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Dispatch: Syria’s Internally Displaced Depend on Handouts

Syrian refugee children wait for their families daily rations of food at the Bab al-Salam refugee camp in Azaz on the Syrian-Turkish border on Jan. 9. Photo by Zac Baillie/AFP/Getty Images.

AZAZ, Syria — Ten-year-old Nesma shouted in Arabic, her eyes furious and filling with tears. Standing at the back of a line of dozens of veiled women and young girls, she had lost patience waiting for her four-month-old sister’s diaper and formula ration to be doled out by the camp distribution officer.

Dressed in a pale blue, thin cotton shirt and ankle length jeans, a pair of green plastic sandals caked in mud were all that separated her bare feet from snow and puddles.

“She’s been standing here for an hour,” a translator told me. “She’s saying the people running the camps sit inside heated buildings sipping coffee while all the women wait outside and freeze. She does this every day.”

Nesma and her eight family members fled Homs for Syria’s Bab al-Salam refugee camp near the Syria-Turkey border in December. They share a thin, tarp-covered tent designed for six that floods with torrential winter rains. Temperatures dip below zero at night, and without heat, blankets donated by wealthy Gulf States are not an adequate barrier against the cold. Two toddlers have died of hypothermia-related causes this winter.

Eleven thousand Syrian refugees currently reside in Bab al-Salam’s tent camp, and officials say the number grows significantly each day.

“We have asked for more money but we don’t know if there will be enough. We rely completely on donations — it costs $345 just to buy one tent. That doesn’t account for the cost of food, water and providing people with basics,” said a camp director.

The United Nations estimates about 2.5 million Syrians have been internally displaced by the nearly two-year-old civil war.

When the Syrians flee their homes, often all they take are the clothes on their backs. Getting across the border to U.N.-run camps in Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon takes money and a passport — an impediment to many seeking refuge. (See one refugee family’s story.)

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Armed Free Syrian Army members patrol the Bab al-Salam entrance keeping an eye on who comes and goes. They strive to keep refugees safe, but their outdated AK-47s often are no match against Syrian air force flyovers.

Intermittent shelling is audible from nearby Azaz, and recently a Syrian jet fighter flew over the camp sending panicked inhabitants into a mad dash for the Turkish border.

“The Turks closed the gates,” the translator said. “Thousands of people were pounding on the metal in terror. Once again, there was nowhere for them to run or hide.”

Syria’s displaced also can’t hide from illness and disease. Dr. Baraa Al Nasser is Bab al-Salam’s volunteer physician. A cosmetic surgeon, his pre-Syria war routine included administering Botox injections and performing face lifts on his wealthy Damascus clientele. Six month ago, he and his pediatrician wife fled their practices to take up residence outside Bab al-Salam. Together they treat up to 75 refugees a day.

“We see everything. Upper respiratory infections, flu, hepatitis, dysentery, scabies, fever. … The problem is we don’t have enough medical supplies. We’re even short of tongue depressors,” Al Nasser explained while wrapping gauze around a wound on a 70-year-old diabetic woman’s foot.

“We’re fighting an uphill battle because the water here isn’t clean. People are drinking it and bathing in it and it’s making them sick. Weather is one problem but the water is the core.”

Exiting the clinic caravan, the chill permeates. An 8-year-old boy approaches, offering a small packet of cookies for sale. His face is smeared with mud and his nose is running. He trails the group for several minutes.

“Samer won’t give up. These kids are tough,” the translator said. “They’ve been through so much.”

Stephanie Freid is a freelance journalist based in Tel Aviv and currently reports from the Middle East for Chinese Broadcaster CCTV. She has previously worked for Reuters, BBC, NBC News and Sky News.

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