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Mar 31, 2017

Winterization - Update

Greece Update –

As dangerously cold weather grips Greece, the International Rescue Committee has been doing everything within our power to ensure that people staying in the refugee sites where we work are warm and safe. We are particularly concerned about children and the elderly, who are most at risk of hypothermia and worse if they don't have sufficient heat.

Over the past few days temperatures across the Greek mainland have plummeted to levels not seen in a decade. Many areas are blanketed with snow: More than a foot has fallen on the island of Lesbos in the Aegean, where recently-arrived refugees living in tents at the Moria reception center are especially vulnerable. 

IRC teams spent the days ahead of the storm system battening down the hatches and preparing the refugee sites where we work for the unusually severe winter weather, providing 54 emergency heaters (with another 59 to follow this week) and working to prevent water outages caused by burst or frozen pipes. We delivered more than 300 thermal blankets, as well as gloves and warm socks, to refugees and also opened communal warming spaces in several locations across the country.

In Veria, Diavata and Alexandria, the three sites where we work in northern Greece, we opened our women’s safe spaces and children’s safe healing and learning spaces to everyone, so that refugees would not feel isolated during the storm. People were invited to come enjoy tea and hot chocolate, and spend time in the company of others, talking, knitting and playing games.

IRC aid workers have been making sure that refugees in Veria, in mountainous northern Greece, are prepared for the unusually severe winter weather.

At Veria, which is in the mountains north of Thessaloniki and received heavy snowfall, refugee women and girls joined IRC staff in one such safe space to watch a movie. “The space was full of chat and laughter,” said Eileen Brady of the IRC’s refugee protection team. “There was ‘heart warmth’ all around.” 

At the Skaramagkas refugee site near Athens, the IRC’s child protection team hosted a puppet show for young refugees with one of our partner organizations. The children also had a chance to make puppets of their own.

In the meantime, IRC technicians remain on high alert, working to mitigate damage from frozen pipes, including providing 1,000 bottles of water to refugees in Diavata after an interruption in the water supply there. The IRC has also supplied 25 chemical toilets to Diavata as a stop-gap measure until temperatures return to more typical seasonal levels.
 
So far Kara Tepe, the refugee site where the IRC works on Lesbos, is holding up to the harsh winter weather, and people staying there are safe and warm. Kara Tepe shelters the most vulnerable refugees, including women traveling alone with children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. The IRC remains on standby to mitigate any interruption in water and electricity supplies there. 

Temperatures are forecast to remain below freezing in northern Greece at least through the end of the week, while heavy rain and high winds are expected on Lesbos through Wednesday.

 

Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary Update –

As thousands of refugees are stranded or risking their lives trying to transit through Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary in extremely cold weather, the International Rescue Committee and its partners in Serbia are providing winter relief, including clothing, medicine and other emergency aid in some of the most challenging locations.

We are especially concerned about the safety of refugees sleeping in unheated, makeshift shelters rather than in refugee camps, where they fear officials will send them home. Many are children traveling alone: IRC partners provide specialized support for them.

Some 7,200 people are stranded in Serbia, with around 82 percent accommodated in 16 government shelters and the rest sleeping rough. In Belgrade city center, over 1,200 young people, including children, are sleeping in derelict warehouses in brutally cold weather, where temperatures reach –4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mar 31, 2017

Help Syrian Families Fleeing Aleppo - Update

Syrian government forces wrested full control of the city of Aleppo in December 2016 after months of siege. Some 36,000 people evacuated the city in convoys of buses bound for northwestern Idlib province.

Amid a tenuous ceasefire, the International Rescue Committee is providing emergency cash relief, trauma counseling and other vital support to hundreds of families in Idlib. We remain concerned that violence will follow them to this already unsafe part of Syria.

IRC aid workers reponding to the crisis have been speaking with recent arrivals to learn more about the immediate needs of people who have fled Aleppo and the challenges they face in Idlib. Read about the dire humanitarian situation and hear from one of our aid workers (unnamed for security reasons) on the ground.

 

What happened in Aleppo?

A months-long siege of eastern Aleppo ended in mid-December as Syrian government forces wrested control of districts that had been held by rebels. 

The intensifying bombing of these neighborhoods in the weeks before the ceasefire forced many residents to shelter underground, and tens of thousands to flee. Those who remained were living in fear of retribution: The United Nations reported that families were being shot in cold blood as their neighborhoods were retaken, and voted to monitor evacuations of civilians and report on the plight of those who stayed behind.

After delays and false starts—including an attack on an ambulance—the evacuations began on December 15, overseen by the Red Cross and Red Crescent. The first convoy of ambulances and buses to leave the city included 200 wounded people. The evacuations stalled again for several days amid incidents of violence that included setting fire to buses that were to take people to safety. 

Some 36,000 people were evacuated from eastern Aleppo before the last buses carrying residents left on Dec 22.

 

What were the evacuations like?

Many families were separated in the chaos of the evacuations and unable to stay in touch. Apart from sporadic internet access, communications channels were down across eastern Aleppo. One woman we spoke with after she arrived in Idlib said she hadn’t been able to reach her adult son and doesn’t know if he was able to get on a bus or if he was arrested.

Another woman, whose husband was killed during the siege, pushed her children onto a bus only to have its doors close against her. “I started screaming and banging on the bus so I could get on the same bus as my children,” she said. “Some people helped me and I got on.”

 

Where did people who left Aleppo go?

Most of the evacuees joined some 700,000 displaced Syrians already living in mostly rebel-held Idlib province — among them, more than 130,000 staying in nearly 250 makeshift camps.

Over the past six weeks, thousands have arrived in and around the town of Al Dana, around 20 miles west of Aleppo in eastern Idlib, where the IRC is providing emergency relief. 

 

What are the conditions people are living in now?

Most people are still wearing the clothes they wore when they were evacuated from Aleppo. It's too difficult to launder them because of the long time they take to dry in the cold winter air. Some are selling donated clothes and other aid items they receive in order to get the cash they need to pay for food, rent and in order to get specialist medical care.

Living conditions are dangerously congested. Many of those who arrived at established displacement camps in Qah have had to share tents with other families who were already there, meaning some six-person tents are housing between 10 and 15 people. 

In Al Dana and its outskirts three to four families are sharing small, unfinished houses without heat, toilets or running water. Living conditions are in some cases even more cramped for those living within a host community in Atmeh on the Turkish border. In one instance a single room with a blanket dividing it in half is being shared by 22 people from two different families. 

The overcrowding is creating particular privacy concerns for women.

 

Have people been able to get treatment for their injuries?

IRC health teams in Idlib have seen first-hand the immense cost to people’s health from living under siege and constant bombardment in eastern Aleppo. We have met people not only injured by bombs, but who have suffered unnecessarily because attacks on medical centers left them without health care and the siege prevented them from getting the medicine and food they desperately needed.

One eight-year-old boy suffered with shrapnel in his eye for more than two months because his family could not get treatment until they left the city. His father was also injured; however, the family is prioritizing their son’s treatment, having sold some of the aid they had received to pay for his medical care. The IRC has connected the family with specialized support.

Some injuries are not physical. Many people are displaying symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and are in need of intensive counseling. 

One man recalled aerial bombardments so deadly that he and his neighbors “had to step on our families’ and friends’ bodies” as they fled. He said, “We did not feel anything, we were shocked.”

Also, people with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma have seen their health deteriorate because of lack of medicine, medical care and sufficient food.

 

What else do people who have fled Aleppo need?

Many people lost their sources of income and their savings during the evacuations and are unable to afford proper shelter. Some families have told us that food is their most immediate need — especially formula for babies. Fuel is also a high priority.

And safety remains paramount: Many people say they fear they’ll face the same intensified level of violence in Idlib that they faced in Aleppo.

 

What challenges do children from Aleppo face?

IRC aid workers identified nearly 50 children separated from their parents during the panic and confusion of the evacuations. Lost phones and the lack of phone coverage in Idlib has made it challenging to trace relatives. Many of these children have since been reunited with their families, and the IRC is referring the others to specialized agencies who will take up their cases.    
 
Many of the children who have arrived from eastern Aleppo are bored and desperate to get back into school. And, like most adults who fled the city, they too are traumatized by their experiences under siege. 

 

What is the IRC doing to help people who have fled Aleppo?

The IRC is helping many of the estimated 7,000 people who fled recaptured eastern Aleppo and settled in the area around Al Dana.

We have delivered $100 in emergency cash to each of more than 600 of the most vulnerable families in Al Dana so they can purchase the essential items they need. The IRC will soon reach another 1,700 families in surrounding areas with cash relief.

The recent arrivals say that cash is by far the most useful form of assistance they have received. Before many were forced to sell clothes and blankets given as aid in order to buy food, pay rent or get specialist medical care.

So far the IRC has provided health care to nearly 700 people fleeing Aleppo. We are running a clinic in Qah near the displacement camps in far northeastern Idlib, and dispatching two mobile health clinics to the surrounding area. 

The IRC is also providing counseling and other care to traumatized survivors of the violence in Aleppo as they settle in Idlib. 

 

What else does the IRC do in Idlib?

The IRC currently supports eight health facilities in Idlib to enable them to provide medical care to more than 100,000 uprooted Syrians. We support five schools providing an education for 4,000 children. We also support four livelihood centers that help around 5,000 Syrians each month boost their income through skills training, job placements and business start-up grants.

We also provide emergency cash relief to the most vulnerable families.

 

Will people be safe in Idlib?

Escaping Aleppo doesn’t mean escaping the war. The current ceasefire is a tenuous one. After witnessing the ferocity of attacks on civilians in Aleppo, the IRC is very concerned that the sieges and barrel bombs will follow the thousands who arrive in Idlib.

The recent arrivals IRC aid workers have been meeting in Idlib are "concerned that they’re moving from one killing zone into another," IRC president David Miliband told PBS NewsHour.
 
We already know Idlib isn’t a safe area of Syria. The attack on a school in the town of Hass in October left 22 children and six teachers dead—and two IRC-supported hospitals were attacked in the province lasy year. There is a real danger that such attacks will not only continue but intensify.

A senior U.N. official has warned that Idlib "could be in theory the next Aleppo" and said that a cessation of hostilities across all of Syria would be the only way to prevent another bloody battle like the one that devastated the city.

 

What will people fleeing Aleppo do next?

Many people we spoke with in Idlib told us their first priority is to find missing relatives who became separated from their families during the chaos in Aleppo. Others said they needed to replace missing birth and marriage certificates and other important documents. 

Beyond that, none of the new arrivals the IRC interviewed said they were able to consider what their future plans were.

They know they cannot return to their homes because of possible retaliation by government forces. They said they would seize any opportunity for support that would help them survive and be able to feed their families in the meantime, until they can decide on their next move.

 

How else is the IRC helping Syrians?

The IRC is the only international aid organization working on all fronts of the Syria crisis. We're helping millions of Syrians inside Syria, in neighboring countries in the Middle East, and in Europe. The IRC also has 29 offices across the United States and has resettled hundreds of Syrian refugees who have been accepted into the U.S. 

 
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