UNICEF officer takes part in recent mission delivering critical relief supplies to displaced people in northwestern Syria

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UNICEF Regional Emergency Advisor, Bastien Vigneau, was part of a recent UN inter-agency mission that delivered critical humanitarian assistance to displaced people in northwestern Syria.

By Bastien Vigneau

Syrian Arab Republic, 22 February 2013 - A few days ago, I took part in a joint UN mission to Karameh, in Syria’s north-western Idleb Province, to deliver much needed relief supplies to thousands of displaced people.

Through this first convoy, which started from Damascus and involved eight UN agencies, UNICEF delivered, as a first batch, family hygiene kits and special hygiene kits for babies. UNICEF is also sending other supplies, including children’s clothes and school kits containing educational supplies. UN sister agencies provided materials including food, blankets, and medical supplies.

Thousands of people - displaced from their homes by the on-going conflict in Syria – are estimated to be living in makeshift shelters in locations near the Turkish border, including Karameh, El Qah and Atmeh. The situation I saw at Karameh is dire. According to the Karameh camp coordinator, the entire camp hosts around 4,500 people, made up of mostly women and children. I saw some children walking barefoot in the mud with nowhere for them to play safely, as the whole area is swamped due to heavy rains.

Although some aid has been delivered previously (mostly tents, food rations and mattresses), insecurity and the difficulty of access has limited what could be done. The needs are great and people lack even the most basic of supplies.

There are some tents that shelter displaced families and very few heaters, which quickly run out of fuel. Families lack the basics, including food, clean water, blankets, clothes, and latrines. Women and children, who have lost everything, are enduring harsh living conditions, including cold temperatures.

This camp has only eight toilets, which is nowhere near enough to meet the needs of thousands of people. The lack of sanitation facilities and their poor condition are placing children, in particular, at extremely high risk of disease.

During the mission, I met 15-year-old Walid* who has been living at the camp with his parents and five siblings for two months. Walid and his family are originally from rural Damascus, in Syria’s south, but they fled due to heavy fighting. Walid’s youngest brother was only eight days old at the time.

When they arrived in Idleb, the family initially took shelter with relatives. But because of fighting in the area, they had to move again, this time to Karameh camp. At first, the family had their own tent, but a few days ago, they were joined by another family of eight, also displaced because of fighting. Now 16 people are crammed into a single tent. Each has only one meal a day because they share what little food they have.

But Walid doesn’t complain. He says he is happy that his close friend, who is also 15 years old, has joined him at the camp. They are able to get some respite from the tough conditions by sharing memories of happier days, including their time spent together at school.

Walid tells me that he feels frustrated because he is no longer able to go to school: “My desire is to go to school,” he says, “but since this is not possible, I want to find a job to help my family with some income.”

Walid shares with me his hope of becoming a doctor so that he can save people’s lives. He also wants to help his 7-year-old brother, who suffers from asthma, but lacks in medicine and other supplies to ease his condition.

Walid’s friend tells me that he wants to go to school too, but when he gets older, he wants to defend his country. When peace returns he thinks about becoming a teacher, although he is still uncertain.

A second convoy to this area, which will depart from Damascus next week, will keep providing vital supplies to the tens of thousands of people who desperately need help in this area of northwestern Syria. I will again be part of the mission. While the security situation remains a key challenge, we are highly committed to reach out to children and families in need, wherever they are located.

Lack of funding remains a major issue for UNICEF’s work in scaling up its humanitarian response in Syria. UNICEF is asking for US$68 million to provide urgent humanitarian assistance in Syria for water and sanitation, health and nutrition, education, psychosocial support as part of a UN-wide appeal issued last December. So far, less than 20 per cent of that amount has been received.

*Name has been changed