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A Syrian refugee boy runs to his family tent at Zaatari Syrian refugee camp, near the Syrian border in Mafraq, Jordan, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013. Syrian refugees in a Jordanian camp attacked aid workers with sticks and stones on Tuesday, frustrated after cold, howling winds swept away their tents and torrential rains flooded muddy streets overnight. Police said seven aid workers were injured. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)
Winter storm brings more misery to Syrian refugees

First Published Jan 08 2013 10:18 pm • Last Updated Jan 08 2013 10:18 pm

Zaatari, Jordan • A winter storm is magnifying the misery for tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing the country’s civil war, turning a refugee camp into a muddy swamp where howling winds tore down tents and exposed the displaced residents to freezing temperatures.

Some frustrated refugees at a camp in Zaatari, where about 50,000 are sheltered, attacked aid workers with sticks and stones after the tents collapsed in 35 mph winds, said Ghazi Sarhan, spokesman for the Jordanian charity that helps run the camp. Police said seven Jordanian workers were injured.

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After three days of rain, muddy water engulfed tents housing refugees including pregnant women and infants. Those who didn’t move out used buckets to bail out the water; others built walls of mud to try to stay dry.

Conditions in the Zaatari camp were "worse than living in Syria," said Fadi Suleiman, a 30-year-old refugee.

Most of Zaatari’s residents are children under age 18 and women. They are some of the more than 280,000 Syrians who fled to Jordan since the uprising against President Bashar Assad broke out in March 2011. As the fighting has increased in recent weeks, the number of displaced has risen.

About a half-million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries including Turkey and Lebanon to escape the civil war that has killed an estimated 60,000 people in nearly two years of fighting. Wet and wintry weather across the Middle East has made conditions miserable for refugees in those countries as well — even flooding two camps in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley after a river overflowed its banks.

Several large pools of standing water — including one nearly the size of a football field and about 4 inches deep — have spread in the Zaatari camp. Children clad only in plastic sandals waded in despite the frigid water. An old woman wore plastic bags on her feet as she walked to pick up some food.

"Zaatari is sinking," said a refugee who gave his name as Abu Bilal from the southern Syrian town of Dara’a, across the border. The 21-year-old father of two toddlers said his tent has been flooded for days, and when he appealed for help, he was turned away by both the U.N. refugee agency and the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization, which administer the camp.

His family of five lives in a neighbor’s cramped cloth tent, which already houses eight people.

"We’re desperate. We need a solution fast," said Abu Bilal, who wore a red and white checkered scarf on his head for warmth. "People’s reactions may get out of hand, especially if they see their child fall ill or even die. They could do something that nobody will be able to control or blame them for."


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Like most of the refugees interviewed in the camp, Abu Bilal asked to be identified by his nickname because he feared retaliation against relatives still living in Syria.

Suleiman complained that life in the camp was "one misery after the other as the international community sits idle, doing nothing to help us get rid of the tyrant Assad."

He worried that the winter storm was serious enough to "kill children and old people."

A woman who gave her name as Um Ahmed and whose tent was also flooded said her 9-month-old daughter died at Zaatari recently. She blamed the cold, saying the girl suffered from acute diarrhea and vomiting. Camp officials, however, have not attributed any of the deaths to the cold.

A 37-year-old refugee, who gave his name as Abu Samir, said he complained to camp authorities about the conditions — and asked if those in the flimsy tents could receive one of the 2,500 trailers donated by Saudi Arabia — but the officials only dug a drainage hole that did little to draw away the water from his and other sodden tents.

Another who called himself Abu Abdullah griped about the length of time needed to meet even the simplest needs and joked bitterly that a request for diapers for his two young sons required a signature from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Ali Bibi, a liaison officer with the U.N. refugee agency in Jordan, said the group was in the process of finalizing plans for distributing the Saudi trailers. But he added that the international community’s financial support to Syrians — both those displaced internally and those sheltering in neighboring countries — was "less than modest" in response to a recent appeal.

Last month, the U.N. said it needed $1 billion to aid Syrians in the region, while $500 million was required to help refugees in Jordan. The UNHCR says 597,240 refugees have registered or are awaiting registration with the agency in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Some countries have higher estimates, noting many have found accommodations without registering.

"We have asked the international community to step up and support the Syrian refugees with better infrastructure, like trailers and prefabricated units, to deal with harsh winter elements," Bibi said.

Late Tuesday, Jordan’s state TV reported that after a regional official visited the camp. 70 families were evacuated from tents to a different location.

The World Food Program said it is unable to help 1 million people who are going hungry inside Syria.

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