Preparing refugee families for a harsh winter

Jordan, Syria

December 20, 2013

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  • Muhamed (with his niece Ahad) only recently joined his family in Jordan after fighting in the Free Syrian Army. He arrived just before snow and freezing temperatures descended on the region. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps
  • Um Samer prepares breakfast for her 12 family members, including four granddaughters. She's grateful for the generous neighbors who provided kitchen supplies when they first found refuge here from Syria in July 2012. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps
  • Waed, 4, and Shahed, 3, play on the swing their grandfather made for them. Their grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles have tried to turn the four-room house into a home away from home. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps
  • The large family gathers for a traditional Syrian breakfast. The heater in the background is part of the winter kits we're distributing to families, which also include mattresses, blankets, bedding and coupons for heating fuel. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps

“My neighbors are like qishda wa aisal,” Um Samer happily told me, using a phrase that literally translates to “cream and honey.”

She was referring to her new neighbors’ collective kindness. After the Syrian family found shelter in an empty home in Azraq, a small town in northeast Jordan, they filled the kitchen with a stove and all of the pots, pans and dishes that she needs to cook for her family of 13.

Some members of the family escaped the war raging in their hometown of Dara’a, Syria as long ago as July 2012. On the day of our visit, Um Samer was cooking breakfast and celebrating finally having her family all together again — her eldest son, Muhamed, 34, arrived just 15 days earlier after staying behind to fight in the war.

The four-room house is now a home away from home for Um Samer and her husband Abu Samer, their seven children ranging in ages 15-34, and their four granddaughters from 10 years old to as young as five months. I was there, along with Mercy Corps field officer Zeid Shaban, after delivering winter supplies and furnishings to help make the house a safer shelter for the entire family.

Derelict buildings can't protect against coldest winter in decades

Like the family, thousands of Syrians have resorted to living in derelict buildings for the little, if any, rent they can afford. Damaged roofs, cracked walls, drafty windows and a lack of heat make them incredibly vulnerable to what’s already one of the coldest winters in record in the region.

Mercy Corps is helping this family and thousands of other Syrian refugees and Jordanians in need keep warm, through a winter preparedness program supported by the humanitarian arm of the European Commission (ECHO). We are selecting buildings in the worst condition to be rehabilitated, and in communities where there are few resources, we’re distributing kits that include a gas heater, coupons for fuel, five mattresses, five blankets, five pillows and five sets of bedding.

“Everything that Mercy Corps has donated is a great help,” Abu Samer told me. “It reduces the financial burden on us to have to buy these things ourselves. Especially during the winter season, everything is helping us a lot, keeping us warm.”

He’d been explaining how the family gets by without being able to legally work in Jordan: “We worked during the olive season for a few days. But we were constantly paranoid that the authorities would come. Because we don’t have work permits, it’s risky. We have some savings, and sometimes we sell our belongings, like jewelry. We receive food vouchers from WFP [UN's World Food Program]. The assistance we receive on a monthly basis helps, but we always resort to spending our savings. That’s how we get by.”

Gratitude and kindness keep the family looking forward

And yet, the family insisted on sharing what little they have, inviting us to join the traditional Syrian breakfast. Their generous hospitality was coupled with the joy and relief of having Muhamed safely with them.

He’d been fighting in the war until he was injured and his leg amputated. “There was a chance to save my leg, but it took 11 hours to reach the medical facility,” he said. “Then it was too late.”

While we waited for the food to be prepared, Muhamed played with his five-month-old niece Ahad. In the next room, Shahad, 3, and Waed, 4, had fun on the swing their grandfather made for them. Although there was an understandably somber weight over him, positive and kind-hearted Muhamed added, “I thank God, it could have been worse. I’m grateful that I am alive and with my family.”

After breakfast, their neighbors, Abu Muhamed and his daughter Leila, 6, came by to visit the family. It’s wonderful to see their good relations with Jordanian neighbors, which is not always the case between refugees and local residents.

Tensions have been increasing in some areas between Jordanians and Syrians, stemming from the significant rise in cost of living and the increased scarcity of resources, especially water, with the influx in the population.

In Jordan alone there are nearly 600,000 registered Syrian refugees, and more than half of them are children. The crisis is such a difficult, extremely tragic situation in so many facets, it’s not surprising that tension has developed. But it’s good to know that tension is not the rule.

It’s good to know that in a town in northeast Jordan, there are Jordanians and Syrians alike, even in such trying circumstances, who are committed to their traditional values of kindness and hospitality. And it’s good to know that we can be there to meet their basic needs for heat and protection this winter, so they can focus on the warmth of being with family and friends.

How you can help

Your generosity will provide shelter and lifesaving relief to help Syrian refugee families survive this winter and beyond. Donate to our Syria Crisis Response today ▸