2014: A Dire Year for Syrian Refugees


CARE aid worker Johanna Mitscherlich looks back on 12 months of working with Syrian refugees – and pays tribute to their resilience and the small acts of humanity that can make a big difference.

January: Snow Storms, 2.2 million Syrian refugees, failed Peace Talks and no room for donor fatigue

Shortly before the New Year, winter had well and truly hit the Middle East. Storms cause torrential rain and snow. Refugees are facing the cold in terrible conditions, dressed in summer clothing, sleeping in makeshift tents or run-down apartments, with little protection from the cold. At the same time, the second round of peace talks in Geneva fails and rallying support from international donors during the Kuwait II pledging conference remains a challenge.

February: UN resolution on cross-border aid access and portraits of despair from Yarmouk Camp

A picture of thousands of people queuing to receive UN food parcels in Yarmouk Camp in Syria shocks the world and captures the desperation of millions of people. I remember what Ali Sandeed, Syrian refugee and volunteer for CARE’s partner organisation DPNA in Lebanon, told me about his friends and family who are still living in Yarmouk Camp: “The last time I talked to them they were closed in and bombs were dropped on them constantly. They cannot leave the camp, cannot buy food, clean water or medication.” What seems promising: The 15-member Security Council achieves rare unity in unanimously approving a resolution to demand rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access in Syria.

March: Third anniversary of the Syria Crisis and running 242 km through the desert

Together with colleagues from Jordan, Lebanon, Kenya and Syrian refugee volunteers, I participated in the 17th “Dead to Red” Marathon. We run 242 kilometres from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea without sleeping, through darkness, sand storms and the desert. We drew our energy from one single goal: drawing attention to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.  As we can hardly call ourselves professional marathon runners, no one believed we would be able to make it in 24 hours. But guess what? We made it in 22 hours and 23 minutes and raised more than 25,000 USD for CARE’s Syria Response!

April: 1 million refugees in Lebanon

The month of April starts with a bleak milestone: The number of refugees fleeing from Syria into neighbouring Lebanon passes the 1 million mark (the entire population of my home town Cologne) and Lebanon becomes the country with the highest capita concentration of refugees worldwide. I have talked to many refugees in Lebanon, each of them carrying a story of suffering and despair. But when I hear the news, my thoughts are with Basilah, who lives in a makeshift tent in the Mount Lebanon region. Last winter she told me that she wakes up at night to check on her grandchildren every other hour and how she panics when they don’t move, thinking that they have frozen to death.

May: a new camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan

In May, hundreds of refugees reach Azraq refugee camp, which was newly opened in Jordan. The new camp can accommodate up to 130,000 refugees and is supposed to take pressure off Za’atari refugee camp. In Azraq, I meet Nada a day after she arrived with four of her children. For the first time in three years she slept through the night, finally feeling safe again. Nada lost a baby and her husband when her house was hit by a bomb. She tells me that she sometimes cannot breathe and is afraid of suffocating, because she misses them so much. Her children are now attending CARE’s playing group and psychosocial activities. A few weeks later, my colleagues tell me that she started volunteering with CARE and was able to buy new clothes for her children, so they don’t have to remain undressed while she is washing their only set of clothes. Syrian refugees here in Azraq Camp now start to build a community and many like Nada are now volunteering at CARE’s community centre.

June: Messages of Hope and a virtual press conference with refugees from Syria and Somalia

In June, we commemorate World Refugee Day. While almost three million Syrians have fled their home, two thousand miles away from Syria, almost 400,000 Somali refugees live in a camp called Dadaab in Kenya. Their culture, looks and language might differ, but they all share one sad reality: the loss of their home. CARE hosts  a virtual press conference with refugees from Syria in Jordan and Lebanon and refugees from Somalia in Dadaab. They discuss what it means to be a refugee; what it means to grow up in a refugee camp and told people throughout the world about their dreams and hopes. We also produce a short video for World Refugee Day, called “Messages of Hope” . Somali and Syrian refugees are exchanging warm words of encouragement, advice, hope and solidarity. A school teacher in Dadaab, who has been living there for 23 years, sums it up perfectly: “I wish that the celebration of World Refugee Day can come to an end.”

July: Celebrating the World Cup in Azraq Camp

Watching the World Cup 2014 was a little different for me than usually. I am cheering for Germany’s Mannschaft alongside Syrian refugees in Azraq camp, where CARE is showing most of the games in our community centres. And what a cheer that was!

August: The number of registered refugees reaches a staggering 3 million and the crisis in Iraq puts yet another strain on overstretched humanitarian capacities

In August, the record number of Syrian refugees reaches a new high: three million. At the same time, this staggering number is not nearly met with adequate funding and levels of support. The UN Appeal for the Syria Crisis, with a required amount of USD 4.2 billion, has only been funded 27 percent. For me, these are not just numbers, they are people: Women like 24-year old Sahab, who lives in a tent outside Jordan’s capital Amman and is expecting her second child. She wishes for nothing more but to raise her children in a place that she calls home.I think of young boys like Aboud who have to work instead of going to school and fathers like Zyad, who worked every single day for over 20 years to build his house and send his children to school. He has lost everything in one single day.

In late August, I am also part of an assessment mission to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq where more than 700,000 Iraqis have been displaced. I speak with people who live in schools, churches, unfinished buildings, in parks and in municipal buildings. Many of them had to hide for days in the mountains; children died out of thirst and daughters and wives were raped or kidnapped. The local community, aid organisations and the UN are scaling up – but the unexpected influx of hundreds of thousands of people puts major strains on the existing capacities.

September: School starts in Azraq refugee Camp and the start of the Kobane Crisis

Tens of thousands of refugees cross the border from Syria to Turkey, fleeing from Kobane. My colleagues in CARE Turkey react immediately and distribute mattresses, blankets, heaters and other items as needed. At the same time, the first school year ever begins in Azraq Camp in Jordan, with some children returning to school for the first time in years. Ahmad, 10, tells me: “I have not been to school for three years because of the war. I have only been to school a few days in my life. There were always bombs and the school I was supposed to go to was destroyed. I want to learn how to write and make new friends. When I am older I want to become a doctor to heal the wounded.”

October: A powerful young woman and early marriages

During the first quarter of 2014, the rate of child marriages among Syrian refugees in Jordan had increased to 32 percent. In October, my paths cross with one of the most impressive young women I have ever met in my life. Muzoon, 16, lives in Azraq Camp and advocates for education and against early marriage. She tells me about the moment when she realised that there is nothing more important than education: “When we had to leave Syria, I could only take a small backpack with me. I had trouble deciding what I would put in there. My father came to my room while I was spreading all of my belongings on the ground and hysterically tried to make a choice. He put his arm around me and told me that it would not matter what I took with me. ‘All that you need is in there,’ he said and pointed at my forehead. ‘Whatever happens in life, the only thing that no one can take away from you is what you have in your head.’”

November: A dream for Syria

In celebration of Universal Children’s Day on 20 November, we organizea competition called “My Dream for Syria” in Azraq refugee camp. More than 90 Syrian children submit their own stories and paintings, illustrating their dreams for their home country and their individual stories of flight. These stories and pictures to me are strong reminders that we can never lose hope and that our support for Syrian refugees must never cease.  Seadra, 12, drew herself at a waterfall. She used bright colours for her painting to show how beautiful Syria is. I wish that there will be a day when the crisis in Syria ends and I can go to see this beautiful country these children love so dearly.

December: Drawing a dismal balance, but never giving up

The last month of the year starts with shocking news: The World Food Programme has been forced to suspend a critical food aid scheme for more than 1.6 million Syrian refugees because there simply is not enough money. Even before, many refugee mothers had already told me that they cannot afford more than one meal a day for their children. CARE’s emergency assistance in the region has so far also only been funded by 34 percent for the next two years.

Last December, I wrote a wish list for Syrian refugees and recorded their own wishes. Most of these wishes, unfortunately, did not come true. On the contrary, we have to draw a dismal balance: the situation for Syrian refugees has deteriorated and their needs are now higher than ever before. When I am leaving the Middle East shortly before Christmas, I hope that my colleagues in the region and around the world will not give up, despite all the challenges. I hope that they will keep shouting as loud as possible. We owe it to the millions of Syrians who are in desperate need of support to make it through the next day. And as unrealistic as it might sound, my wish list this year remains the same: Peace for Syria….