What 2013 looks like from a Syrian refugee camp

13,000 people crowd into Atmeh refugee camp with few blankets, no running water and little idea what the future holds

Sarab Al-Jijakli By Sarab Al-Jijakli

Atmeh refugee camp: home to 13,000 desperate Syrians fleeing the violence of the Assad regime, but stuck on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey. (Sarab Al-Jijakli)

The Latitude News Op-Ed column is a space where people from all walks of life can share their opinions on the links and parallels between the U.S. and the rest of the world.

Welcome to the “Olive Tree” refugee camp in Atmeh, Syria. There are no UN relief convoys here. No running water. No electricity, no heat. No sewage systems and only one medical tent. And yet this camp is home to around 13,000 men, women and children who fled their homes to escape the Assad regime onslaught.

As of December 31st, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates more than 575,000 Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring countries. The situation inside Syria is much worse, with conservative figures numbering more than 2.5 million people displaced internally — more than 10% of the country’s population. More than 60,000 Syrians have died, according to the latest UN data.

The “Olive Tree” camp was set up a few months ago by Syrian activists to provide shelter to families stuck on the Syrian side of the Turkish border. Today, a few more camps have been established in “liberated territory,” near Qah, Bab Al-Salameh and Ayn-Al-Arab in a desperate attempt to serve the masses of humanity in need.

But the promises made in the “Friends of Syria” conferences — from international peace envoys and UN aid agencies — have all missed this corner of the world. The people here survive on the goodwill of activists, expatriates and a few NGO’s who are allowed to deliver food and supplies by the Turkish government. The responsibility of nations is being left to individuals — resulting in a truly miserable situation.

Without international governmental support, the management of the camp is a steep, uphill challenge. As described by Syrian-American Muhannad Barazi, who volunteers with the camp’s main administrators, the Maram Foundation:

The main struggle right now is to make the camp livable in regards to food, water, warmth and healthy, sanitary bathrooms.

Just when we have a little more food, water and winter clothing, we begin to prepare for the next step: better tents, electricity, septic tanks and more bathrooms. However, before we get to working on that, another storm of refugees arrive seeking safe shelter; taking us back to securing more of the essentials, which takes time and resources away from getting to that next step.

Security is also a significant concern. The camp is protected by the Free Syrian Army. The local brigade spends 24/7 ensuring the camp is safe — both from Assad’s forces and local hustlers who try to take advantage of the vulnerable population.

When I visited the camp over a month ago, I asked the local commander, Abu Laith, if any of the regime forces had attacked the area since it was liberated.  His answer provided perspective beyond answering the initial question.

“We had one MIG [jet fighter] fly low over the camp – it was chaos,” Abu Laith said. “Over 10,000 people running for the olive groves [next to the camp]. Thankfully, it did not fire. Before the revolution, our children used to be so excited whenever a plane flew overhead. They used to run outside and point with joy. Now my son runs to the basement in fear every time a plane flies overhead — he is afraid of what falls from the sky.”

I asked him if they attempted to shoot down the MIG Fighter Jet. He looked at me like I was crazy.

“With what?!” he quipped.

It was a stupid question on my part. A week after asking this question, the regime returned, hitting the nearby village of Atmeh, and again causing chaos and mayhem throughout the camp.

Children at the Atmeh refugee camp in Syria. (Sarab Al-Jijakli)

With the New Year upon us, the conditions of the camp continue to deteriorate. Sanitary conditions are appalling — there are a handful of bathrooms to serve thousands and no running water. Even as the temperature drops, people lack basic necessities such as shoes and blankets — a common sight in the camp are children barefoot or with only flip flops to keep their feet warm in the freezing rain and mud.

Many refugees are resorting to dangerous kerosene lanterns and candles to stay warm with terrible consequences. Sadly, on New Year’s Eve, a tent fire killed two children, burned beyond recognition, with many more severely injured and in critical condition.

The international community has failed in helping Syrian refugees inside Syria — in spite of this, the people of the “Olive Tree” refugee camp have survived on donations from individuals. Only last week, for example, Mohamed Khairullah, the Syrian-American Mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, helped deliver a shipment of bread to the camp.

In this New Year, it is these acts of generosity that help the people of the camp overcome the misery they find themselves in.

Sarab Al-Jijakli is a Syrian-American community organizer, activist and co-founder of the National Alliance for Syria. He works as senior account director at a global advertising agency. Follow him at www.sarabiany.com or on Twitter @SarabNY.