your support is vital.
 
Despite the investments by NGOs and governments, the conditions in the camps are dire. But people continue to flee to Syria. 
 
Hussein (47) had just arrived at the camp with his family: “We left Syria because the bombings were getting so bad. We tried to stay as long as possible, but things are getting worse and worse; the bombings and security was getting worse all the time.
 
“Here, it’s hard too but at least there are no sounds of bombs and we all feel more secure; that's the most important thing. If we were not so frightened, we would never have left Syria.
 
“Things seem quite chaotic here, we arrived last night. I didn't think there would be such a fight for everything.”
 
Please give what you can to our Syria appeal - even the smallest amount can make a huge difference. 
 
€8 will buy hygiene items for one person for one month
 
€20 will buy food for one person for one month
 
€115 will subsidise the rental costs for a family of 5 for one month 

 

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‘Why I left private sector to help Syrian refugees with Oxfam’

Amid a sea of male construction and site workers in Jordan’s sprawling Zaatari desert camp, female engineer Farah Al-Basha stands out from the crowd. 
 
The energetic 27 year-old Jordanian joined our team earlier this year, quitting her job at a private engineering company to work for Oxfam. 
 
Instead of working on military and defence contracts and designing underground bunkers, she now helps to oversee work building toilet and shower blocks and installing water tanks at Zataari’s refugee camp. She’s been involved in drawing up quality, safety and inspection plans; liaising with and advising contractors; and carrying out on-site inspections to ensure standards are met at every stage along the construction project.   

 
Clockwise from top: Farah describes her role as an Oxfam engineer as “a life-changing experience”. Farah oversees and inspects the work of the all-male labourers and ensures everything goes to plan. Farah has written the word ‘rejected’ on this cement floor, which means the contractors will have to rebuild it to a higher standard. She carries out on-site inspections to ensure standards are met at every stage along the construction project. Photos: Caroline Gluck/Oxfam.
 
“I wanted to work with an NGO to help people here, to try to do something more for the community. For me, work shouldn’t just be about the money,” she says. 
 
But Farah admits her first visit to the camp was a bit of a shock. “It was the first time I have ever been to a refugee camp and, honestly, it was overwhelming”, she said. “I had only seen this on television, not first-hand. I realised this job was going to be totally different in terms of what it required of me than my previous work.   
“It’s been a life-changing experience for me. Helping to change people’s lives is not an easy thing to do. It’s also a difficult thing to realise that, as much as you want, you can’t help everyone everywhere.” 
 
In Zaatari camp, Farah is a woman on a mission: determined to show that women engineers are just as capable as their male counterparts and making sure she is up to date on all the latest reading and research to make sure that no-one can fault her. Her day-to-day work involves overseeing and inspecting the work of the (all-male) labourers and making sure everything goes to plan – or if it doesn’t, finding solutions to daily problems.   
 
“Every day is crazy and every day is really busy,” says Farah. 
 
When I visit, she points out wide cracks in the cement floor of a new block which will house toilets and showers. “Look, the cracks are so wide,” she says, pointing to the floor where she has marked in red ink the words “rejected”.   
 
“This will cause problems… the contractors will have to fix it,” she says, shaking her head.     
 
She’s firm but polite as she speaks to the contractors, pointing out the problem. But they accept what she says. “I’m very demanding and quite strict, but they respect me. They realise I am not here for a fashion show, but I’m an expert and know what I’m talking about.   
 
“Every day, big groups of women and children follow me as I work in the camp,” she says. “The girls say they see me as a kind of role model and say they’d like to do work like me when they are older. 
 
“The children in the camp love to see us work: they make sure they are awake and up and about when we arrive in the camp for our day’s work.” 
 
Farah had hoped to recruit an all-female team to work with her: but the first female junior engineer she hired quit after a few days into the job. “There are many women engineers in Jordan, but most chose not work on-site but stay working in offices. I’ve been working as an engineer for the last six years and I’m always the only female engineer on site.” 
 
Undaunted by some of the setbacks, Farah is full of plans and ideas. She’s hoping to pass on some basic engineering and plumbing skills to some people in the camp; and to get women there more involved with the work Oxfam is doing. 
 
Spending most of her days in the camp, she says, is a tiring but rewarding experience. 
 
“We’re surrounded by children for most of the day. We walk together, we eat together, we share stories and dreams. When the time comes to leave the camp, we get into our car, tired and exhausted with messy hair and dirty jeans, with our faces a bit more darkened by the sun than the day before.   
 
“We’re thinking about how lovely a bubbly shower will be, but before closing the doors, the kids come and say: ‘See you tomorrow’ and we close the doors with a big smile, forget about how dirty we are, or how lovely this bubbly shower will be and we start thinking about what can we do next for those kids.”
 
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Crisis in Syria

The Syrian refugee crisis is accelerating with a dramatic increase in the numbers of people flowing across its borders.

Over one million refugees have now fled into neighbouring countries since the onset of the crisis in March 2011.

In Jordan alone there has been a three-fold increase in the daily rate of people escaping the war ravaged country in the last week. Now extreme winter weather is compounding misery for refugees, with an increase in respiratory infections and pneumonia recorded in clinics in Lebanon and Jordan.

 

 

CAPTIONS: Top: A woman and her child take shelter as a syrian air force jet bombs the streets surrounding her house in the  neighbourhood of Ahadarea, Aleppo, Syria. Photo: Sam Tarling / Oxfam. Middle: Refugees are flooding into camps in The Bekaa valley, trying to survive a harsh winter. Luca Sola/Oxfam. Bottom-left: Hanin Handan, 20, her husband Rasmi, 26, and their son. After their home was burned down during the fighting they fled Syria with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. Luca Sola/Oxfam. Bottom-right: Samira arrived from Syria 3 days ago. She is living in a self made shelter with just one room, which she shares with 12 other people. She has no food, barely any blankets and is living in squalid conditions. Luca Sola/Oxfam.

Living in a self made shelter with just one room, Samira’s story encapsulates the challenges faced by many. A 45 year old widow (pictured above, right), she shares a home made from one wall of breezeblocks and plastic sheeting with 12 other people, including 7 of her eight children. 

The floor is wet and icy cold, outside snow melts into the ground creating icy mud. 

“It has been eight months since I left my home, I have no idea what happened to it we just had to leave it behind and escaped because of the fighting.” 

Like her, an estimated 670,000 people have fled violence in Syria to neighbouring countries since the onset of the crisis in March 2011.

Families have arrived exhausted and traumatised.  Some have faced bombs and bullets to get to refugee camps like Al Jaleel in the Beqaa Valley, which was originally built for Palestinians. 

Nestled between snow-covered mountains and shrouded in a thick blanket of fog, it is a safe haven for thousands fleeing the escalating conflict. 

Now, they are trying to get through one of the most brutal winters in the last two decades with almost nothing. 

One of them is Hanin Handan, who fled to Lebanon with her husband and son.

“All of our food is from food distributions, we have no money for food as we lost everything when our house burned down. We used to have a good life, my husband had a good job rearing chickens and we were happy. Now we have nothing left.”

Oxfam Ireland is launching a crisis appeal to help the tens of thousands affected by the continuing crisis in Syria.

Their homes destroyed and lives shattered, these ordinary people are eking out an existence, in camps with no heating or furniture during one of the most brutal winters in the last two decades.

We cannot put an end to the fighting. But with the right determination and resources, we can help make things better for the many Syrian families who have lost almost everything.

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