As the fierce summer heat of Jordan’s northern desert gives way to cold winter nights, 44-year-old Hilal steels himself in preparation for his fifth winter in exile since escaping Syria’s long-running conflict.
With rain and freezing temperatures taking hold, keeping his family warm and dry presents added challenges and expenses. Hilal consoles himself with the thought that nothing could be worse than the two winters they spent displaced inside Syria during the war, after fleeing their home in Homs.
“Winter here is tough, cold and costly,” he said. “But the winter in Jordan is better than the winters in Syria during the war. We used to collect wood from the ground to burn in a metal bucket for heating.”
Their current home is a single-storey concrete structure set in a dusty patch of wasteland on the outskirts of Mafraq, a city in the north of Jordan with the country’s highest concentration of Syrian refugees.
"Winter here is tough, cold and costly."
There are no doors in any of the bare concrete rooms, while unglazed windows and holes in the flat roof let in rain and icy draughts. Hilal puts plastic sheets and blankets over the windows and doorframes to try to keep out the elements, but the family has only a single gas heater for warmth, and even that they must ration.
“When it gets cold in winter, I turn the heater on for an hour until I feel the room is warm, then I turn it off again for an hour to save some gas, because if not we will consume too much,” he explained. Hilal and his wife Nouhad bundle their children into extra clothes and blankets to get them through the long winter nights.
Like the vast majority of the 670,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan, Hilal’s family live below the poverty line and rely on international assistance to survive. The 155 Jordanian dinars (US$218) in cash assistance they receive each month from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, barely covers their rent and bills, with nothing left to meet the extra costs of winter.
As a result, they are among more than 328,000 Syrian refugees living in towns and cities across Jordan that UNHCR intends to help this year with a one-off winter cash payment of between 200 and 340 dinars (US$282–480). Assistance will also be provided to 32,000 refugees from Iraq and other nationalities. The money can be used to buy gas for heating, blankets, and winter shoes and clothes.
Across the region as a whole, UNHCR aims to provide life-saving winter assistance to 3.5 million vulnerable Syrian and Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people.
Of the total US$180 million requested for this year’s regional winter response, US$148 million has so far been received from donors – including large donations from the United States and Germany. However, UNHCR is urgently seeking to fill the US$32 million gap to ensure that millions of displaced Syrians, Iraqis and others get the support they desperately need.
In Jordan, as well as winter cash payments to more than 79,000 families, UNHCR is also investing in repairs to shelters and drainage in Za’atari, the country’s largest refugee camp, a few kilometres outside Mafraq.
Hilal said the extra help at wintertime is essential for his family’s wellbeing, particularly his 11-year-old daughter. “Winter assistance is very helpful for my daughter Milyar. It helps us to provide … blankets and clothes for school to keep her warm because she suffers from asthma, and the winter weather is hard for her,” he said.
Unable to work or even move around the house freely due to injuries he sustained in Syria during their displacement, Hilal puts what energy he has into caring for his family and ensuring his six children receive an education.
"My wife and I can bear this situation, but why should my kids have to suffer?"
“The problem is not this house, or even the winter. The problem is that our nation [Syria] is lost,” said Hilal, whose large frame appears weighed down by the strain of their circumstances.
“My wife and I can bear this situation, but why should my kids have to suffer?” he asked. “They didn’t do anything to deserve this. They deserve a better future.”
Additional reporting by Mohammad Hawari