ATMEH, Syria — Um Ibrahim shivered in the rain outside her tent. It was less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and the winter wind cut to the bone. When I asked why she didn't have a blanket like everyone else at the Atmeh refugee camp, she shrugged and looked down. "I sold it to buy bread for my children."
While the world is abuzz with news that 60,000 Syrians have died so far in the 22-month-old civil war, it is the roughly 3 million refugees and internally displaced persons who are suffering daily. At camps such as Atmeh, located less than 1,000 feet from the border with Turkey, they are struggling to survive without heat, electricity, or adequate sanitation. The meager rations provided by a smattering of small NGOs leave them scrounging in order to keep their hunger at bay.
The camp's managers, employed by the Syrian-American Maram Foundation, based in Houston, Texas, do what little they can. But understaffed and underfunded, the most they can offer on many occasions are encouraging words and hope that the next day's aid shipment will alleviate the suffering of the camp's 13,000 residents -- mostly from Syria's northern Idlib province. For Um Ibrahim, such supplies cannot come quick enough. Unable to feed her nine children on the daily bread ration, she sold her camp-issued blanket to pay for another bag of loaves. Now she spends her nights huddled with her children for warmth.
Camp residents not only complain of paltry provisions, but also erratic service. "We get two meals a day," said 70-year-old Said Ahmad, a retired farmer from the village of Salut Zuhar. "But there are no specific times. Sometimes breakfast comes at 2 p.m. and dinner much later." When the food does arrive, it looks more like a selection of bite-size hors d'oeuvres than a full-course meal. The first offering is often limited to one piece of bread, small packets of butter, and jelly or chocolate spread, topped off with a few olives. The small rations have forced residents to improvise. Those lucky enough to have extra bread leave the desiccated crumbs out to soak. When the rain rehydrates them, they eat the edible portions. "We are learning new uses for food every day," notes Ziyyad Najib, a 35-year-old taxi driver from Idlib.
Water is slightly more plentiful, but like most supplies at Atmeh, it also runs out too soon. The four to five 1-liter bottles that each of the roughly 1,300 tents receives every day are always empty before the sun sets. Residents then refill them at water trucks, the contents of which are often of substandard quality. "It's not clean water," complained Anwar Sharqi, a 51-year-old mechanic from Killi. "It comes from wells that villagers use only for washing, not drinking."
Most shortages are due to how supplies are rationed. Each family is only allotted six bags of food. But families vary in size, forcing members of some families to split the already-limited provisions among them. And life in a shared tent is just as difficult as sharing food. The 180-square-foot canvass dwellings sag under the weight of the elements and occasionally collapse. As the rain seeps under the flaps, the cold earth softens into clay, leaving behind a pit of mud.
In late December, when I visited Atmeh, a bulldozer was carving up the earth behind the camp's communal bivouac shelter, which doubles as a mosque. Workers placed black pipes in the excavated areas and connected them to a nearby concrete structure, which had been built to house bathrooms. The temporary camp was taking on a permanence few want, but everyone desperately needs.
But provisions are slow in coming. Unlike the dozen other camps spread out across Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, Atmeh does not receive funding from international organizations like the U.N. World Food Program or the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Such organizations are barred by international law from operating in countries without the consent of the government. "It is a completely fluid situation," said UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards. "We at the moment do not have an operational presence in places like Atmeh.… That would be for OCHA to negotiate with Syria," he said, referring to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.