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Winter for Ibrahim: Helping refugee kids stay warm in Zaatari

Jordan, Syria, December 23, 2013

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  • Ibrahim and his family fled Syria last March, but weren't prepared to stay away from home this long. Now they're facing their first winter in Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp without supplies to stay warm in freezing temperatures. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps
  • We're distributing warm shoes and socks to kids in Zaatari this winter, in addition to our ongoing children's activities that gives kids a safe place to heal and learn. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps
  • Ibrahim loves the Mercy Corps drawing sessions in the mornings before school. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps
  • More schools have opened in Zaatari, so Ibrahim can now attend afternoon classes. The eight-year-old is catching up after being out of school for over a year, and likes learning English reading and writing. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps
  • Ibrahim and his cousin walk to Dream Land. The indoor playground and activity center will continue to be a warm, safe place for him and his friends to go this winter. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps

I first met eight-year-old Ibrahim and his family at Zaatari refugee camp this past August. I spent the day with the soft-spoken little boy, playing Legos and drawing in Mercy Corps’ activity center for refugee children.

At one point, we sat in the family’s tent, sweating in the desert’s unforgiving summer heat, as his mother, Sabah, spoke to me about her hopes to return home to Syria as soon as possible. Read the August story: A chance to play is a chance to heal ▸

But months later, they are still here, about to face their first winter in the camp. When I returned to visit Ibrahim, the chilly wind sent ripples through the family’s tent. One rainstorm had almost drowned their tent, even before Winter Storm Alexa hit earlier this month, covering the camp in snow.

Unprepared to be gone so long

“This will be the first time we will spend a full winter here,” Sabah said. “The end of the last winter was so terrible, what will it be like? I’m frightened. If I knew that it would be okay to spend winter in our village in Syria, we wouldn’t stay here.”

They fled from their war-torn home in Syria to Jordan last March. Arriving in the camp, a vast tent city spreading for miles in the barren desert, was a surreal experience: “Everything was so strange when we arrived, everything! We had never seen anything like this,” Sabah remembered.

Not accustomed to the harsh environment and changeable weather, Ibrahim and his siblings were often ill during the first few months. Even the day I spent with them, Amir came down with a fever.

The canvas tent they’ve been provided can’t provide enough warmth as cold grips the region and winds whip through the desert. Sabah has thin rugs on the floor and a blanket for each of the children, but she didn’t expect to be stuck here this long — they have no warm winter clothes to bundle up against the freezing temperatures.

In response to the extreme weather, Mercy Corps is quickly procuring winter boots and socks to distribute to children in Zaatari, where most kids have outgrown sneakers and have nothing to keep their feet warm.

Protecting the youngest refugees this winter — and beyond

It’s part of our focus on helping the youngest refugees, like Ibrahim. The winter weather is an urgent concern, but we also continue our programs that give kids a safe place to heal and learn year-round.

Q+A: How our work helps children heal from trauma

Ibrahim now spends most mornings doing art projects or playing on the playground at Dream Land, Mercy Corps’ main activity tent. “I’m building more houses now with Legos, and I’m drawing and painting more too,” he told me.

At Dream Land and our other child-friendly spaces throughout Zaatari, Mercy Corps provides the children with arts and sports programs throughout the day, developing their skills and giving them a sense of normalcy and childhood away from the crisis at home.

It’s obvious that Ibrahim has developed a routine that makes him happy since we last met. Talking about what’s new, Ibrahim explained, “It’s better than before, in every way. We have school now.”

The longer Syrians remain refugees, the more concern there is that youth will grow up without a proper education. Increased funding has allowed more schools to open in Zaatari. Ibrahim now attends an afternoon session of classes.

“School is my favorite thing because they give us cookies — biscuits with dates,” he explained on the walk to his classroom at noon.” We’re learning how to read and learning letters in English.”

“Have you made new friends?” I asked.

“I have two new friends,” he answered. “They are from the same village in Syria. I met them in class.”

At 4pm Ibrahim came home with a smile on his face. “We have homework today in English!” he happily shared.

I asked Ibrahim the usual adult question: “What did you learn in school today?”

With patience he told me, “Today we had reading in Arabic. We read a story about community.”

Ibrahim is lucky to live in an area of camp where he is surrounded by his family — aunts, uncles and cousins around his age — and to have a built-in community. But even when his father and older brother, who stayed behind in Syria, arrive to spend the winter with their family, Zaatari is not the same as the comfort and security of home.

When I asked Ibrahim what he misses in Syria, his answer was simple: “My home. I like to stay at home. I miss home.”

How you can help

  • Learn more about how we're protecting Syria's children. Share Ibrahim's story and others to raise awareness and support for a generation that needs our help to recover.

  • You can help us reach even more children in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq with the support and protection they need to survive crises and have hope for the future. Donate today ▸