‘As a mother, I feel like I’ve failed’: A new battle, this time to stay warm, in north Syria’s Atma camp

Day after day, in the bitter cold, the men, women and children of Atma camp go walking, searching for twigs and trash to burn for warmth.

In Atma—a collection of 54 camps spread along a five-kilometer strip of land along the border between northern Idlib province and Turkey—roughly 60,000 internally displaced Syrians shivered in recent weeks as temperatures dipped below zero degrees Celsius.

This past Saturday, snow fell on the tents, trailers and muddy lanes of Atma alongside much of Syria and neighboring countries. Two days before the flakes fell, one young child had already reportedly died from the cold.

Firewood for wood-burning heaters, or sobiat, is not affordable. The small twigs that lay about the camp are swiftly snatched up by chilled residents. Many burn anything they can get their hands on—plastic, trash, shoes.

Desperation has consequences, Umm Hassan, a 40-year-old mother of four who has lived in the camp for one year since fleeing her native Hama province, tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier.

Umm Hassan regularly burns plastic and litter to stay warm. The fumes are making her children sick—two now suffer from breathing difficulties—but she says there are no other options.

“The hardest thing is to hug my children, and they tell me: ‘We’re freezing cold.’ The heater is right in front of their eyes, but we can’t use it,” she says.

“We never felt this kind of cold before,” said Imtithal Saloum, a 30-year-old married mother of two who came to Atma in December 2016 from east Aleppo city and now lives in a tent.

 Atma camp on February 1. Photo courtesy of Baladi News.

“Even when Aleppo was encircled, we never felt this kind of cold before because at the very least we were living inside a home that could somewhat fend off the cold,” she says.

“We weren’t in a tent, which is essentially the same as being out in the open.”

Umm Hassan, 40, is a married mother of four young children. She is originally from the Hama countryside, and fled to Atma camp one year ago because of bombardment. She lives in the Takaful sub-camp of Atma. Her husband is disabled and neither can find work.

Q: Can you tell us how you and your children are getting by in this cold? How are you staying warm?

I’ve had a wood-burning heater, sobia, set up since winter began. But I can’t use it every day because there is not enough wood and I don’t have money to buy any. Instead, I burn litter and trash, such as plastic and empty containers. There are also some twigs that my children and I gather. Sometimes there aren’t any twigs, because most of the families rely on them to stay warm.

About two weeks ago, the tent of one of my relatives in the camp burned down. The materials that they burned in their heater started a fire. The biggest problem was putting it out. People smothered the blaze with mud and water because there are no fire extinguishers.

Q: How are children coping with the cold? What are you telling them?

My children are getting sick because of the cold in this harsh winter. Every day, I have to go to the medical center in the camp to treat them. The doctor tells me it is because of the cold. I can’t do anything for them.

My son Hassan is 11. The doctor said he has asthma from breathing the fumes of burnt plastic. My youngest son is 11 months old, and he needs an inhaler twice a day, also because of the unhealthy heating methods.

I can’t provide my children’s basic needs: bread, heat and education. They ask me why we can’t use the heater. I tell them it’s because we’re poor and displaced and we don’t have the money to buy wood.

The hardest thing is to hug my children, and they tell me: ‘We’re freezing cold.’ The heater is right in front of their eyes, but we can’t use it.

 Umm Hassan’s sobia, a small wood-burning heater. Photo courtesy of Umm Hassan.

Q: What are your feelings as a mother when you see your children like that?

This war has destroyed our children and made it so we don’t know what to do for them. Life in the winter is a slow death. When I go to sleep, I am afraid of waking in the morning to find my children frozen.

I left the Hama countryside in search of safety from the bombing. I was afraid for my family. I endured the worst conditions so they could stay alive, not so I could see them freezing to death from the severe cold.

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Imtithal Saloum, 30, is a married mother of two children. Originally from east Aleppo city, she moved to the Atma camp after leaving Aleppo for Idlib province in December 2016. She has lived in Atma’s al-Karama sub-camp for the last six weeks.  

Q: What are conditions like for you and your children, being out in the border camps in this brutal cold?

This is the first time in my life that I’ve ever felt such bitter cold like this. When I decided to live in the camps, I knew that I’d be living in a tent, but I had no idea that the situation would be as bad as this, and especially not as bad as it’s been for my kids. Even when Aleppo was encircled, we never felt this kind of cold before because at the very least we were living inside a home that could somewhat fend off the cold. We weren’t in a tent, which is essentially the same as being out in the open.

We will die if this cold continues like it’s been going. Yes, there are heaters, but they require firewood, which is something we just can’t afford.

Sometimes, we’ll light the heater with whatever trash we’ve got lying around, everyday stuff like plastic and shoes. You wouldn't believe it but on some of the coldest days we never even turned the heater on, because we just didn't have anything to feed it with.

We’ve only got blankets to keep my two kids warm. We sit close to each other just to feel a little bit of warmth, but we don’t even have the right clothes to be able to keep their little bodies warm.

Q: As a mother, as a displaced woman and as a Syrian, how do you make sense of this situation?

As a mother, I feel like I’ve failed. This pain is one of having two children who were robbed of a childhood and who never experienced anything other bombing, fear and war. I wonder what they’ll remember when they grow older. Will they have childhood memories of laughter and games or will all their memories be of the war? I wonder if they will spend the next part of their childhood in a camp that has absolutely nothing to provide?

As a displaced woman, I feel the pain of Aleppo. It tears at my heart. And rather than finally feel safe because we got away from the bombs, all we feel is frozen. The cold doesn’t allow us to think about anything else. There’s nothing here. Not even an animal would live in these camps.

There are thousands of people in these camps. Tell me what their crimes are. Tell me why it is okay that they will die here from the cold, with their children, because they demanded freedom.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.

Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Justin worked as a reporter and translator with Syria Direct before serving as the Managing Director.