Misery grows for refugees as bitter winter claims babies

A high percentage of the refugees in the Zaatari camp are children. Picture: Mercy Corps
A high percentage of the refugees in the Zaatari camp are children. Picture: Mercy Corps
Share this article
Have your say

One-year-old Ali Ghazawi, born with a heart defect, faced a battle for survival even before his family fled Syria’s civil war. It was a struggle he lost two weeks ago in the bitter winter cold of a tented refugee camp in north Jordan.

Ali died two days after undergoing a heart operation in Zaatari camp, which houses at least 32,000 refugees who escaped fierce bombardment in Syria’s rebellious southern province of Deraa, cradle of the uprising against president Bashar al-Assad.

“I covered my son with two blankets, but he was not warming up, and he turned blue before he passed away in my hands,” said his sobbing 22-year-old mother, alone with a three-year-old daughter after she left her husband in Deraa and crossed the border in November.

Ali was the fourth baby to die in three weeks in the windswept camp.

“These deaths are a result of cumulative factors, some related to shortage in needs and natural causes. But on top of that, the reality that conditions are harsh cannot be ignored,” said Saba Mobaslat, programme director at Save the Children.

Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey each host more than 130,000 registered refugees, and relief workers predict the numbers will only increase as violence escalates around Damascus.

Mirroring Syria’s youthful population, almost 65 per cent of Jordan’s camp residents are newborns and young children.

“Every night we are getting children as young as four days old, six days old, one week, two weeks old, and it’s a real struggle to try to make sure that everyone survives,” said Andrew Harper, Jordan head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Women are giving birth on the border, and people are coming across pregnant. It’s a situation where we just need to redouble efforts, particularly as we move into winter,” Mr Harper said.

Families often send the most vulnerable to safety, he added, so alongside the very young in Zaatari are many older refugees.

“Last night we had a couple who were 97 years old,” he said.

Along the main road in the middle of the camp’s mud and gravel streets, children of all ages race around the makeshift market place that sprang up after the camp opened in July. Many families join in, out of enterprise or necessity, selling everything from hot falafel to household goods, old clothing and fresh vegetables.

“It’s a children’s camp. You walk into it and there are children everywhere. It’s in your face. The male adults are staying behind, and a woman comes with ten children without her bread earner,” Mr Mobaslat added.

In one of several Unicef-run playgrounds, among seesaws, swings and volunteers giving music lessons, the scars of war are fresh in the minds of most children.

“I long for my home, and I hope Bashar falls to get back to my home. It’s much better than here, where we are humiliated,” said Mohammad Ghazawi, 12, who came to play after a break from selling cheap cigarettes.

Their elders complain that two thin blankets per refugee distributed in recent weeks were not enough to warm them in tents that let in rain water.

“Kids are dying from cold and lack of blankets. My kids shiver at night, and one has constant diarrhoea,” said Mohammad Samara, 46, who fled heavy shelling in the southern Syrian town of Busr al-Sham in October with his wife and four children.