Cruel choices, cruel conditions for Syrian refugees in camps

  • Article by: CAROL MORELLO
  • Washington Post
  • December 23, 2012 - 10:48 PM

YAYLADAGI, TURKEY - Um Khalid is contemplating selling some of the bare-bones food ration given to Syrian refugees to buy winter clothes for her eight children.

"I was thinking I could buy something every month for one child that way," she said, explaining her pained calculation as she served instant coffee heated on a hot plate in the tent that has sheltered the family since they fled Syria 18 months ago.

Outside the tent flaps, a heavy rain formed large puddles and transformed dirt into slippery mud. In the cold and dank, children ran around in sweatshirts and sandals.

"I don't care about myself, I only care about what my children need," said the 32-year-old mother, who was wearing the thin dress she had on when she arrived in Turkey last summer.

Winter is making a harsh life even bleaker for the 500,000 Syrians living in refugee camps in neighboring countries, a number the United Nations said could double by the middle of next year. Conditions are even worse at some camps within Syria, where food is in short supply and the major source of light is candles.

The gloom is palpable even in nicer camps, such as the one in Yayladagi, where the Turkish government has outfitted the grounds surrounding a former tobacco warehouse with amenities designed to make existence bearable for the nearly 2,800 refugees.

The 239 tents that house half the refugees are wired with electricity to power the compact florescent bulb and portable heater in each tent. Many have satellite TV on cheap sets bought by residents, often with wages from painting houses or picking olives. There are a few washing machines.

The more fortunate refugees are housed in an empty building of 276 rooms, some of them as small as a walk-in closet and serving as home to a single family. A food allowance of $45 a month is distributed with the admonition that it cannot be used on cigarettes, alcohol or chocolate.

For many, although their most basic needs are met, the prospect of a second winter in a refugee camp is grim. Cold weather and two solid weeks of rain have made things worse.

"I stay inside all the time," said Hawia Samua, 55, who shares two rooms in the warehouse with her husband, three sons and new daughter-in-law. "I only go out if I have to go to the doctor."

Two men's jackets, borrowed from refugees with coats to spare, hung on a coat rack. There was none for Samua, who wore no sweater beneath her abaya.

"At least in here it's warm," she said, gesturing toward the heater draped with drying laundry. The room, about 8 feet by 15 feet, was furnished with a stack of thin mattresses, a plastic chair and a table with a hot plate.

Temperatures in Yayladagi typically drop below freezing on winter nights.

Two women washing dishes at a cold-water spigot, by a metal fence with razor wire, said many adults are catching flu and colds from the children. "We're always sick, all of us," said Raida, who is six months pregnant.

Suleiman Qubbai, 18, a construction worker wearing a thin leather jacket, said he dreaded a repeat of last winter, when a heavy snowfall caused several tents to collapse. The power was out for three days, and many refugees huddled in tents under blankets until it was restored and the heaters worked again.

The Turkish government is working to improve conditions at Yayladagi, said camp manager Mehmet Gunes. It is renovating another warehouse so those in tents can move indoors, he said, and will dig trenches to channel the standing pools of water. It has distributed extra blankets, enough for each resident to have two. A shipment of winter clothes purchased by the government is expected soon.

But that will do little to alleviate the heavy sense of loss here, with no end to the war in sight.

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