Winter Wreaks Havoc on Syrian Refugees

PHOTO: Mothers and their children sit among their washing in a refugee camp on the border between Syria and Turkey near the northern city of Azaz on Dec. 5, 2012.
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The sprawling collection of white tents pours down a muddy hillside packed with olive trees. There's a Turkish military outpost just a few hundred yards away, on the other side of the border fence, but this is as far as most Syrians fleeing north from the civil war wracking Syria are going to get, as Turkey blocks all but the most vulnerable from entering, having reached its sustainable limit.

There's no snow yet, but the winter rain has turned the soft red dirt into a sea of mud. Children wear sandals and oversized coats, if any at all, as they huddle around cooking fires fed by wet olive branches, the only source of warmth in the Atma refugee camp.

"The one who escapes cannot bring anything from his house," said Mohammed al Youssef, a father of ten, as he looks around his sparse tent. "We brought only the clothes on our back and our names."

The Syrian Red Crescent estimates that more than two and a half million Syrians have been displaced inside the country. Twenty-one months since the uprising began, fighting continues to rage between the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels. Some 40,000 Syrians are believed to have been killed.

The United Nations calls the Red Crescent's estimate of the displaced "very conservative." Another half million refugees are registered in camps in Syria's neighboring countries, with hundreds of thousands more unregistered.

The Atma camp pales in comparison to those run by Turkey and Jordan. Facilities are rudimentary at best, there's no power or running water. Camp managers estimate there are around 12,000 people drawing on its resources daily and that number is growing as they look ahead to the harsher winter months ahead.

"We need everything, we have nothing," said camp manager and opposition activist Yakzan Shishakly, a Syrian-American from Houston, Texas who is a director the Maram Foundation. The son of former Syrian president Adib Shikakly, Yakzan says the Turkish Red Crescent has donated the tents and they are getting some medical help, but much more is needed, including clothes, diesel, powdered milk and educational resources for the children.

"The support we're getting is nothing, just a few individuals paying here and there," said Shishakly. "If there is no country or government supporting us, we cannot manage to run this camp."

There's a makeshift mosque covered by a blue tarp, its loudspeakers blaring the call to prayer. Nearby, smack in the middle of the camp, is a simple cement structure, the camp's only four toilets. The men have given up the two designated to them to the women. The sewage drains from PVC pipes into an open pit, a stone's throw from the camp's water tank which is swarmed by children filling up their families' water canisters.

Trucks drive through the camp piled high with bread and cases of bottled water, but the ration is one half-liter bottle per person per day. Vendors try to sell fruit and vegetables to the mostly impoverished masses. "People with money are fine," said one vendor, "those without aren't."

Abu Shaikir is one of those without, getting by on small donations. He crouched outside his tent, deep-frying cauliflower with a cousin.

"Everyone wants to be secure," he said. "Everyone wants to go home, but the regime's warplanes keep bombing us."

Inside his tent, a lantern and wind-up flashlight dangle from the ceiling. His 46 year-old cousin Samira's eyes well up when she thinks about returning home. Her 17 year-old son was crushed when artillery shells landed on their house in Jisr ash-Shughour, then her husband was shot in the head while riding his motorcycle to work.

"I feel like I'm going to die," she said. "[Syria] can never be the same again...too much has happened and is different."

Many would prefer to stay in Syria rather than crossing the border into Turkey, but it's clear that many others yearn for the relative comfort and safety of the camps there. Turkish camps along the 500-mile border are housing almost 140,000 Syrian refugees but for now they are only accepting the most vulnerable as they build two more camps to accommodate the relentless flow of those seeking shelter.

Even once those camps are built, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said, they will have to be selective in who is allowed in.

"We prefer to establish camps in Syria," said Suphi Atan.

Another is being built by local Syrian committees just inside the Syria border, a short distance from the Bab al-Hawa border crossing which is controlled on the Syrian side by rebel groups. But the camp was finished, locals say, it was bombed by Syrian warplanes. During a short visit to the camp, tents lay in tatters around the blast radius.

Now, with temperatures dropping fast, the race is on to finish and improve the camps and to secure more support.

"I can say we're trying, but I don't think we can support all these people," said camp manager Shishakly. "The refugees are really mad at the international community. Nobody's helping them, nobody's looking at them, nobody's caring about their needs."

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