UNHCR airlifts winterization supplies and vaccines to north-eastern Syria

Press Releases, 2 December 2013

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has airlifted urgently needed winterization supplies for extremely vulnerable families as well as polio vaccines for more than 538,000 children from Damascus to Al Hassakeh, Syria in a series of flights over recent days.

On Saturday 30 November a UNHCR-chartered Antonov-12 aircraft transported 14.4 metric tons of aid including 2,000 thermal blankets, 1,000 sheets of plastic tarpaulin and other equipment to Al Hassakeh for onward delivery to the UN hub in Qamishly, in north-eastern Syria.

That airlift followed a flight on Thursday 28 November in which the Antonov 12 carried polio vaccines for 538,000 children from the Syrian capital Damascus to Al Hassakeh on Thursday, as a contribution to the inter-agency effort led by WHO and UNICEF to ensure the vaccination of children living in hard-to-reach areas of Syria. In addition to the polio vaccines, the UNHCR air charter of 12.5 metric tons of aid carried tens of thousands of vaccines against meningitis, tuberculosis, MMR, tetanus for 150,000 individuals.

The transportation of vaccines is a delicate matter as the cold-chain must be preserved to keep these vaccines effective. UNHCR's airlift of urgently needed relief items is particularly important as the main road from Damascus to Al Hassakeh remains perilous for aid deliveries and no significant deliveries of relief items have been able to reach the region by road since May 2013.

UNHCR's airlift also included five incubators for Qamishly hospital's neonatal unit and a ton of infusion fluid which was sent to the health department in Al Hassakeh from where it will be delivered to hospitals in Hassakeh Governorate.

"The medicines delivered to Al Hassakeh are intended to cover the gaps in Syria's northeast including in hard-to-reach areas of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Al Hassakeh governorates," said UNHCR Representative Tarik Kurdi. These vaccines against polio will be used in the second round of vaccinations, which will start on 8th December."

The UN refugee agency has maintained an office in Al Hassakeh since 2010 and expanded its presence in Qamishly in May 2013 to help address needs amongst displaced persons and refugees living in the region.

Because of its unique access into Al Hassakeh, UNHCR has been actively involved registering internally displaced persons (IDPs), and providing assistance with core relief items like shelter material, blankets, cooking sets, sleeping mats, hygienic supplies and other aid alongside cash distributions to help vulnerable families and also providing health care.

So far over 2013, UNHCR has registered 33,000 displaced families (approximately 115,000 people) in Al Hassakeh including 23,000 families who came from Deir Ezzor. UNHCR has provided its specially designed package of core relief items to 23,500 people in Al Hassakeh and 94,500 people in Deir Ezzor.

UNHCR also runs a cash assistance programme in north-eastern Syria that has assisted 57,400 vulnerable displaced individuals over 2013.

The UN refugee agency continues to run a primary health care polyclinic in Al Hassakeh which serves both refugees and vulnerable displaced Syrians. So far over 2013 this polyclinic has provided primary health care to more than 48,000 patients.

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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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