Northwestern Syria: People uprooted by conflict brace for another harsh winter

MSF teams distribute winter kits to displaced people in northwestern Syria

Syria 2020 © Abdul Majeed Al Qareh/MSF

More than two million displaced people living in northwestern Syria are bracing themselves for an impending winter that will make already harsh living conditions even more unbearable. For many families, this is not the first winter they have endured in leaking tents, mud-filled streets, and freezing temperatures. In recent years, the region has seen multiple waves of mass displacement—between December 2019 and March 2020, fighting in the Idlib region forced one million people to flee, many of whom were already displaced.

“Life is tragic here, especially in winter,” said Chahine Ziadeh, a resident of Fan Al-Shemali camp in Idlib governorate. “The tent can’t keep us safe from the cold and the water.” Chahine fled his hometown in 2016 due to heavy shelling. Since then, he has lived in various camps in the region, before settling in Fan Al-Shemali two years ago.

Whenever it rains, the roads in the camp become rivers of mud, making it difficult for people to leave their tents to go to work, buy groceries, or see a doctor—whether on foot or by motorbike. The muddy, flooded roads also make it hard for aid workers to reach the camp.

To help improve living conditions during winter, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams have started distributing winter kits to approximately 14,500 families living in more than 70 camps for displaced people across the region. The kits contain warm clothes, tarpaulins, mattresses, and blankets.

“We are mainly distributing these relief items to protect families from heavy rain, because many tents already have worn-out sheeting,” said Abdulrahman, an MSF logistician. “We are also worried about winter approaching because, over the past two years, we have seen lots of scary floods in the camps.”  

MSF teams have also started rehabilitating 2,275 tents in six camps west of Idlib. This involves installing flooring in and around the tents, improving the tents’ thermal insulation, and building brick barriers to protect them from flooding.   

MSF teams hope that the rehabilitated shelters will not only improve people’s general living conditions, but will also help prevent an increase in seasonal diseases. “It’s difficult to draw a line between what is medical and what isn’t in a protracted conflict and displacement situation such as in Syria,” said Dr. Chen Lim, coordinator of MSF’s medical activities in northwestern Syria. “We cannot turn a blind eye to living conditions and their impact on the population’s health.”

Every winter, MSF medical teams that work in these crowded camps treat an increasing number of people with respiratory diseases, problems related to smoke inhalation, burns, waterborne diseases, and frostbite. MSF has also deployed health promotion teams to spread health awareness messages about common winter diseases, assess people’s health needs and the daily challenges they face, and to inform them about MSF’s mobile clinic services.

MSF’s health promotion team recently conducted an assessment in several camps,  interviewing 116 people.  They found that almost 70 percent of people interviewed had already experienced a winter in a camp. Almost everyone surveyed expressed fears that family members, especially their children, would get sick during the coming winter.  

Meanwhile, more than 17,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been registered in the region—some fear that the number of infections will increase significantly.

“In the coming winter, it will also become more complicated for health workers to distinguish between people with symptoms of a cold and people with COVID-19 symptoms,” said Dr. Lim. “In that sense, winter is going to bring additional challenges for everyone [and] to the already critical situation in northwestern Syria.”