Harsh winter hits overwhelmed refugee camps

Some men sold clothes to fellow refugees in the Zaatari camp. It is one of the largest camps for Syrians in the region.
Some men sold clothes to fellow refugees in the Zaatari camp. It is one of the largest camps for Syrians in the region.

ZAATARI, Jordan — The water has mostly been removed from hundreds of flooded tents and the dirt paths that ran between them here in the region’s vastest camp of Syrian refugees. The clotheslines are laden with soggy sweaters and socks, waiting for the sun after a week of harsh wind, rain, and snow.

The residents are waiting, too: for the next winter storms and, many fear, for their own demise.

“We were waiting for our deaths so we came out, but we found our second deaths here,’’ said a man who identified himself as Abu Tarik from the Dhulash family. He said he arrived in the Zaatari refugee camp 10 days ago after intense shelling near his home across the border in Daraa, Syria.


‘‘There, we were going to die from the fires,’’ he said, sitting on a floor mat surrounded by a dozen family members. ‘‘Here we’re going to die from the cold. We don’t want to die in this tent.’’

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With aid agencies expecting the number of Syrian refugees to reach 1 million this year, and estimates for the cost of caring for them topping $1 billion, the misery in this struggling six-month-old camp is part of a deepening humanitarian crisis that threatens to further destabilize the Middle East.

More than half a million people who have already fled Syria have ended up in camps and villages across Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, all of which have asked for more international aid.

Last week was the worst yet in Zaatari, as scores of tents collapsed under the most severe storm in 20 years. Two infants and a 22-year-old amputee died, all of unrelated causes. Several aid workers were injured when a riot broke out during food distribution.

Life began to return to normal on Friday, but normal in this desert camp of 9 square miles crowded with more than 50,000 people is, according to the refugees and even some of those running the place, somewhere between horrible and inhumane.


‘‘There’s no silver lining on such harsh conditions,’’ acknowledged Andrew Harper, the top official of the United Nations refugee agency in Jordan. ‘‘It’s just a really, really bad place to be.’’

But Harper said the UN and the nonprofit groups helping it run the camp were doing the best with what they had, noting that the agency had appealed for $245 million to absorb Syrians regionwide in 2012 and received $157 million.

Jordan, already consumed with an intense financial crisis and growing protest movement, is scrambling to keep up with the continued influx.

Zaatari is only the most visible challenge. Nearly five times as many refugees are living in Jordanian cities and villages.

Some relief is coming. Anmar Hmoud, who is handling the Syria file for the prime minister, said a new camp, financed by the United Arab Emirates, would open in two weeks, allowing 6,000 of Zaatari’s most vulnerable residents to move into prefabricated homes, and eventually growing to accommodate 30,000.