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UNHCR opens a new office in southern Syria and transfers humanitarian assistance convoys across the Jordanian border to Syria

Press Releases, 19 June 2014

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) opened on Wednesday its new field office in the southern governorate of Sweida.

UNHCR continues to expand its humanitarian operation to support the increasing number of internally displaced Syrians (IDPs). "We are committed to expanding our humanitarian response to reach all those desperately in need of humanitarian assistance across Syria. UNHCR's efforts focus on reaching out to the most vulnerable people wherever they may be in Syria" said Tarik Kurdi, UNHCR Representative in Syria.

Sweida office will cover the southern area in Syria where more than 550,000 IDPs live and will provide all the services provided by the Refugee Agency in other parts of Syria, including the distribution of basic relief items, the rehabilitation of collective shelters and the provision of health, educational and legal services. The office will also become a hub for the coordination of the transfer of humanitarian relief supplies across the Syrian-Jordanian border, particularly to Daraa governorate and surrounding areas including in hard-to-reach areas.

Today, the Refugee Agency has transported 25,000 blankets, 10,000 sleeping mats, 2,500 kitchen sets, 2,000 plastic sheets and 5,000 jerry cans through the Jordanian border. Items were delivered to UNHCR's new warehouse in Sweida for onward distribution to people in need in the governorates of Sweida and Daraa.

"In addition to facilitating the transfer of relief items across the Jordanian border, the Syrian authorities have also informed us officially today that UNHCR will now be allowed to distribute relief supplies in the southern governorates without the need to transfer them to Damascus first, which will contribute effectively to facilitating and accelerating the delivery of much-needed relief items to the most vulnerable not only in areas that are easily accessible, but also in disputed and hard-to-reach areas. This will help UNHCR improve its effectiveness under the present circumstances", Mr. Kurdi said.

Mr. Kurdi added that almost all transport services across the Jordanian border as well as UNHCR warehouses in Sweida governorate will be available for use by other UN humanitarian agencies operating in Syria.

In view of the rapidly increasing needs in Syria, decentralization is an essential component of UNHCR's strategy to scale up its humanitarian assistance and outreach in the country. UNHCR is permanently present in Damascus, Aleppo, Hassakeh, Qamishly, Homs, Tartous, and now in Sweida.

"As the humanitarian response in Syria continues to scale-up, field offices are extremely important as they enable more effective programming and help UNHCR and other humanitarian actors in continuing to implement flexible approaches," said Mr. Kurdi.

In 2014, UNHCR has so far distributed over 8 million CRIs to some 2.3 million beneficiaries in 13 out of Syria's 14 governorates.

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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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