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Responding to an historic snowstorm in NW Syria’s refugee settlements

A recent winter storm had a devastating effect on internally displaced people in northwest Syria, with 2.7 million people living in about 1,400 informal settlements. Aided by donors, CARE Turkey rapidly responded to the crisis, while undertaking advocacy working in favor of more dignified shelter solutions for IDPs. Accompanied by photography, Sherine Ibrahim, CARE Turkey country director, shares the challenges faced recently in the part of the world, while pointing to better long-term solutions.

All photos: Syria Relief/CARE

“For the last 11 years, since the start of the Syrian refugee crisis, people have moved multiple times and are now primarily living in tents in the northwest of Syria. The recent winter storm that hit these settlements was unanticipated, and un-planned-for. Many estimate that it’s the worst to hit in the last 50 years.

“We have been calling for a more dignified, sustainable options for temporary shelter. After 11 years of the Syrian crisis, tents cannot be the option we rely upon.”

Sherine Ibrahim

“The majority of inhabitants of these settlements – some 80 percent – are women and children.

“When we’ve spoken to those we serve, many of the women have said to us that they have had to remove snow with their bare hands from the top of the tents. They’ve had to use and borrow shovels. Some of them have also had to move to neighbors’ tents after their tents collapsed.

“Responding can be challenging because access to these informal settlements is not always in our hands. Sometimes that is down to weather and conditions. Sometimes, authorities operating in these locations prevent access to these areas due to the dangers they may pose to humanitarian workers. This means we have had situations, even when our supplies are in our warehouses, where we are unable to reach those most in need.

“Speaking of challenging conditions, this is one of the muddy roads. It’s difficult to access unless you have a very well-equipped car and the necessary approvals.

“Our definition of ‘shelter' must be broader than just a structure."

Sherine Ibrahim

“This is a tent that has collapsed and is not usable anymore, so the family has had to move and crowd in with others. Thousands have experienced this over the course of the last couple of weeks. We know that about 10,500 tents were destroyed or damaged. A single damaged tent can impact 5-7 family members, including children, multiplying the problem of shelter.

“This is what many of the tent clusters look like: no roads, no easy access, very hard to carry winter supplies.

“One of the major issues for us this year was heating. Unfortunately, we know that three children, three babies, froze to death this year. And we also know that a couple of these tents were destroyed because the tents went up in flames when fires, lit for warmth, got out of control.

“So what has CARE done? Thanks to the generous support of three of our major donors – USAID’s Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance, the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), and the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we were able to immediately trigger our rapid response mechanism. Over the course of the harsh winter weeks, we were able to reach almost 70,000 people with non-food-item (NFI) kits and hygiene kits. In addition, we distributed cash when it was possible, as well as ready-to-eat kits for those who had moved and didn’t have any cooking utensils. We also provided shelter support in the form of new tents.

That said, CARE’s advocacy work is leading us away from tents as the only solution for displaced people. As the co-lead of the shelter NFI cluster with the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), CARE has been calling for more dignified shelter options for internally displaced persons. CARE has been advocating for replacing temporary tents by suggesting more dignified shelter options that can be set up for IDPs, as well as helping affected communities through better livelihood opportunities and basic services.

“After 11 years of the Syrian crisis, tents cannot be the option we rely upon. While storms as big as this one are rare, winter comes every year, and tents get damaged and destroyed. Even under good conditions, tents will not last longer than two years, so they need to be replaced. So this solution is not cost-effective.

What we are asking of donors – now and well into the future – is that if they want to see people live in dignity, even in temporary housing, we must have other, more dignified shelter options that are not tents. The shelter NFI cluster has proposed a few other models that are viable alternatives.

At the same time, our definition of ‘shelter’ must be broader than just a structure. The measure of success is whether we have a structure along with a comprehensive set of services, such as a school, a protection center for women, and livelihood options.

Right now, for us not enough to us to just build four walls. Because if women are not able to leave those four walls to access incomes, or to get to a safe space for protection, it is just a structure, not a true shelter.”

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