December 17, 2013
Last January, a snowstorm struck Jordan, flooding the Zaatari refugee camp in the northern province of Mafraq, a few kilometers from the Syrian border. With heavy wind, rain and snow, the 60,000 registered Syrians in Zaatari, a number which has since doubled, saw their tents blow away or fill with freezing water.
Nearly one year later, Zaatari has become the second-largest refugee camp in the world and Jordan’s fourth-largest population center, housing 117,000 of the 567,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan. Once again, a snowstorm has hit Jordan, paralyzing the region. The storm brought heavy, cold rain, but not snow, to Za’atari, where most residents’ makeshift homes have been upgraded from tents to tin caravans.
Amidst reports that several children have frozen to death inside Syrian and Lebanese refugee camps, Syria Direct’s Abdulrahman al-Masri spoke with Aoife Mcdonnell, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, about conditions for Syrians inside Zaatari and UNHCR’s efforts to distribute blankets, clothes and heaters in time for the storm.
Q. What has UNHCR done to support refugees in Zaatari during the storm?
Unfortunately, every year Jordan is under horrific weather conditions. We have been able to give high thermal blankets to the Jordanian armed forces to hand out to refugees up on the border.
What we’ve seen is that the refugees who are crossing, their clothes are wet from the rain, their shoes are wet from the rain, their shoes are covered in mud, and they are also, of course, freezing. The high thermal blankets at least give them a bit of warmth when they first arrive. In Zaatari, we have been able to give 90,000 high thermal blankets across the camp. Everyone in the camp has received one.
We have given plastic sheathing that is basically to cover the tents or prefabricated shelter to protect it from the rain. We have also been able to distribute 500,000 pieces of clothing so that clothing can help people keep warm. We know that, for many refugees crossing into Jordan, all they have with them is what they’re wearing. They’re not able to carry much in bags. We’ve been able to give every family a bag of winter clothes.
In the coming week – well, hopefully in the coming week – we will be able to give the gas heaters and gas refills so people can warm up their shelters. Now that’s what we directly give. On the side, in addition, our engineers have been working on creating road side ditches to direct the water away from the camp and they’ve been able to build what we call converts, which are basically breaks in the road to direct the water away from the camp. We have a dewatering truck in the camp which can basically move and suck up pools of water. So we’ve been able to avoid flooding. But of course conditions in Zaatari are muddy, they’re cold, they’re damp. I think everyone in Jordan, everyone in the Middle East, is thinking about Syrians right.
Children in Za’atari camp play in rain water. Photo courtesy of JEN Jordan.
Q. Are there still people in tents, or in caravans?
There are. We hoped every family would be in a caravan by now, but unfortunately we haven’t received enough from our donors yet. So, we are still delivering caravans to the camp. We are hoping to have people in them by January. Of all the families, there are still about 35,000 who need caravans. The rest of the camp, 75,000 people, are in the caravans.
Q. You mentioned that you distributed heaters to the refugees?
Heaters, we will. We will distribute heaters. We haven’t done that yet. Everything else is done, that will happen in the next week.
I don’t think anyone was able to predict a massive storm like this so quickly. It has taken us a few weeks to distribute everything. When you do a distribution in the camp, it takes quite a bit of time because it’s a huge amount of people, it’s a city. So we started with the plastic sheathing, then we did the blankest, then we did the clothes, now we will do the heaters.
Q. Can you give me an image of how the weather is in Zaatari?
There wasn’t snow, there was rain falling. It was quite windy. It’s very, very cold. The team was there in full force. Everyone was working together, and trying to identify solutions.
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