Most of the global media's coverage of Syrian refugees in Jordan has focused on Za'atri, a camp carved out of the harsh desert landscape in northern Jordan.
The many images of Za'atri show row upon row of tents in what is now a small city. But some three-quarters of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Jordan live outside the camps, in villages, towns and cities across the country. Many are housed in one bedroom apartments, basement studios or rooftop dwellings, often with two or three families sharing. In comparison to a camp situation, where services and assistance are provided, refugees in cities and towns can be almost invisible, many of them struggling to survive. UNHCR has deployed field teams to reach out to these refugees in the capital, Amman, and across the country. Many of these vulnerable people are at risk of eviction. The members of the UNHCR mobile teams, such as Field Associate Huda Al-Shabsogh, assess the needs of the urban refugees, give advice and counseling, arrange for them to register as refugees, and more. Al-Shabsogh, a native of Amman and mother of three, started working for UNHCR in 2007. The qualified lawyer talked recently with Regional Public Information Officer Reem Alsalem. Excerpts from the interview:
Describe a typical day in your life as an emergency worker
My day normally starts very early. At 5:30a.m. I help my children get ready and then I go to the office. We visit refugee communities on Sundays and Wednesdays and usually head out at 7:00 am so that we can make the most of the day. From the moment we arrive at the destination for the day, around 8:00 or 8:30 in the morning, we start meeting with refugees. Normally we work in groups of two. As a team, we see a minimum of 200 families a day, sometimes 300.
What do you do when you meet the refugees?
I am part of what we call the help desk. We counsel refugees on all sorts of issues: how to register; how to enroll their children in school; what to do if their children get sick or are sick. And we give them appointments to register with UNHCR in Amman or to renew their registration. We also provide these services in Ramtha, Zarqa and Mafraq.
We have similar activities for urban refugees in Amman, Irbid and, more recently, Maan in the south of Jordan. We will go there twice a month – more regularly if the need increases. This is great news because Maan is very far from Amman and it would be difficult for refugees to come to us.
Even though we have many families to attend to during an average day, there is never enough time. During the interviews, the refugees take the opportunity to ask us many questions, and not just about basic services. Even though UNHCR has telephone hotlines, the refugees prefer to have the face-to-face interaction. They feel more at ease. Also, our lines are often busy. We answer up to 700 calls a day –most of them from Syrians.
Why is registration so important in Jordan?
It's important because it allows those registering to get assistance from UNHCR, WFP [World Food Programme] and other humanitarian partners and also to access public services. With the certificate, they can get medical treatment in state-run hospitals and clinics in Jordan and also enroll their children in schools. Most police respect the document and are aware of it. Many officers even encourage the refugees to register as a form of protection. Then there are people who have registered and have the necessary documentation but need to renew it. This is because the registration certificate is only valid for six months. We also help these people by arranging a date for them to renew their registration, which can only be at our offices in Amman and Irbid.
Tell us about the challenges you face
Allocating interview times for people is one of them, but it gets easier the more time we spend in a given city and get to know the environment and the refugees. We normally give more than 200 appointments a day. If more come, we take down their names and prioritize them for the following week. If an urgent case comes along during the day, we would of course also give that person immediate priority.
We are often asked to fast-track applications, especially by Jordanians who are friends or relatives of the Syrian refugee applicants. We have to explain to them why this cannot be done and why they have to wait their turn. It puts a lot of pressure on us. Not everyone takes it well and we are used to aggression and emotions running high. Sometimes they insist, but when they see that we also stick to our position, they accept it.
Also, it's difficult having to deal with so many families, each with their own tough story. That affects you a lot. On the way back from work, we talk about the difficult cases we have seen. It is a way for us to let off steam and to share, because sometimes emotionally it is too much to keep it inside.
What else is different about being in emergency mode?
Every week we have an action plan, but so many new issues come up that we don't necessarily follow that plan. For example, if we hear about a group of urgent medical cases in Ramtha, we would go there instead of the town we were planning to visit. We know they need to be registered if they are to receive medical assistance. The unpredictability of our days has become so normal that even when I am scheduled to stay in the office for some days, I come in casual clothes because I almost always have to go out and visit refugees and host families.
Is there any refugee family that has particularly moved you?
Yes. One day, I was approached by a Syrian family who said that their 21-year-old son was very sick and that I had to go and visit him because he was unable to come to the registration room. When I reached their home, I was expecting to see a tall and fit young man. What I saw took my breath away and shocked me. He was lying on a mattress under a lot of blankets. He had become so emaciated that it was difficult to spot him under all the covering – he was just skin and bones.
The boy had been on the back of a motorbike, trying to escape the gunfire, when he was shot by a sniper. He fell off the bike and was badly concussed when his head hit the ground. His parents were too scared to take him to hospital and decided to treat him at home. They told me that in the first few weeks after the incident, he was drifting in and out of consciousness and they had to feed him through a tube. In the end they decided to take him to Jordan and he was carried to the border on the back of a Syrian man who was also fleeing.
UNHCR helped get the boy admitted to hospital, but it was too late. Four months later, he died. It was heartbreaking to see his suffering and that of his family. This is just one tragic tale, but we come across so many every day in our work.
Despite all the suffering you see, are you glad you joined UNHCR?
Yes, absolutely. I feel we have an important mandate. It is not just a job. I feel that through the work I do, I can help people. Before I joined, I used to read about UNHCR in the local newspapers – that it worked with refugees. That was back in the days of the Iraqi refugee crisis. Then one day I saw an ad in the newspaper saying they needed a staff member. I consulted a friend who was working there and she advised me to join. I have a law degree. I felt that it was what I was looking for.
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The UN refugee agency has this week completed a first delivery of winter emergency relief to the Azzas area of northern Syria where thousands of internally displaced people are living in makeshift camps.
Two hundred metric tons of tents and blankets (15,000 blankets; 3,000 tents) were airlifted last weekend from UNHCR's central warehouse in Copenhagen to a civilian airport near Latakia on the Syrian coast. From there, it was transported by road in an eight-truck convoy to an area between Aleppo and the Syrian-Turkish border.
The operation was only possible thanks to the logistics support of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the agreement and cooperation of the Syrian government and facilitation by the Syrian National Coalition. This allowed the convoy to safely reach people in need, in a strictly humanitarian and non-political operation.
In neighboring countries the refugee numbers have continued to grow this week and 728,553 Syrians are now either registered as refugees or awaiting registration. This number comprises 237,623 in Lebanon; 227,484 in Jordan; 163,161 in Turkey; 79,769 in Iraq; 14,478 in Egypt and 6,338 in North Africa.
As a supporter of UNHCR's work in Syria, you’ve proven that you are a compassionate person. I know you’d help a child shivering from the cold.
So I am asking you for a generous year-end gift right away. You see, the violence in Syria escalated during the warm months of this past summer. People fled in terror from horrific dangers with little more than the clothes on their backs. And no one thought the crisis would go on for so long – so they only grabbed their children before they ran.
But now, months later, winter has arrived. Next week in Jordan, the forecast is for freezing rain and low temperatures around 29° F – too cold for a child in summer clothes.
Some 500,000 Syrians have fled their homeland. Mostdepend on the generosity of others in this difficult time – and we depend on you to ensure they receive the warmth they so urgently need.
You’re an important supporter, and now we ask for your extra generosity. With your help, we’ll be able to provide:
Will you help by making a generous contribution now?
AMMAN, Jordan, December 6 (UNHCR) – UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie traveled to the Jordan-Syria border overnight to meet frightened and exhausted Syrian refugees who had just completed the perilous crossing to safety in Jordan.
As well as showing solidarity with the refugees, the visit recognizes the commitment of the Jordanian people and government to refugee protection.
"What I saw last night is a dramatic example of the plight of hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have been uprooted by the fighting and are in a desperate search for safety," Jolie said Thursday on her second mission to the region in three months.
"Civilians inside the country are being targeted. Many of those trying to flee are exposed to extreme danger right up to the border itself. I appeal to all sides in the conflict to do all they can to ensure the safe passage of these innocent civilians."
Nearly half a million Syrians have registered with UNHCR after fleeing intensified fighting since the conflict began. Hundreds of thousands more are unregistered, but are expected to come forward for help in the next few months as their resources become depleted.
Since Jolie's last visit in September, the number of registered refugees in the region has increased by more than 200,000 and in Jordan alone by nearly 50,000. The sprawling Za'atri refugee camp north of Amman has doubled in size.
Upon arrival in Amman on Wednesday night, Jolie traveled immediately to the border, about an hour's drive north of the capital. In a briefing with border officers, she praised Jordan for welcoming Syrian refugees despite serious social and economic strains.
"The incredible compassion shown to these traumatized refugee families by the Jordanian border guards tonight was extremely moving," she said, noting that the troops were on duty along the tense frontier 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "Jordan has welcomed the refugees even though it has placed a huge burden on the country. The international community needs to show more solidarity and to support Jordan and the other countries in the region who continue to keep their borders open."
The Special Envoy spoke with several refugees who had just fled across the border in total darkness to two remote border reception stations overlooking a broad plain straddling the frontier. The distant thud of artillery could be heard north of the border, where the lights of Syrian towns were visible. In all, 328 refugees arrived in Jordan during the night.
Around the region, some 2,000 refugees flee to neighboring countries daily.
"We had a beautiful, hospitable country," one refugee told Jolie. "We always helped one another. Now, there's nothing left and we can't even help each other."
Medical staff at the border post said at least six of those who arrived overnight had to be hospitalized, some with bullet wounds. Jolie was stunned by one medic's account of a wounded child who had lost his leg. "It was extremely upsetting to hear the story of an eight-year-old boy who upon arrival in Jordan explained to doctors that he had asked his family to carry his severed leg along on the journey in hopes that it could be reattached," she said.
"I'm sickened by how long and how bloody this conflict has become, devastating a nation and the lives of millions of innocent civilians, and threatening to destabilize the entire region. I call on the international community to do everything possible to find a solution to this tragedy and support the struggling humanitarian operations both inside Syria and in Jordan and the other surrounding countries."
On Thursday, Jolie visited Za'atri refugee camp, where those who arrive nightly at Jordan's remote border crossings with Syria are transferred. UNHCR and its partners are in a race against time to prepare the camp and its more than 30,000 residents for winter, along with hundreds of thousands of other refugees throughout the region.
Among the refugees she visited in the camp was a family of eight she had met the night before at the border, shortly after they had crossed from Syria. They had already been provided with a tent and an aid package of household items ranging from warm blankets to kitchen utensils. Although their tent is not designed for winter weather – that will come later – they were nevertheless thankful for the help they had received on their first day in the camp.
"We're very grateful for what we've received, and even more grateful to finally be in a safe place," the head of family said. "Now we're eager to find out about schools for the children."
The Special Envoy viewed a number of the winter projects under way in the camp, where overnight temperatures are dropping to freezing. Tents are being reinforced and better insulated to protect against the weather, including the addition of "porches" where gas heaters are being placed. Some 30,000 high thermal blankets are being distributed, along with winter clothing.
A storm drainage system is being built and a layer of crushed rock spread throughout the camp to channel water away from shelters and prevent mud and standing water. In addition, more than 1,300 prefabricated shelters have been erected and another 1,300 should be in place within three weeks.
"Winter is already here and UNHCR and its partners still lack 50% of the funds needed to get everyone through the next few difficult months," Jolie said.
"Despite all the good work being done so far, it's clear here on the ground that all the resources are now stretched to the limit. This is going to be a very tough few months. Winter can be harsh here, even dangerous for refugees who may already be weakened by their ordeal. Many have been brutalized in unimaginable ways. They deserve all the support we can give them."
Angelina Jolie and her partner, Brad Pitt, made a donation of $50,000 Thursday afternoon for the purchase family tents for refugees. Later Thursday, Jolie was scheduled to conclude her mission with meetings with Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour and Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.
The crisis in Syria continues to grow and the UN Refugee Agency is inundated by the thousands of refugees still crossing the border.
In March there were 41,500 Syrian refugees; now there are over 310,000, and more come every day. Supplies are becoming desperately low.
I am writing to ask for your immediate support today on GlobalGiving to take advantage of an exciting matching gift opportunity – we cannot turn our backs on the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees…most of whom are women and children. They come to us with alarming stories, like the one from this little girl:
© UNHCR/S. Malkawi
This six-year-old girl from Baba Amr was asleep alongside her family when their home was hit by a rocket. (This is not uncommon now in Syria, where the government has begun indiscriminately shelling civilian areas.)
Her four siblings were injured. Her mother was struck by shell fragments in the chest. Her father was killed instantly.
This little girl lost her father, her home and part of her hand; her mother was so traumatized by the experience that she didn’t want any of the family named or identified.
There is a way for you to help: Donate Now via GlobalGiving and your donation will be matched 30%
She and her family made it out of Syria and found safety in Lebanon. Because of compassionate individuals like you, the UN Refugee Agency was able to provide medical care, assign the family a tent and give them mattresses, blankets, food, clean water and cooking supplies. But these items are in short supply.
Please donate today to help this little girl and the hundreds of thousands of other Syrian refugees who desperately need our support.
More than a quarter-million Syrian refugees are relying on the United Nations Refugee Agency. And the UN Refugee Agency is relying on us.
Please make an immediate contribution via GlobalGiving and your donation will be matched 30%!
Just $50 can distribute blankets for five refugee families.
Ellen RoseChair, Board of DirectorsUSA for UNHCRwww.UNRefugees.org
P.S. I need your help. Some 75% of the refugees of the Syrian crisis are women and children, many too scared to share their names. Will you help us to help them?
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