After four years of siege, families fleeing east Ghouta need our help now more than ever

By Yasmine Saker

As the car pulled up into Adra industrial zone on the north-eastern outskirts of Damascus, nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to see.

In four collective shelters, over 5,400 people were crowded together in three abandoned schools, while an estimated 13,000 people sought shelter nearby in a former institute for electrical studies.

The shelters in Adra are very overcrowded, forcing most families to sleep out in the open amid cold nighttime temperatures. Those who managed to find space inside the buildings are sleeping on the floor in the corridors.

“I just want to go to sleep without sharing my space with thousands of people, is that too much to ask for?” one woman asked me.

Amidst this chaos, it is very easy for children to get lost. We found one little boy, Hamzeh, who had lost his father while queuing for food. As we waited for my colleague to track down his family amongst the thousands of people, Hamze asked me between his sobs: “Wouldn’t it have been better if I had died back in Ghouta?”

Conditions at these shelters are less than basic. Water and sanitation facilities are lacking, making things even worse for the families sheltering there. UNICEF is trucking water to the four shelters daily, and has also installed water tanks, showers and latrines.

But this is not enough. Families continue to arrive at the shelters from East Ghouta every day and needs continue to grow. Queues to use the bathrooms are very long – children have to relieve themselves out to in the open.

In one of the schools, a mother and her son were squatting by a wall in the school yard as she bathed him using a small bottle of water. She had been waiting for her turn to use the showers for days and finally gave up. So many women told me that they had not bathed or changed their clothes in over one month, after hiding in the relative safety of overcrowded basements. “I never thought I would one day dream of showering!” one woman told me.

UNICEF is supporting three mobile health teams to provide primary healthcare services for children and mothers, including consultations, screening and treatment for malnutrition and providing essential micronutrients. The teams are also administering vaccinations for children.

“I’m treating many children for lice, diarrhea and insect bites,” a UNICEF-supported doctor told me as she was examining children at one of the schools. “These are all issues related to hygiene and sanitation,” she added.

Many children and families arriving at the collective shelters have endured for years with limited access to adequate health care. UNICEF-supported mobile health teams are at hand in all shelters to provide medical consultations, basic treatment and referrals to hospitals – through our partners – if needed.

Families fled the basements where they were hiding in besieged east Ghouta with no belongings. Many children are wearing their mothers’ shoes, while the mothers go barefoot. Is there anything a mother would not do for her children?

At the shelters, I saw men and women queuing in separate lines. It took me 20 minutes to walk to the end of the queue; they were queuing for bread that was being distributed from a truck. There were long, disorganized queues everywhere for food, for cleaning materials, for clinics, for latrines. I could not help but think of those science fiction movies where the world has come to an end – only this wasn’t fiction, this was a reality in in Syria.

As we were leaving, we watched a mother and her children leave one of the collective shelters to be reunited with relatives they had not seen for over four years. As they hugged, kissed and cried, everyone stood around them in awe of a moment that captured the essence of the loss brought about by years of war.

We have teams on the ground working around the clock to serve these families. We have secured funds and planned our response to serve 50,000 people, but as of today, numbers have exceeded our capacity. We now must plan to provide urgent humanitarian assistance to around 200,000 in and around East Ghouta.

The children of East Ghouta, and others who are still bearing the brunt of the brutal violence in Syria need our help now. Children displaced from East Ghouta need spaces to sleep and shower; enough food to eat; clothes on their backs; toys; healthcare; education and everything else a child needs not just to survive, but also to thrive.

Yasmine Saker is a communication officer working with UNICEF in Syria.