Syrian Purgatory

As winter clutches northern Syria, thousands displaced by the civil war take cold comfort in a temporary tent city.


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.

But with Damascus reluctant to allow international organizations to operate in rebel-held territories, it is left to tiny NGOs like the Maram Foundation to foot the $3,000 to $4,000 daily bill for meals, gas, and water in Atmeh. Other small NGOs bear some of the operating costs. The Turkish Red Crescent, for example, supplied the tents and provides breakfast. The International Medical Corps pays the camp’s three to four doctors (depending on the day), and the International Rescue Committee provided roughly 1,300 winterization kits, one for each tent.

Every day, however, roughly 100 new Syrians arrive in Atmeh, stretching the camp’s resources even thinner. "The shelling [forced] us from our village," explained 38-year-old Sabah Jauda, who fled her home in Kafar Taal. "We tried to outlast it as long as we could, but then the regime soldiers set fire to my house. My son fights with the Free [Syrian] Army, so that was [President Bashar] al-Assad’s revenge on me."

As the Syrian government has intensified its bloody campaign in recent months, the flow of refugees into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey has steadily increased. Today, more than 508,000 Syrians have fled the country, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Another 2.5 million, like the residents of Atmeh, are internally displaced, according to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

Once they arrive in Atmeh, however, refugees have trouble putting the horrors of war behind them. The regime has targeted Free Syria Army positions near the camp, and the loud explosions caused by heavy weaponry frequently wake residents. But at Atmeh’s makeshift clinic, composed of two adjoining trailers, it’s not bombs that are killing refugees — it is lack of medicine and proper sanitation. The camp’s medical staff treats roughly 300 people per day for diseases ranging from tonsillitis to gastrointestinal ailments. Every day, an average of three toddlers contract bronchitis, but there is little the medical staff can do. "We don’t have enough [breathing] masks for everyone," explains Hassan al-Khawam, a 26-year-old general practitioner. "So we sterilize the masks and reuse them."

The poor sanitary conditions are taking their toll. Children are contracting hepatitis A from contaminated food, and cholera has afflicted some of the older residents. Their suffering is prolonged by a lack of medication. "We just don’t have what we need here," explained Khawam as he rubbed the stomach of a dazed child.

At the end of the day, however, the responsibility for keeping Atmeh running falls to Yakzan Shishakly, the head of Maram. During the day, the 34-year-old, who sports scraggly hair and an unkempt beard, has no time to speak. His cell phone constantly hums with requests, problems, and queries from headquarters, other aid organizations, and others trying to help. At night, he makes the trek back to Turkey to procure new supplies.

From purchasing fuel for the generators to procuring potatoes for the residents, Shishakly and his small staff are getting a crash course in refugee camp management. But if his time as an owner of an air-conditioning company in Houston did not prepare him to manage Atmeh, his pedigree certainly did. Shishakly’s grandfather Adib was president of Syria from 1953 to 1954 — and his family name earns him instant respect throughout Syria.

In Atmeh, however, it’s Shishakly’s hard work that has won the refugees’ admiration. "Yakzan is there for us, to help with everything," said Jauda, gratefully. Shishakly grinned bashfully, but his smile quickly dissipated when his cell phone rang with the latest crisis. "Problems with aid delivery," Shishakly relayed with a sigh of exhaustion. But he quickly found a second wind. "Tomorrow we’ll try to resolve it," he said before trudging back across the border.

Steven Sotloff has covered Libya for Time magazine.