Syria in winter is no place to be a child at Christmas

Peter Power, Executive Director for UNICEF Ireland recently returned from a visit to a Syrian refugee camp. He has seen first hand the lengths families must go to in order to stay warm.

Plunging temperatures, freezing rain and snow will bring misery and suffering to families already exhausted by six years of relentless war. Winter is on its way to Syria and with it a very real danger to children.

One such child is Hakim. When our team first laid eyes on Hakim, he was peeping out of a ragged tent in a bleak corner of a refugee camp in Iraq. Miles from home, Hakim was bewildered. He didn’t understand why he had had to leave his house in Syria where he used to love eating the onions his mum and dad grew in the family’s garden.

Now his home was a miserable place. There was nothing to look forward to. No school to go to and no toys to play with. His playground was a cluster of makeshift tents. Pplummeting temperatures froze the deep puddles each night.

Iraq, February 2014. 3 year old Hakim is peeping out a worn tent in the Domiz refugee camp in Northern Iraq.Hakim sitting outside his family’s makeshift shelter in Domiz Refugee Camp. Photo: Schermbrucker, Iraq, 2014.

Three-year-old Hakim and his family fled their home in Syria because of fighting. His mum Fatema told us they could hear explosions and saw killings in the street as they escaped. She described how terrified the children were and how they are still really frightened of loud noises.

Like so many families, they were forced to run for their lives. The family trekked for hours across the border, at last reaching Domiz refugee camp in Iraq, where a tent became their new home. But as winter deepened, the family faced a new threat – one they couldn’t escape. They had barely enough layers to protect Hakim and his baby sister Amira from the bitter cold.

“We are worried, lonely, cold and tired.” Fatema told us how she was dreading the arrival of the winter storms in Domiz. She was scared the family’s tent wouldn’t be enough to protect the children from the bitter cold.

Hakim's little sister Amira walks among the dirt in the Domiz refugee camp in Northern Iraq. Hakim’s little sister Amira stands in the middle of the Domiz Refugee Camp, the place she now calls home. Photo: Schermbrucker, Iraq, 2014.

Soon the snow storms will come, cutting off communities already on their knees after six years of war and suffering. In refugee camps across the region, children are living in flimsy, temporary shelters, exposed to the elements. With food in desperately short supply, homes and hospitals reduced to rubble, the youngest and most vulnerable children are at risk.

In Syria itself, children who don’t even have a tent for shelter are surviving instead in the ruins of their former homes. Here the cold can be just as deadly as the bullets and bombs already raining down on this devastated country.

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Ordinary families can’t afford to buy the basics like food and fuel, let alone winter clothing for their children. The situation for Syria’s children is a desperate one. The clock is ticking. Winter is coming to Syria and with it misery and suffering for millions of children.

Our teams are doing everything they can to get help to as many children as possible now before it’s too late. The weather will turn in the coming weeks, plunging temperatures to dangerous levels. In such conditions, small children like Hakim quickly get sick and many have died.

Ferit, 10, stands outdoors without a coat in falling snow, in a host community in Dikmen Valley – an urban transformation project area – in Ankara, the capital, on a bitterly cold day.Ferit (10) is a Syrian refugee, standing in snow storm in Turkey in his host community. Photo: Yurtsever, Turkey, 2015.

Starting from November average lows in the Syrian region drop to between 2°C and 5°C. On high ground temperatures can regularly drop to below freezing. In cold weather, children already weak with hunger and living in unhealthy conditions are prone to getting sick with cold-related illnesses, such as bronchitis and pneumonia.

UNICEF is uniquely placed to help children with teams on the ground in Syria and in refugee camps in the surrounding countries. It’s a race against time as they work around the clock to distribute winter clothing kits to the most vulnerable children of all.

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We need your support if we are to reach as many children as we can before the winter sets in. You can help us reach the most vulnerable children, including those living in hard to reach areas. Please give what you can and help save children’s lives this winter.

Please donate now to protect a child from the elements this winter.

Peter Power is the Executive Director for UNICEF Ireland and a former Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, which has responsibility for overseas development aid. Peter just recently returned from a visit to a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon where he met children and families who are preparing for winter.