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SYRIAN REFUGEE UPDATE — October 30, 2013

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A boy plays outside his tent in Zaatari Camp. Photo credit: Heather Patterson, LWF
A boy plays outside his tent in Zaatari Camp. Photo credit: Heather Patterson, LWF

Every other Wednesday, I’ll share with you some of what we know about the Syrian conflict and the refugee crisis. Today, besides news updates, I’m thrilled to bring you an interview with Heather Patterson, Program Officer for the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in Jordan.

The United Nations is planning a peace conference in November to encourage an end to the conflict in Syria. It is expected that countries such as the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran will participate in the conference. A coalition of Syria’s main rebel forces plans to boycott the conference if it doesn’t result in President Al-Assad’s removal.

Polio has broken out in northeast Syria. The outbreak has only affected children under the age of two. Syria had been free from polio since 1999, but because of the war, young children have missed their required vaccinations. Polio is endemic is just three countries, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. It is thought that foreign fighters from these countries brought the disease with them.

Amidst these difficult developments, Heather Patterson is working in the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan. She spoke to us about her experiences, discussing camp conditions, daily life, and how we can help. LIRS Media Relations Specialist Clarissa Perkins carried out the interview via email.

Clarissa Perkins (CP): You are on the ground in Syrian refugee camps in Jordan. Can you give us a brief description of what the camps are like?

Heather Patterson (HP): To start with (and I will draw examples from Zaatari which is where we work) the camp is much better than when first set up. It is safer, there is better accommodation and more activities and facilities.

Even so, it is generally quite crowded, some areas more so than others. Right now it is a combination of tents and caravans, which people have moved and rearranged. In some places there are obvious streets, in others it is more haphazard. Interspersed between these are WASH facilities (blocks with showers and toilets) as well as community kitchens. I can tell you that some bathrooms are too dirty to be useable, others, not so bad. Some kitchens still have gas burners, where in others they have been stolen.

There are schools, hospitals, and child-friendly spaces as well as a few central streets covered in shops, salons, and restaurants. With 120,000 people, it really is its own city.

CP: LWF has offered a range of assistance in this crisis, from providing shelter and essentials to holding programs on gender-based violence. Which service do you think has been most beneficial?

HP: Honestly there is no way to really say which is the “best” as they all provide different things, but all are essential. Some activities are directly life-saving assistance, such as providing heaters and gas, or caravans for shelter, like we did in Zaatari last winter. But psychosocial programs like the conflict mitigation workshops we are currently running for community leaders are important in a different way, for the resilience of the community. Whereas a sweater or shoes will wear out, these activities provide training and tools people can use indefinitely.

CP: What are the refugees supplied with in camps, and what are they most in need of?

HP: Right now the biggest needs we have come across inside the camp are for the upcoming winter. People need heaters, gas refills, and clothes. Items like baby diapers are in short supply as they are relatively expensive, and there have been requests for good quality raincoats and boots.

CP: What are their biggest challenges?

HP: The refugees face multiple challenges daily. Everything from making sure basic needs like food, shelter and security are covered, to more complex psychological problems.  

Many people are worried about relatives and friends still in Syria, they worry about their family’s safety inside the camp. Young people have had university studies interrupted and are worried they will never finish their degrees. Really the challenges seem endless.

CP: How have you found they keep their spirits up?

HP: We are talking about such a huge number of people it is very difficult to generalize. But many people (including children) are under prolonged and extreme stress. They are trying to figure out how to provide for their families and selves, and again worrying about others still in Syria or who are refugees elsewhere. We hear from people that they are lonely, depressed.

However, the refugees are amazingly resilient and are like any other people trying to make the best of things. There are many who are maintaining positive attitudes, and life goes on. Babies are born, weddings take place; there are still reasons to celebrate.

CP: What are some ways we can support Syrian refugees and LWF?

HP: There are many things you can do to support the refugee response. Lobby your governments to accept Syrian refugees (like Sweden does), educate yourselves and learn as much about the situation as you can. You can donate to a reputable charity, or have fundraisers and events to do so. The financial need is incredible.

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