CAIRO — Even as the United States picks up from the wreckage left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Mother Nature has a much larger humanitarian disaster in store for Syria -- and aid workers are scrambling to contain the damage.
Winter is approaching, threatening the millions of Syrians who have been displaced from their homes by the 19-month conflict. Temperatures are dropping fast: In the city of Aleppo, which has been ravaged by fierce guerrilla fighting since June, the average low in December is 39 degrees Fahrenheit; the average rainfall is 2.5 inches. That's about on par with the weather in Raleigh, North Carolina. Along the Turkish border, where an estimated 170,000 refugees are living, the conditions are even colder and wetter.
"It is hard. We lack the donations to purchase the supplies, we lack the people on the ground to help us, and we lack safety while working," said Diana Rifai, a Syrian from the city of Homs working to provide aid to refugees in north Lebanon. "I am actually speechless. It makes me cry every time I discuss it with anyone."
The latest report by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) paints a picture of a rapidly expanding refugee population, and international organizations struggling to keep up with their growing needs. There are currently 350,00 refugees registered in the countries bordering Syria, the UNHCR reports, and another 1.2 million people displaced from their homes inside the country. But those numbers are expected to grow dramatically in the months ahead: The refugee agency projects that the number of external Syrian refugees could double to 710,000 people by the end of the year.
The UNHCR winterization plan promises to provide blankets, cooking stoves, hygiene kits, and direct financial assistance to refugees in need. But it only aims to provide resources to 500,000 displaced Syrians inside the country, and 380,000 refugees in neighboring countries -- meaning that, even if it is fully funded, hundreds of thousands of Syrians will still not receive assistance.
But at the moment, UNHCR is still a long way from fully funding its winterization plan. The refugee agency projects that its efforts will cost roughly $75 million. Of that total, only $13 million, or about 17 percent, has so far been received.
"We're proceeding on the assumption that we're going to get this assistance. We're putting stuff in the pipeline," Ron Redmond, UNHCR's regional spokesman for Syria, says. "We're ordering the materials we need to winterize tents, we're doing cash assistance programs in Syria and elsewhere now, and we're hoping that we don't run out of money to complete this project."
Activist networks and local residents have made up the difference as best they can. But Rifai, a volunteer for the organization Watan ("Nation"), a subgroup of the opposition Syrian National Council, says that ongoing clashes in the region have become a danger to aid workers. "Aid is not being given to most refugees and internally displaced people," she said. "It is devastating and so hard to keep up with this work because refugees are afraid to register, making it even more risky for us to work."
Rifai drums up funds by appealing to local residents and spreading awareness on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and even Instagram. Watan then uses the donations to provide care packages for infants, purchase gas cooking stoves and canned food for the refugees, and providing anything else that help the refugees survive the winter -- even at times paying their rent.
But money is always short. "Blankets are not cheap -- the good, thick ones are $12 to $13 each," Rifai said. "International organizations do not help us. We barely hear or see from the Red Cross or UNHCR."