More than 63,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq: UN
Publisher: AFP, Agence France Presse
Story date: 09/12/2012
Language: English

More than 63,000 Syrian refugees have fled the bloody conflict in their home country for neighbouring Iraq, according to figures released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on Saturday.

The intense fighting between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and rebels battling to overthrow him has sparked a huge exodus of Syrians to neighbouring countries.

There were 63,496 Syrian refugees in Iraq as of December 5, a weekly update released by the UN said.

Most of them – 54,550 – were in the three-province autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, while 8,852 were located in Anbar province in the west and 94 in other provinces.

The 21-month conflict in Syria has also seen tens of thousands of Iraqis who had fled to their country's western neighbour return home.

According to UN figures, 58,213 Iraqis have returned from Syria since July 18.
 

Thinking inside the box; As winter approaches in Syria, the number of refugees fleeing its borders is rising by the day. Sally Williams visits a camp in northern Iraq where ShelterBox, one of the Telegraph's Christmas charities, is sending its emergency boxes to save lives. Photographs by Ivor Prickett
Publisher: Telegraph Magazine
Author: Sally Williams
Story date: 09/12/2012
Language: English

On a grey, cold morning in late November, 300 or so new arrivals are waiting to register at the UN refugee agency office at Domiz refugee camp in northern Iraq, some 37 miles from the border with Syria and part of the autonomous region of Kurdistan. Children fidget, men cough, women dressed in shalwar kameez pull blankets around their shoulders. Yesterday the temperature was in the 20s; today it has dropped to 10C. By January it could be deep in snow. It rained in the night and it is bad going underfoot – thick mud and muck. All around is cold, noise and confusion.

Domiz is trying to prepare for winter by handing out kerosene heaters, blankets, quilts and plastic sheeting. The aim is to build one–room concrete homes in which families can keep warm. Diggers and labourers are at work throughout the camp. But refugees are arriving faster than aid agencies can respond. 'We have been overwhelmed,' Fatima Eldiasty, the UN officer overseeing the camp, says.

On March 15 2011 protesters rose up in Syria and demanded the resignation of President Bashar al–Assad. The Syrian Army was deployed. A civil war had begun. President al–Assad has since killed as many as 30,000 of his citizens. At first fighting was confined to the main cities of Homs and Aleppo, and then in July the violence escalated after rebels took control of districts in the capital, Damascus.

This triggered a panicked exodus to the neighbouring countries Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. More than 50,000 Syrian refugees (mostly from Kurdish north–eastern Syria or Kurdish areas of Aleppo and Damascus) have arrived in the Kurdistan region so far. Domiz camp opened in April and by August about 50 people a day were crossing the border. Then it jumped to 700. For the two weeks before I arrived it had stabilised at 500 a day. But then it soared to the highest numbers yet: well over 1,000 people a day. Domiz, a camp built for 7,000, has nearly tripled in size.

'We've been trying to get aid to the Syrians for over a year but couldn't find a way in,' says David Webber, who is a response team member and trustee of ShelterBox, the international disaster relief charity. Lebanon was too much of a security risk. Turkey closed its borders in August; they had hopes for Jordan but this stalled because of tensions within the country. Then through a chance conversation with a contact in Beirut, they heard about the Barzani Charity Foundation, a Kurdish charity based in Erbil, northern Iraq.

'We met them a month ago. It was a clear opportunity,' Webber says. ShelterBox has a very simple and robust tool: ShelterBoxes, which contain a tent and other essential equipment (for example a stove, a solar light, a water purifier) to help a family survive. A ShelterBox tent can be adapted for any environment – heat, cold, high winds, heavy rainfall. It can even be pitched near a flood. It connects aid with need as quickly as possible. 'ShelterBox is an easy sell,' Webber says. 'In a lot of places we go to it's shelter and water that keep people alive.' Within four days of arriving in Iraq, ShelterBox had housed families in 200 tents; 300 more went up the following week.

The ShelterBox operations team monitors disasters constantly through global contacts and news channels from the charity's HQ in Helston, Cornwall. It works both independently, deploying itself to disaster zones, and alongside other aid agencies or government authorities in response to requests for help. ShelterBox response teams are then sent to the crisis. Once they are there (and getting there can be a challenge in itself), they weigh up the need. From this point onwards speed is key. The charity has 1,700 boxes packed and ready to be dispatched at a moment's notice at Newquay airport (there are also stores in 27 strategic locations across the globe including Accra, Dubai, Colombia and Houston).

ShelterBox logistics teams work out the quickest route for getting the boxes to the country. 'Because we are an emergency shelter charity most of our aid goes out, at least part of the way, by air,' Webber says. Once the aid arrives the response teams, working in teams of two or four, have the challenge of getting it to the recipients, however remote and inaccessible they may be. Boxes have been delivered by helicopters, tuk–tuks, donkeys and on the backs of camels. ShelterBox had aid flying into Haiti only six hours after the 2010 earthquake.

The charity was founded 12 years ago by Tom Henderson, a former Royal Navy search–and–rescue diver based in Cornwall. His aim was to provide shelter, warmth, comfort and dignity to those in crisis. The success of ShelterBox is down to his pragmatism – he focused on shelter because it is so fundamental and because emergency distributions tend to be based around food and medicine. In April 2000 the Rotary Club of Helston–Lizard in Cornwall adopted the idea as its millennium project. Nine months later 143 boxes were sent to earthquake victims in the Indian state of Gujarat.

But ShelterBox really made its name at the end of 2004 with the Asian tsunami. Donations and volunteers poured in and the charity expanded its operation to dispatch 22,000 boxes – a tenfold increase on the total number sent over the previous three years. It has been on an upward trajectory ever since. 'We've got two big warehouses in Helston stocked with about 20,000 tents – double the number we had when Haiti kicked off,' Webber says. 'Nobody in the world would have that number of tents. Not the UN, not anyone.'

A week after the meeting with the Barzani Charity Foundation, Webber, 64, was back in Kurdistan with a second response team member, Rebecca Novell, meeting the consignment of boxes that had been flown into Erbil airport from Newquay via Dubai. The boxes were transported by truck to Domiz, where the tents were put up by a contractor and his team of 20 or so workers recruited by the UN from the camp. Rows of putty–coloured domes lined with Nasa–style thermal protection and warm blankets overlook the plains and mountains of Kurdistan.

ShelterBox response team members are on the front line of disaster relief, unpaid volunteers who have to be available to travel whenever and wherever at short notice. They undergo a rigorous four–day training course and then, if successful, graduate to a nine–day course, a mixture of classroom learning, fitness tests and practical exercises (the precise nature of which Webber says are 'top secret'). Response team members come from all walks of life – teachers, managers, firefighters, photographers. They are not required to have any specialism.

The charity has a worldwide network of about 220, all committing to be available for a minimum of two weeks a year. 'We also have an army of unsung heroes who raise money, pack boxes, answer the phone and all sorts of things; they get no recog nition,' Webber says. ShelterBox is not a 'first responder', pulling bodies out of the rubble, nor in it for the long haul, setting up hospitals and schools. But it pleases Webber that it is usually one of the first organisations on the ground, and that the charity has only three tenets: keep safe; get the job done; don't bring ShelterBox into disrepute. 'They [big organisations] have a book of protocol like the Yellow Pages,' he says.

Webber and his colleagues see themselves as outsiders in the aid world. 'All the big boys are sitting at the top table and we're peering over the table edge,' he says. Even ShelterBox's HQ on an industrial estate in Helston underlines its marginal position. But since its launch the charity has responded to more than 200 disasters, helped more than 1.2 million people in about 90 countries, raising and distributing more than £55 million in aid worldwide. With a staff of 55, hundreds of volunteers and 20 affiliates around the world, it has expanded to the point where it can fight off accusations of amateurism.

Its pragmatism resonates with Fatima Eldiasty at UNHCR. 'We are at the stage where basic needs are the main needs: a place with a ceiling to protect you and your family, so being given a tent means a lot,' she says. She is grateful for ShelterBox's 500 tents, but cannot give the all–clear for 1,000 more before consulting the Kurdistan government. At Domiz, she is coordinating UN agencies (UNHCR, Unicef, WFP, UNFPA), international aid organisations (such as Médecins Sans Frontières) and the local Kurdistan government. She explains that the process of working through the mechanisms of relief is slow and costly. 'There is a big challenge in responding to their daily needs,' she points out. But to those on the ground, yet again, it can feel as though established aid organisations have reacted too late.

ShelterBox's method is to work with partners who know local airfields and roads and can get access to crisis zones quickly and effectively. The charity often finds contacts through Rotary International. Under the motto 'Service above self' the Rotary Club brings together business and professional leaders. Members are expected to help communities in need, whether local or distant. Rotary is at the core of ShelterBox, raising a significant percentage of funds. There is a belief that Rotary is parochial, Webber says, but there are 33,000 Rotary Clubs throughout the world. The only country without one is North Korea. 'We have a similar ethic to get the job done, do the most for the most.'

'ShelterBox does exactly what it says. I like this very much,' Nashwar Ali, the project coordinator for the Barzani Charity Foundation, says. 'I have never seen another organisation do a job like this so fast.' Webber, in turn, highlights Barzani's influence. 'Sometimes it can take us weeks to get tents through the airport, but because of their government connections they got them through in an hour and they were in the camp four or five hours later.'

The tents have already been personalised. A cobblestone path leads up to the entrance of one; there's a shop outside another selling potatoes, tomatoes, oranges, spring onions, honey and olives. While refugees in camps in Turkey complain that effectively they are kept prisoners, Domiz is open. This allows people to work in the towns or to buy supplies and set up businesses in the camp. There are stalls selling perfume and doughnuts, even a cafe serving sweet tea and coffee. I saw 'dividers' (sent out with tents going to Muslim countries to allow men and women to live in separate areas) used as windbreaks; criss–crossed strings of fresh washing.

One owner, an assured woman in her 30s, had largely filled her tent with a cooker. The woman sold her wedding ring and earrings for $300 back home and bought the industrial–size cooker and a satellite television (each tent is wired for electricity) at the bazaar in Domiz. She didn't want to put her new cooker outside for fear it would be stolen. 'We must show her how to open the ventilation flaps while she's cooking,' Novell says, looking worried.

Suhilla Jamil Hasso is here with her husband, Shalal, a labourer, and her four sons (aged 20 to six). Their neighbour's home in Damascus was hit by mortar fire a few months ago and a party wall collapsed on their daughter Karwin, 20. Her broken leg was fixed with a metal pin at the national hospital. Then the family made the 370–mile, 48–hour journey to the border town of Qamishli in a hired truck, with Karwin on a stretcher in the back. They stayed in Qamishli with Suhilla's sister for about a month and then came here, leaving behind Karwin and another daughter, Aitya, who is 12 years old.

'A sister should take care of her sister,' Suhilla says. They left the daughters partly because they couldn't afford to bring them in. 'There are many waiting who don't have money to pay PKK [the Kurdistan Workers' Party, gatekeepers charging refugees $100 each to cross the border],' she says. But also because Karwin is immobile. The only way across the border is on foot and the journey takes about four hours.

Doctors have told Karwin that she can't walk on her leg for 20 months. The thought of her girls pains the woman. 'I feel mother hurt,' she says, and her eyes fill with tears.

With rising steel and material prices, the construction industry in Damascus has ground to a halt and many, such as Suhilla's husband, were out of work. 'It was miserable, but what could we do?' Suhilla tells me. Her 19–year–old son Mohammed says the future looks better in Kurdistan, so he plans to stay. 'But if Assad goes down, I will return. There will be a lot of work rebuilding, a lot of job opportunities.' In the meantime the family feels in limbo. 'We don't do anything,' Suhilla says when I ask how she spends her day. 'We just make breakfast, lunch and dinner. Our psyche is so crushed because we are only thinking about how we can help our daughters.'

A few minutes later we are in the packed tent of a neighbour, Ibrahim, a labourer in his early 60s, who has 14 children (three are still in Syria). Ibrahim explains that their home of 40 years was destroyed by a bomb only five days before. The family still looks deeply shaken. His daughter Hatla, 14, has broken her hand, and keeps rubbing a bump on her head. But talk of injuries prompts revelations of something more disturbing.

Ibrahim's son Kawa, 24, shows me his scarred wrists. He says he was arrested for being a member of the Free Syrian Army and put in jail for 20 days, where he was hung from a rafter and beaten. The charge was contrived. 'I am just a taxi driver,' he says. Friends listen as we speak, interrupting every few minutes with tuts of outrage. Another rushes back to her tent to charge her mobile phone. She wants to show me a photo of her baby who was killed when the Syrian Air Force dropped a cluster bomb on her village.

The refugees have found a real welcome in Kurdistan. They are certainly given more respect than they had at home. Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria (nine per cent of the population) but they are treated as second–class citizens. They are paid less for doing the same job, and banned from holding passports, speaking Kurdish, registering children with Kurdish names or starting businesses that do not have Arabic names.

The Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq 'is very receptive and doesn't see them as refugees, it sees them as cousins,' Eldiasty says. The government provided the land for the camp (newly cleared of landmines – a legacy of Saddam Hussein), has wired up electricity and is sharing the cost of building the concrete shelters. The other unique feature is a government ID card that qualifies refugees to get jobs outside the camp (although the local community can't hope to provide work for all those arriving) and use medical services and schools – the camp has one school for 1,200 children and is building two more.

So conditions aim to be infinitely superior to many other camps, which don't even include such basics as sanitation. But the influx is such that there can be a two–month wait for a UNHCR tent. New arrivals have to rely on friends or the kindness of strangers. I meet one young man, Abdu Al Kareem, 26, and his family who had spent the previous night with 25 people in a tent. 'I am sleeping with the shoes,' he says.

The next day, Webber has a problem. Ten tents leaked in the night. A contracted worker who put up the tents missed out the arching poles that keep the roof taut. Rain pooled in the baggy canvas and dripped in. 'It's not a complicated tent but it does need to be put up correctly and you have to train people to do it,' Webber says. (Tents are typically allocated by UNHCR but it could not keep up with demand, so some families just moved themselves in.)

He had the same problem last summer at Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya where ShelterBox donated 7,000 tents following the drought. 'You need to be quite tall to put the top poles in and because the Somali refugees were all short they thought, "Oh, well, we won't bother." Also the dust of the camp was so fine it got through the mesh of the ventilation system. Everything inside became coated with red dust. They couldn't open the vents. I was concerned, but they are used to living in 40–degree heat, so they didn't seem to mind,' Webber says.

Webber, who lives in Cornwall and is married with two sons in their 30s, joined ShelterBox in 2009 after retiring from a career in house building and running, among other things, a plumbers' merchant with 20 outlets in the south of England. Although the decision to join ShelterBox vexed his wife – 'She is more quiet, stay–athome' – he says his business background is, in large part, behind his pragmatic, orderly approach. 'Whether you're supplying showers or tents, you need to find the most efficient way to get it done.' It is a response that filters out emotions. 'It's easy to be driven by your heart, but you've got to do a practical job, working long hours in difficult conditions.'

It's an almost superhuman job he does for no money (his pension and savings enable him to do so). His first deployment was to Sri Lanka in 2009, just as the war between militant Tamil separatists and the country's armed forces was coming to an end. 'Two million people were trapped in what was effectively a concentration camp. We were there three or four weeks and then we had to pull out.'

This year alone Webber has been to Madagascar (cyclone), Uganda (mud slide; refugees from Congo), Jordan (Syrian refugees). He's trying to get into North Korea (flooding). 'We've put in for visas. Maybe it will happen, maybe it won't.' Nor has ShelterBox ever been allowed back into India. 'They feel they can deal with their own problems.' He goes on, 'Some countries we go back to far too often, for example the Philippines, which annoys me. I don't like the mayor of a province sitting in an £80,000 truck saying, "What can you do for my people?"'

Webber has travelled from one crisis to another, and yet is 'not an adventurous eater, even at home'. He laughs, acknowledging that he has eaten chicken escalopes at the hotel every night for two weeks. 'I've only ever had one pizza in my life.'

It is early evening now and Webber is surveying the new arrivals gathering on the flat fields at the edge of the camp. He still hasn't had a confirmed order for more tents from the UN. 'We won't wait,' he says. 'The need is clearly here and if all else fails, we'll have the boxes stored here for when Syria opens up and we start helping in that country.'

ShelterBox is one of three organisations supported by this year's Telegraph charity appeal. To donate, visit telegraph.co.uk/charity or send cheques/postal orders to Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal, Charities Trust, Suite 20–22, Century Building, Tower Street, Liverpool L3 4BJ (0151–284 2145). Tomorrow Telegraph staff will take donations over the phone: call 0800–117118 between 10am and 6pm
 

Angelina Jolie revisits Syrian refugees in Jordan; Angelina Jolie meets with Syrian refugees in Jordan who had fled from conflict in their home country.
Publisher: The Telegraph, UK
Story date: 09/12/2012
Language: English

UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie travelled to the Jordan – Syria border to meet frightened and exhausted Syrian refugees who had just completed the perilous crossing to safety in Jordan.

The Hollywood actress met a family who moved from Damascus to their home town of Daraa four months ago but decided they should flee to Jordan.

This family is joining tens of thousands of others who have already fled to Jordan and surrounding country.

Jolie returned to the camp on December 6 to meet more refugees and the family she talked to before.

Nearly half a million Syrians fleeing intensified fighting have been registered in neighbouring countries since the conflict began.

Hundreds of thousands more are unregistered, but are expected to come forward for help in the next few months as their resources are depleted.

Since the UNHCR special envoy's last visit in September, the number of registered Syrian refugees in the region has increased by more than 200,000 and in Jordan alone by nearly 50,000.

The sprawling Za'atri refugee camp north of Amman has doubled in size.

Angelina Jolie and her partner, Brad Pitt, made a donation of $50,000 dollars for the purchase of family tents for refugees.
 

Jolie visits Syrian refugees
Publisher: Sunday Telegraph
Story date: 09/12/2012
Language: English

AMMAN

ANGELINA Jolie paid an emotional visit to the Zaatari refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan, last week – her second trip to the region in three months to meet civilians who are being targeted in strife-torn Syria.

``What I saw last night is a dramatic example of the plight of hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have been uprooted by the fighting and are in a desperate search for safety,'' the 37-year-old actor said.

``Civilians inside the country are being targeted. Many of those trying to flee are exposed to extreme danger right up to the border itself. I appeal to all sides in the conflict to do all they can to ensure the safe passage of these innocent civilians.''

Her eyes filling with tears, Jolie said she heard ``horrific'' and ``heartbreaking'' accounts from the refugees living in the Jordanian camp that has provided shelter for those fleeing the civil war in the neighbouring country.

Jolie, the UN refugee agency's special envoy, met women refugees at the Zaatari camp, which now holds about 40,000 Syrians displaced by the 19-month conflict.

``It's deeply, deeply concerning,'' Jolie said from the sprawling tent city.

``What they described on the ground, hearing it from them is so horrific,'' adding that the children's stories were especially moving.
 

Jordan to delay opening of new Syrian refugees camp till early 2013
Publisher: Xinhua News Agency
Story date: 09/12/2012
Language: English

AMMAN, Dec. 9 (Xinhua) – Jordan's second camp for Syrian refugees will be opened early 2013 after prevailing weather conditions delayed the opening of the camp before the end of this year, the state-run Petra news agency reported Sunday.

Lack of financial allocations and donations also slowed down the preparation for the new camp, which will be located in Zarqa city to the north of Amman, Anmar Hmoud, government's spokesman for Syrian refugees affairs, said Sunday.

The camp, which will initially host about 5,500 refugees, will reduce pressure on the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees that is home to more than 48,000 refugees, he said.

Over 250,000 Syrians have fled their country into Jordan since the start of the unrest in Syria early 2011.
 

Over 150,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon: UN
Publisher: Xinhua News Agency
Author: Salah Takieddine
Story date: 09/12/2012
Language: English

BEIRUT, Dec. 8 (Xinhua) – There are over 150,000 Syrian refugees who have fled the bloody conflict in their home country for Lebanon, UN figures showed Saturday.

"There are around 109,000 refugees formally registered within the agency and 41,000 others currently contacting it to be registered," according to a statement released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The statement pointed out that a large number of the Syrian refugees are stationed in northern Lebanon, where their numbers reached around 55,872, while 44,178 are in Bekaa and 9,031 in the capital Beirut and the south.

The agency meanwhile said that it is discussing ways to safeguard the Syrians, who are now in the northern city of Tripoli, amid the recent incidents that erupted between opponents and supporters of President Bashar al-Assad's government.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Miqati said last week after a meeting for donor countries that the government had placed a clear work plan that caters to the different needs of the displaced Syrians. The plan was hailed by the UN statement.

Miqati said that a total of nearly 180 million U.S. dollars have been provided to the Syrian refugees in Lebanon by various concerned ministries.
 

Sectarian Conflict Kills at Least 17 in Northern Lebanon in Spillover of Syrian Civil War
Publisher: The New York Times, USA
Author: By JOSH WOOD
Story date: 09/12/2012
Language: English

TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Clashes between Sunni Muslim and Alawite militias have killed at least 17 people here recently in perhaps the worst spillover of violence from the civil war in neighboring Syria.

Tripoli, which is Lebanon's second-largest city and is close to the northern border with Syria, has long been the scene of conflict between Sunni Muslims in the city's Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood and Alawites in the hilltop section of Jabal Mohsen, with each group maintaining militias.

But during the 21-month conflict in Syria, the web of religious and family ties and fault lines between the two countries has created new strains, especially in Tripoli. Lebanese Sunnis have increasingly supported and even joined the Sunni-led uprising against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who is Alawite and whose sect dominates the government. Refugees from both sects have flowed into the city.

As some Tripoli residents begin to see themselves as part of the Syrian conflict — to the dismay of the Lebanese government, which fears being dragged into the war — the intensity and frequency of fighting has increased dramatically, with clashes sometimes ignited by events in Syria. Scores have been killed here this year.

The latest conflict began after a number of Sunni fighters from northern Lebanon were killed in an ambush by pro-government forces as they tried to enter Syria to join opposition fighters. Sunnis in Tripoli, angry over videos that purported to show the men's bodies being stabbed and kicked, attacked Alawites, starting days of clashes between militias wielding rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Lebanese news media put the death toll at 17.

Lebanon is divided over Syria, with the parliamentary opposition bloc fiercely opposed to Mr. Assad, and as the Syrian conflict has become more sectarian, so has the Lebanese debate. Many Shiites and Alawites support Mr. Assad and fear that Syria's Sunni majority will take revenge against minorities, while many Lebanese Sunnis, emboldened by the uprising, have struck an aggressive posture toward a government they see as dominated by the Syria-backed Islamist party Hezbollah and weakened by Mr. Assad's troubles.

Sunni fighters from northern Lebanon, including the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood, now routinely cross into Syria to fight. Many link up with Islamist factions like Jabhet al-Nusra, a group that the United States is considering declaring a terrorist organization.

Militia leaders in Bab al-Tabbaneh say they frown on their men going to Syria because it leaves them short-handed for any conflict at home. But it is hard to stop fighters who feel a personal connection to the civil war.

Some of the young men from Bab al-Tabbaneh showed up as corpses in videos circulated on cellphones by rebel supporters. One video showed bodies being repeatedly stabbed with knives. In another, men shouted insults as they kicked and stomped on corpses' heads.

A Sunni militia commander in Bab al-Tabbaneh who goes by the name Abu Bera identified one of the men as his friend Hussein Sorour, a 24-year-old baker and fighter.

Even during a lull in fighting on Saturday, snipers atop the hill of Jabal Mohsen made streets in Bab al-Tabbaneh unsafe. People traversed the neighborhood by passing through a maze of holes knocked out of walls and crossing alleys with huge tarps strung up to obstruct the view of snipers. One young boy walked down an alley carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle. He said he was 11.

There is a fear that the clashes could spread to other parts of Tripoli. Violence has touched the affluent and usually quiet city center. Rockets and mortars have hit the area more than a dozen times over the past week, said Racha el-Halabi, 19, a university student and journalist.

"It's the first time ever," she said. "Everyone is worried."
 

In Turkish border town, Syrian doctors and other refugees plan for new future
Publisher: the Washington Post, USA
Author: Carol Morello,
Story date: 09/12/2012
Language: English

REYHANLI, Turkey — Operating rooms and intensive-care units are being outfitted in an abandoned customs house just a few yards from here, across the Syrian border in rebel-controlled territory at the Bab al-Hawa crossing.

Rebel fighters and civilians with gruesome injuries arrive every day, in desperate need of medical treatment. Even though Syrian warplanes have dropped bombs nearby, and international intelligence officials warn that those bombs could soon be equipped with chemical warheads, Syrian internist Monzer Yazji and the doctors he is working with say they are determined to open their 60-bed hospital soon.

"We are in the final stage of the collapse of the regime, and we have to be ready from Day One," said Yazji, who lived in the United States for 20 years and runs a Syrian medical relief charity based in Turkey.

The hospital, he says, will repudiate everything Syrian President Bashar al-Assad represents. That means treating captured security forces members who fought against the rebels to prop up Assad's government, the same government that has arrested, tortured and killed physicians who provided medical assistance to protesters and rebel fighters over the course of the 20-month-old conflict.

"We are not like them," said Yazji, speaking in his unmarked office in an apartment building in Reyhanli, on the Turkish side of the border.

The town is suspended between war and peace. It is filled with dreamers who are forging ahead with plans for new hospitals and town councils, civil courts and police departments, even trash collection, in parts of northwestern Syria that are controlled by rebel forces. It also is a place steeped in pain. Hundreds of wounded Syrians have been brought across the border, in need of specialized care that, right now, is unavailable here.

Reyhanli's 60,000 residents are mostly Sunni Arabs with close familial ties to the Syrians who live on the other side of the mountain, beyond razor-wire fencing that marks the border. They have largely welcomed the 15,000 Syrians who have sought sanctuary among them — a stark contrast to Turkish cities with large populations of Alawites, members of Assad's Shiite-affiliated sect, where demonstrators have come out in support of the Syrian president.

Local officials have turned a blind eye to Syrians selling used cars of questionable origins, sporting Bulgarian license plates, from a vacant lot next to a rehabilitation center. They have accommodated more than 20 international humanitarian groups looking for quiet ways to donate medicine and food to Syrians without drawing attention, because not all of the organizations are registered with the Turkish government.

"We come on tourist visas," said a worker for a Europe-based nongovernmental organization who spoke on the condition that the group not be named. "We make a few contacts here. . . . Then we get to know some people who work at the border. If they like you, they'll let you do your work. It's all very personal."

At the same time, residents are making money off the refugees. Many landlords have increased rents fivefold, and merchants have put up handwritten storefront signs in Arabic to attract refugees who have a little money to spend.

Dire medical needs

Every day, 10 to 20 people are brought across the border — children with bullets in their skulls, old men whose feet are swollen and red with gaping wounds, young men paralyzed from the waist down because of shrapnel or bullets.

The three rehabilitation centers in Reyhanli are staffed by Syrian physicians, many of whom left their country to avoid arrest for treating rebels and civilian protesters. Most do not have licenses to provide more than rudimentary care. They fear torture and death if they return to Syria.

"This is the first time a government has targeted physicians," said Yazji, who as head of the umbrella Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations makes periodic forays into besieged Syrian towns. He said that about 50 Syrian doctors have been arrested and killed since the uprising began. There were signs of torture on their bodies when they were returned to their families, he said.

Much of the humanitarian aid in Reyhanli is backed by donations from affluent Syrian expatriates. A small hospital, for example, is funded by the owner of Orient TV — a prominent Syrian opposition figure whose network broadcasts from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

There is bitterness that more international aid has not been forthcoming. "We understand not providing weapons," said Yasser Said, a Syrian lawyer who manages an 80-bed rehabilitation center in the town. "But why not medical supplies?"

Hussein al-Mustafa, a surgeon who said he fled the northwestern Syrian province of Aleppo to avoid arrest for helping protesters, ticked off some of the needs. One rehabilitation center secured an X-ray machine, but it was so old that doctors could not find film for it. The center cannot afford Clexane, a medicine that stops blood from forming potentially life-threatening clots. There are far too few wheelchairs and just a week's supply of the painkiller Gabapentin for the 25 patients who need it.

In a room painted a milky green, 12-year-old Salah Hussein Gayari lay in a bed, with two metal fragments lodged in his spine and another in his blinded right eye. He is paralyzed below the waist.

Salah, who has soccer in his soul and wants to be a doctor when he grows up, said he was heading to the market in his village of Abu Dhour, near Idlib, when an artillery shell fell nearby. Neighbors drove him to Turkey to be operated on.

Two older brothers who had joined the rebel forces left to keep watch over him. Doctors told them that Salah needs more specialized care to remove the remaining metal from his body. "Can you take him somewhere out of the country?" the brother asked a visitor.

Building institutions

Yazji said he will move his organization's headquarters to the hospital at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing as soon as it opens. He believes that the Assad regime will collapse within weeks, not months. And he has told his wife that the next time they meet, it will be in Syria.

Wassim Taha, head of the Syrian Organization for Refugees, thinks it will take much longer. But he, too, is planning for the future. His focus has shifted from coordinating aid to building institutions.

More than 30 civilian councils have been formed in northern Syria that can distribute funds and provide other help, said Taha, working out of an apartment office equipped with two laptops and a desk. He is trying to get lawyers to establish civil courts and is seeking money to pay the salaries of lawyers, judges and police officers. Taha said that several European governments have provided financial backing for the building of civil institutions but that the United States has not.

"If it takes a long time, the extremists will take over," said Taha, a former fashion designer who was involved in opposition politics for many years. "It will destroy Syria."
 

Refugees Daily
Refugees Global Press Review
Compiled by Media Relations and Public Information Service, UNHCR
For UNHCR Internal Distribution