By Alec Hernández
As the holiday season creeps forward, winter’s chill is inevitable. Although it is easy to ignore the cold from inside our festively-adorned homes, it poses a severe problem for refugee communities across the Middle East and Europe. Likewise, migration patters are subject to change greatly in the winter months. The infamous summer boat trips across the Mediterranean will likely be foregone by most for traveling shorter distances by foot. For countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, winter means much more than just cold weather – it means that more refugees are coming their way.
The Balkans, otherwise known as Europe’s backdoor, faces an obvious challenge when it comes to ensuring the safety of refugees as temperatures drop. Mountainous terrain and an unwelcoming winter climate have caught up to the refugees making their way to Europe by way of countries like Croatia, Serbia, and northern Greece. Snow, ice, and freezing rain will soon begin to pound the region, and while organizations like the United Nation’s High Commission for Refugees and the Red Cross are working diligently to ensure migrants have the proper equipment to survive the winter, travel will become drastically more difficult. While media attention on the mass migration continues to focus on the crisis’ European theater, winter’s onset in the Middle East presents the same challenges. For instance, Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, popular in the 1960s as a skiing destination, sits on the main road between Damascus and Beirut, making it an enormous channel for migrants.
Last winter, tents in the valley’s makeshift camps proved to be poorly suited for the weather. Melting snow seeped through the non-waterproof tents, the cold penetrated clothing and blankets, and camp infrastructure often collapsed under the weight of the piling snow. For example, Al Marj, a refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley, is home to over 400 refugees and consistently faces long winters with absurd amounts of snow. With the oncoming winter, conditions in the camp will only worsen. What once presented an image of holiday vacations, Bekaa’s newest image is one of unpreparedness in facing its climate. Organizations like UNHCR, the Red Cross, and Médecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) have been helping refugees prepare for the winter. Last winter, the Red Cross in Lebanon distributed blankets, small stoves, and fuel vouchers for heating systems. Likewise, the UNHCR provides refugees in their camps with warm food and drink, along with non-food winter items like coats and extra blankets.
Unfortunately for the region, winter is not just exclusive to the Bekaa Valley or even just to several regions in Lebanon. For refugees in cities like Amman, winter brings stronger winds, heightened food prices, and occasionally, snow. Likewise, average temperatures can easily reach below freezing, with averages between 5-10ºC (~40ºF). Like I’ve written before (http://tinyurl.com/gqstq53), urban refugees often face the toughest conditions of all – without the support of larger organizations that run camps, they are typically left without financial or other support to brave the region’s coldest season. Like the rest of the year, work is hard to come buy for these refugees, and winter only makes it drastically less affordable for these families to make ends meet with extra expenses like proper winter clothing and fuel for heating systems. This time of year, refugees are stuck in a difficult situation – the travel to Europe by boat or by land is drastically more dangerous due to the change in weather, or they stay behind in countries like Jordan or Lebanon where winter’s struggles are brutal if ill-prepared.
Unlike the refugees in the camps, urban refugees remain the least provided for in the international refugee community. This year, the UNHCR along with other organizations hope to help urban refugees make it through the winter without harm. In cities like Irbid, Mazraq, Ajloun, and Amman, UNHCR and its partners are making an effort to work outside of the massive camps, and this winter alone have pledged that they will help reinforce 1,000 refugee homes in urban areas by rebuilding ceilings, mending floors, and installing proper windows that will help fend off the cold. Although this step is great for organizations like the United Nations to be taking, the number of urban refugees they are helping is a mere fraction of the number of those living outside of camps. While organizations like the UNHCR are helping as much as they can, smaller, local NGOs have the greatest impact on the lives of refugees in urban settings.
The Collateral Repair Project (collateralrepairproject.org), for example, is one of the grassroots organizations that is helping prepare displaced Syrians and Iraqis prepare for the winter in Amman. CRP is an ultra-salient facet of East Amman’s refugee community, as they help provide refugee families with subsidized food, housing, and a community center in which to gather. This time of year, organizations like CRP need our help more than ever. Other than their usual community contributions during the year, wintertime marks an expansion in their services. Along with their typical aid to refugee communities, they also provide crucially important tools like vouchers for heating fuel and winter clothing to refugees that cannot afford to purchase either otherwise.
What CRP and others urge us to remember this time of year is that these refugee families are just like ours but have had their lives turned entirely upside down by conflict in countries like Syria and Iraq. While it may seem like we are quite removed from the crisis on our campus, we can have an immeasurable amount of influence on how these refugees brave the winter. CRP, for instance, recently launched their winter fundraising campaign, Every Refugee Has a Story to Tell. The campaign focuses on members of the CRP refugee community, telling stories of their lives in Amman and abroad, and their wishes to return back home to Syria and Iraq. Before the end of the year, the organization hopes to raise $40,000 to help these same refugees prepare for the hardship of winter in the Levant. Other than support for their winter fundraising campaign, CRP is enormously appreciative of those who pledge to become a monthly donor, otherwise known as a “partner in repair.” Likewise, one-time donations to the organization are more than welcome, as CRP cannot run smoothly without help from donors across the world.
As we enter the holiday season and winter creeps closer, let us not forget those families in the Middle East that will not be sharing memories in their homes or with relatives. While we should all undertake the task of understanding their social, political, and financial conditions, we should also focus on ways that we can help instead of solely offering our pity and condolences. Consider forgoing a stocking stuffer or a holiday-flavored drink to help warm a refugee’s home or put a humble holiday meal on the table. This time of year, they need us more than ever.
CRP Winter Campaign Information:
Learn more about CRP:
Alec Hernández ’18 is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Alec can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org