Winter's Cold Brings New Misery for Millions of Middle East Refugees

Refugees from the violence in Syria and Iraq are hunkered down in camps and half-finished buildings in hilly, windswept terrain.

AL MALIKIYAH, Syria—Muhsin Edo cuts a desperate figure as he huddles under his sagging tent amid the ankle-deep sludge of the Newroz refugee camp.

His loose flannel coat, fashioned from a blanket, is caked with mud. His hacking cough reverberates through the interminable patter of rain. There's no kerosene for the heater, and with little dry wood to fire his mud-brick stove, the condensation dripping from the tarpaulin flaps has made his new home an inhospitable mess.

"God knows what the rest of winter will bring," he mumbles, almost tearfully, into his tea.

In hilly, windswept northern Iraq and eastern Syria, the onset of winter is making life even harsher for Edo and other refugees who live in tents and unfinished dwellings. Unseasonably heavy rains have already exacted a cruel toll, and snow has struck some exposed camps.

"Winter in Kurdistan can be fierce, and a huge number of the displaced fled with little more than what they had on them," said Tom Robinson, director of the RISE Foundation, which helps the most deprived refugees in the region. "For many, conditions are extremely rudimentary, and the vulnerable will be at significant risk."

Last year saw a dramatic escalation of the Middle East's refugee crisis. Syria's civil war sent another million fleeing across the country's borders—raising the UN tally to 3.1 million at the end of November. Up to 13 million Syrians and Iraqis have been displaced from their homes, as government, rebel, and jihadist forces duel over ever greater swaths of territory.

Edo and his family fled their home at the base of Mount Sinjar in August to escape the Islamic State jihadist group's lightning offensive from Syria into northern Iraq. After hiding out on the peak, they made their way to Newroz, where 5,000 people now camp out on a boulder-laden hillside.

Clutching his three pale children, Edo as he recounts how they escaped the genocidal grasp of the Islamic State. His family are Yazidis, an ancient sect with roots in Zoroastrianism. Islamic State fighters, who adhere to an extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam, consider them infidels and slaughtered at least several thousand over the summer.

"I had a business, I had a house, I had land, I had animals, but now we have nothing," Edo says, his voice rising. "Our women are all slaves, and we suffer in this camp. You see my hair? It's already gone white."

Winter's Challenges

Life is likely going to become only more difficult in the coming months. Families in Newroz, like tens of thousands of others, are almost entirely dependent on outside help to fulfill their most basic needs. Yet aid agencies are struggling to shelter, clothe and feed the homeless multitudes.

Interest in the conflict's human cost has waned after more than three years of violence, and reduced donations have forced some organizations to curtail their assistance to even the most destitute. In early December the UN's World Food Program (WFP) briefly suspended a voucher scheme that feeds 1.7 million displaced Syrians because it didn't have the $64 million it needed to sustain the program just through the end of the year.

On the ground, aid workers have other concerns. Trucks transporting blankets to the Bajet Kandala camp near the Tigris River, which marks a small part of the Syrian-Iraqi border, were held up for two days by impassable roads, according to Iraqi Kurdish officials. Doctors in Islamic State-controlled Mosul, where drugs are scarce and aid agencies are powerless to act, say an inordinately high number of babies have succumbed to pneumonia.

But aid agencies fear much worse could be in store if temperatures drop down to last year's lows, when the mercury hit -4℉ (-20℃) in the rugged Dohuk (or Dihok) governorate in northern Iraq.

The city of Dohuk and the surrounding foothills harbor at least 850,000 displaced people—the equivalent of the population of a new province—and many been overlooked by "winterization" programs intended to house refugees in more permanent structures.

"A lot of refugees are living in unfinished buildings or still in tents." said Tiril Skarstein of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which boosted its local budget from $5 million to $25 million. "People tell us their children are not able to sleep because of the weather."

New Threats of Illness

Resourceful refugees adapted to the summer's blistering temperatures, which often climb well above 104℉ (40℃) in the Tigris Basin. But winter's bleaker conditions make those in subpar accommodations especially vulnerable to disease.

Since the earliest months of the war, Asmaa el-Hassan has been squatting in a drab, mostly unfurnished classroom with pockmarked wall tiles on the top floor of a primary school in the city of Al Qamishli, about 40 miles west of the Newroz camp.

When the weather's warm, life for her three daughters and one son is just about tolerable. The school-age children have learned to drown out the shrieks of pupils skipping around the playground. They've also grown hardened to taunts about their homelessness. But with rain now seeping through the cracked, single-pane windows, maintaining basic hygiene and warding off sickness have become much more challenging.

"We have no washrooms. That is our shower," el-Hassan said, her nose running, as she gestured at a large bucket propped against a blackboard. "When it's cold—and it's always cold after November—it's almost impossible to clean yourself."

The demographics of the displaced within Syria make below-freezing temperatures even more burdensome. Many men are fighting or have fled to avoid conscription, and some have fled the country's collapsed economy, traveling far in pursuit of work. Others have been killed. The men who remain are the most vulnerable: old and frail or young and fragile.

Warmth Hard to Come By

Heating fuel has become much more difficult to acquire in northeast Syria.

The Islamic State has seized most of the roads leading to Al Qamishli and its environs. Turkey has refused to open the border to the area, which is home to many Kurds, for fear of emboldening its own Kurdish minority. The blockade has led to a fivefold increase in fuel prices.

Fuel cost 7 Syrian pounds (3 cents) a liter just before the war; it now costs around 32 pounds (17 cents)—and sometimes up to 80 (45 cents) on the black market. This is still much cheaper than gas in neighboring countries, but many people have less to spend as food prices rise with mounting transport costs.

"We eat first, and then if we have money left, we think about buying gas and more blankets," said Hadea, a Yazidi refugee who declined to give her surname, as she hefted two huge bales of possessions out of the river shuttle that traverses the border crossing. After waiting two months for permission, she had just arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan from Syria with her daughters, planning to join distant relatives in their village outside Dohuk.

Even those who can afford fuel face new challenges. With the pipeline from local oil wells to distant coastal refineries now cut off, much of the kerosene in Syria's northeast has been haphazardly refined by hand.

"The fuel has so many impurities that it's become very bad and often explodes. This is what happened to my relative," said Bave Talaz, a Syrian Kurdish refugee coordinator. In November, he lost a cousin in Al Hasakah to an explosion of dodgy heating fuel. He says residents in the disputed city—a key battlefront for the Kurds, regime forces, and jihadists—have suffered a rash of similar incidents as the weather has cooled.

A Dearth of Electricity

And then there are the frequent blackouts, which have become a fixture of Syrian and Iraqi life and are doubly debilitating in winter's short daylight hours.

"We have 1.5 million extra people, but production is the same as before," said Safeen Dizayee, the Kurdistan Regional Government's chief spokesman. Average electricity output in the semiautonomous area has dropped from 22 hours a day to 15 hours a day.

The situation is significantly worse across the border, where the Islamic State remains a constant threat and has made life increasingly difficult, even in areas it does not control.

"Before the war our electricity came from Ar Raqqah, but when they came, they cut us off," said Abdulrahman Hemo, a senior official in the Syrian Kurdish administration that effectively governs the region from Amuda, the next town over from Al Qamishli.

Without electricity from Ar Raqqah, which has become the jihadists' main base, the canton's production of 150 megawatts meets only about a third of its needs.

In better times residents used generators to plug the electricity gaps and to keep their businesses running after sunset. But fuel costs and the expense of new generators have thrust many Syrians—displaced and local alike—into darkness after dusk.

In Newroz the effect is obvious. By 7 p.m. the camp is almost entirely black. Only from a few tents do flickers of light emanate.

Unprepared for Winter

In most conflict zones, fighting slacks off in snowy months. But that's not the case with the Islamic State, said Halgurd Hikmat, information director of the Ministry of Peshmerga, which presides over the Iraqi Kurdish army. "They're crazy, they're on drugs, so they don't feel the cold."

No let up in the killing seems imminent. And despite the Peshmerga's reconquest of most of the Sinjar area, which might allow some Yazidis to return home, the ranks of the displaced are swelling. (See "Half of Syrians Displaced: 5 Takeaways From New UN Report.")

The Syrian Kurdish administration appears to be doing what it can to help those in need, but with constant jihadi attempts to make inroads into its territory, it's directing most of its limited resources to its own militias. Buying four big emergency generators at a cost of $1.5 million each seems to be the sum total of its winterization plans.

Security concerns mean most aid agencies won't operate in Syria—and those that do won't even acknowledge that they're present. Local refugee relief coordinators are struggling to scrounge basic winter necessities, such as an eighth water-tanker delivery each day to Newroz.

"They need more water to wash the mud from their clothes, but the money is hard to find," said Nave Delovan, one of six men from nearby Al Malikiyah (Derik in the Kurdish language) who are trying to meet the needs of camp inhabitants.

As if things couldn't get worse, the Yazidis have also been forced to disregard a cultural taboo. They usually refrain from wearing blue, and yet some have been housed in bright aquamarine UN tents. On this issue, Muhsin Edo can just about see the humor. "We just asked them not to bring us blue clothes," he says with a half smile.

But with his youngest daughter bouncing on his knee, he grows serious. "My life is finished, but we hope to find a future for our children. They have no future if they stay here," he said. "Send our message to the outside. The international powers must give help."

Follow Peter Schwartzstein on Twitter.

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