Kafr Yahmul, Syria – With the onset of winter, residents of an informal camp north of the city of Idlib are preparing themselves for the coming months.
Fateem al-Yousef looks at the sky anxiously as the clouds gather and he wonders what he and his family will face once the rain starts. “I’m afraid the water will seep into the tent and my children will get sick,” she told Al Jazeera.
Fateem, 40, has been displaced since the early years of the war in Syria, which began in 2011. He left his village south of Idlib and moved from one village to another. Four years ago, she, her husband, Khaled al-Hassan, and their nine children finally settled in the Kafr Yahmul camp, where 70 families live on rented land.
The memory of their first day at the camp is still fresh in his mind, said Fateem, because it was accompanied by rain. She had just given birth, and water leaked into the family’s tent. “The situation is very difficult because we are not adapted to it,” Fateem said. “We feel that there is water everywhere, and we have no heating for our little children.”
These days, displaced people in northwest Syria burn pistachio shells, hazelnuts, olives, odd pieces of firewood and charcoal as well as bits of plastic, nylon and cardboard to stay warm because the price of diesel has risen, but even these options are expensive. for camp residents.
About 2.7 million people in Syria are in urgent need of aid this winter, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Syrians face the high cost of living, unemployment, inflation – prices have doubled since the start of 2023 – ongoing displacement and the ongoing effects of the February earthquakes.
The severe lack of funding for humanitarian projects in Syria will also increase the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people by 2024, OCHA warned.
Burning waste, harmful to health
Fateem said he and his family could barely make ends meet even though most of them were working. Her eldest daughter, who is 15, and her 14-year-old son work as farm laborers while younger children collect scraps on the roadside. Her husband, 47, has no mobility in one hand but works every chance he gets. However, the family could not afford everything they needed to get through the winter. Most adults earn less than $1 a day – barely enough to support a family.
The nearby resident is Wadha al-Yousef, 36, who is not directly related to Fateem but from the same village. She, her husband, Ahmed al-Sattouf, 42, and their five children, aged one to seven, have lived in Kafr Yahmul for five years. He told Al Jazeera that his family relies on collecting scraps of cardboard, plastic and nylon from roadsides during the summer to keep warm in the winter but burning comes at a cost.
“The terrible smell and smoke spread throughout the camp, but people tolerated each other because they all had no other option to stay warm,” Wadha said.
Burning plastic and nylon is harmful to the health of the family. Wadha said her children suffer from chronic diseases caused by the smoke, and they find themselves visiting health centers and clinics throughout the winter as a result.
Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) warned this month of the danger of burning such waste because it emits harmful smoke, which can cause respiratory diseases and infections, especially in children and the elderly.
Fall rain clouds will arrive later than usual this year, but the cold and flooding are likely to be just as bad if not worse, according to forecasts. Last year, 306 refugee camps in northwestern Syria were flooded during the winter. This year, OCHA said, 874 camps out of 1,525 in the region are classified as “vulnerable” to flooding during the winter. Seventeen of them are “detrimental” weak, 240 are “extremely” weak and the rest are “severely” so.
According to OCHA, the camps house about 2 million people, and at least 15,000 new tents are needed every winter, but most of the existing tents have not been replaced for years and do not include insulation needed to provide protection from rain and cold. Neither Fateem nor Wadha have anything more than a thin nylon cover, sewn to the tents to insulate them and keep them dry. But it was not enough to withstand even the first light rain of the year, which arrived a few days ago.
“I stayed up at night, holding onto the shade so that the water would not fall on my little children while they were sleeping,” said Wadha. He said his family could not afford better insulation, which would cost about $70.
‘Can’t do more than a little’
David Carden, the UN’s deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syrian crisis, told Al Jazeera that the most effective solution to help the displaced is to move them from tents to dignified shelters that offer more durability, privacy and protection against flooding and harsh weather.
If a family’s tent is replaced every six months, a shelter can last five years, Carden said, adding that changing tents regularly is “one of the most effective investments “. However, only one-third of the funding pledged by donor countries for 2023 has actually been received, he added. This compares to more than half of the required funding provided in 2022.
As a result of the lack of money for OCHA’s Syria Humanitarian Response Plan, only 26,000 families have been given caravans or housing units. According to the UN, about 800,000 people are still living in tents.
“We can’t really do more with less,” Carden said. “But we fear the worst is yet to come next year.”