Families escaping Syria’s civil war are facing another harsh winter, their third since the fighting began. The snow flakes from the first storm of the year began to fall on Tuesday evening on a region that holds more than nine million displaced peoples and refugees.
While the Middle East is often portrayed as scorched deserts, the reality is that winter is just as harsh as summer, with freezing temperatures and the occasional snow storm. For the 1.1 million children who have fled their homes, of whom many sleep in tents every night in sprawling camps, this means that warmth is at a premium. Every year of the crisis, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) has sounded the alarm, urging states to donate more aid to allow for some modicum of comfort for the displaced.
“We are worried, because it is really cold in the Bekaa region, and we’re extremely worried about the refugees living in makeshift shelters, because many are really substandard,” UNHCR spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled told AFP in November. That worry has proved to be founded as the first of the snows began to hit the region, a storm that is expected to hit Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, all of which have a substantial number of refugees within their borders. Lebanon alone has taken in more than 800,000 Syrians, more than a quarter of their total population. The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan alone holds more than 80,000, enough that it has developed its own economy among the Syrians who wait for the fighting to end. And now they all face what some meteorologists are predicting to be the worst winter in a century.
“In the camp, a few people have heating, but really there’s nothing to do to prepare for the storm,” Syrian opposition activist Alaa El Din Al Youssef said to the Huffington Post ahead of the storm. “If you have a blanket, you stay under it. Some people are in tents, some are in empty rooms, some are under nothing more than a bit of wood or covering to protect from the snow.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) on Tuesday convened a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Foreign Affairs Subcommittee to discuss what more the United States can do to provide aid to the Syrian people. What he and the panel heard from the Jordanian and Lebanese ambassadors to the United States was grim, with the former referring to the situation as the “worst humanitarian plight in the region’s recent history.” Ambassador Antoine Chedid of Lebanon told the panel that he was there to deliver a “very painful cry on behalf of Lebanon and the Lebanese people.”
Andrew Harper, the Representative of Jordan from the UNHCR, told Leahy’s panel of the difficulty in getting refugees from the border to the refugee camps, a trek of four days. “We had children coming across soaked,” he told a riveted panel. “They stuck in the mud trying to cross the border and one of them lost their shoes in the mud. […] It’s when you provide the blankets, you provide the shoes, to the women and children who are crossing the border in the snow and rain that you say ‘this is the priority, we are saving lives.'”
The United States remains the largest donor to humanitarian aid efforts in and around Syria, having provided more than $1 billion since the conflict first began. Harper told the Senate that the United Nations would be launching a new funding appeal in two weeks’ time, looking to raise $1.2 billion from the international community. While it seems like a large amount, the U.N. believes every penny will be needed, given that they predict another 4 million Syrians will be faced to flee their homes over the course of the next year.