UNHCR pushing aid out across Syria as winter looms

Briefing Notes, 22 October 2013

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 22 October 2013, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Syria's on-going conflict continues to complicate efforts to address the humanitarian needs there. On 14th October UNHCR relief aid was delivered to some 2,500 people from Mouadamiya, to the southwest of Damascus. These people had just been evacuated and are now in collective a centre in Dahyet Qudsaya. As well as monitoring their general condition and protection concerns, mattresses, blankets, cooking sets, hygienic supplies and other aid was handed out.

Last week, UNHCR's local partners also brought aid within the hard-to-reach city of Raqqa to more than 10,000 people. The recipients included more than 3,600 people sheltered at the Al Riyayat school and Massahadah farm. Raqqa, located about 160 kilometers east of Aleppo, hosts internally displaced persons from Aleppo and Deir es Zour.

Just prior to the recent Eid holiday, on 10th and 13th October, we participated in two inter-agency convoys to Ter Maela and Al-Ghantoo, near Homs. Relief items were provided to 10,000 vulnerable people. Our teams observed that many of the displaced are living in buildings lacking windows, doors and electricity. People in this area will soon urgently require thermal blankets and plastic sheets to deal with winter temperatures. Women told us they lacked privacy in the collective shelters.

So far this year, about 35 per cent of UNHCR's core relief has gone to people in hard-to-reach areas such as Aleppo, Azzaz and Karameh. Since February, we have participated in 21 inter-agency missions to hotspots including Karameh, Aleppo, Idleb, Hama, Homs, Dier es Zour and Dara'a.

UNHCR's work inside Syria aims at delivering relief aid to three million people. This allows people to feed their families, it ensures access to shelter, and it helps people cope with displacement and maintaining hygiene. On a weekly basis up to 250 aid trucks are on the move inside Syria, bring aid to some 14,000-15,000 households, equivalent to nearly 100,000 people weekly.

Despite this effort, the needs within Syria are enormous and displacement is on-going. Current UN estimates are that there are more than 4.25 million people who are internally displaced, but that figure is nearly five months old and likely to be revised upwards. Beyond those who are displaced, millions of other Syrians are impoverished and lack medical and other aid.

Temperatures are now dropping across the region and together with the rest of the aid community we are in a race to help people prepare for Syria's third winter amid conflict. Earlier this month we began distribution of "winterized" core relief across Syria: items such as thicker thermal blankets and additional plastic tarpaulins meant to help one million displaced persons. We have so far rehabilitated shelters hosting 35,000 of the 80,000 people we want to reach before winter sets in. These displaced persons live in informal and unfinished shelters facilities often with no heating, doors and windows. UNHCR also provides financial assistance to vulnerable IDPs in Damascus, rural Damascus, Homs, Al Hassakeh, Qamishly and Tartous. This has so far benefited more than 117,000 displaced and vulnerable Syrians.

Last week the first half of 44 shipping containers loaded with UNHCR aid from our Central Emergency Stockpile arrived in Tartous and the remaining containers are expected shortly. This shipment of large 40 foot containers includes more than 29,000 plastic tarpaulins, 150,000 sleeping mats, 75,000 jerry cans and 30,000 kitchen sets which will be delivered over the coming months to our beneficiaries across a wide swathe of northern Syria. In addition to deliveries via sea, UNHCR also sends items into Syria via its regional stockpile based in Jordan.

Virtually every town and city in Syria is affected by the conflict or hosts traumatised, displaced people. According to UN statistics, more than 400,000 homes have been destroyed and 1.2 million damaged. As many as 5,500 schools and 3,800 mosques have been damaged or destroyed. Most flour mills and bakeries are no longer operating. Hospitals offer no sanctuary for healing 57 per cent are damaged and 60 per cent of ambulances are out of service. 15,000 doctors left the country, leaving an acute shortage of health personnel as well as the medicines and equipment to treat a growing population of sick and wounded.

Increasing numbers of the internally displaced are living in squalid conditions in abandoned public buildings, including in 931 schools but also in hospitals, basements and mosques. Some 180,000 especially needy people live in 983 collective shelters across Syria. Mostly home to women, children and the elderly, UNHCR has witnessed shelters with missing doors and windows and lacking proper sanitary conditions. Leishmaniasis and cholera are reportedly becoming increasingly common.

We are concerned that the breakdown of a sense of community and safety is harming children in particular. Almost two million have dropped out of school and growing numbers are being exploited for labour or recruitment into armed groups. There are many cases of children having been separated from parents, and many live in a state of trauma and fear. With food insecurity affecting over four million people, two million children face malnutrition and we constantly hear alarming reports. UNHCR is also concerned about the vulnerability of women, many heading broken households.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • Peter Kessler (Amman) +962 79 631 7901 kessler@unhcr.org
  • Adrian Edwards (Geneva) +41 79 557 9120 edwards@unhcr.org
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Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

A Teenager in Exile

Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

Jihan's Story

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