Cold weather has officially arrived in the refugee camps. I’ve been here in the cold many times, but it’s still hard to face the icy chill. Cold days are long, but nights are even worse. We make our way through the pass to the valley camps below, as the snow line creeps ever closer to the plastic shelters.
It’s in the 20s this morning. With every step the ground crunches under my feet, the aftermath of overnight freezing rain and low temperatures. The cold takes my breath away and stings my lungs. I wear three layers with a coat and stocking hat, wishing I had remembered to pack my gloves. As the morning sun rises, the brittle path begins to thaw into soggy, muddy slush. It smells bad – worse than I remember.
I’m soon met by the familiar faces of children who, upon seeing me, break into a sprint and race to me with giggling excitement. I can see their breath dance in the morning light as they run in my direction. They clasp my hand with tiny, cold fingers as we walk down the path leading to their camp; hundreds of plastic shelters in fields just a few minutes from the Syrian border. Little Aida squeezes my hand and asks, “Aunty, are you coming to my house today?” I smile. “Yes, I am.” With squeals of delight she takes off running ahead of me.
We walk along the trash river, which looks a bit cleaner now; high water has washed away mounds of garbage. Across the river I observe a young girl bundled up in a heavy coat, crouching near a small trash-fire she has built in an attempt to boil water. She waives and smiles as she grabs a discarded, ratty shoe and tosses it into the smoldering pit. The familiar smoke assaults my senses, and I pray a silent “Dear Jesus” prayer that the young girl will be protected from the toxic fumes. It’s a sobering picture of just how hard life is and how much we have yet to do.
Walking hand-in-hand, we continue to navigate the narrow path between tents as children show me how to straddle running, open sewers that can no longer be contained. I stare at the sprawling maze of tents and improvised plastic shelters that stretch out before me. The situation here is dire; tents are lined with pots to catch the constant drip of water that seeps through the tarp-covered shanties. Water sources are contaminated by trash and feces. Refugees in this camp have been diagnosed with tuberculosis, pneumonia, scabies, and a myriad of respiratory and GI illnesses. I hear the telltale congested cough of little ones as they walk beside me. They don’t seem to notice.
It’s raining heavier now and I hurry my steps as we trek across the muddy clearing to Aida’s tent where I greet her father with the customary nod holding my hand to my chest, then I embrace her mother. I remove my muddy boots, trying to wiggle my numb toes, as I look around to find a dry place to sit in the small square space. No one removes their coat; as damp cold permeates the space.
When it rains, water leaks through the plastic rooftops, soaking everything. I watch as the plunk of another splash hits the tin pot on the floor just next to me. I hold my hand, palm up, to catch the next drip as we begin to talk about the dreary weather that seems to magnify their misery. “It rained all night and we couldn’t find a dry place to sleep.” We also talk with concern about the snow that will soon arrive.
The damp, cold conditions facilitate germs that spread disease and diarrhea. Aida’s one-year-old sister has a high fever; another child seems to be wheezing from an asthma-related or respiratory illness. I’m glad we have been able to sponsor a full-time doctor in this area, who often sets up a “mobile clinic,” to help; a fancy term for turning a tent into a treatment room so sick refugees don't have to walk to the clinic in the dreary weather.
It’s a cruel season where children are always sick with colds and flu; many without even a warm winter coat. Yesterday I watched as families made their way to the clinic in down-pouring rain. Shivering from the wet cold, young and old alike brave the elements to get help; mothers carrying babies bundled in blankets with worried expressions on their faces. As they arrive, I input patient data into the computer. I ask, “Which family member is sick?” and without fail, every family says, “We are all sick”. They are highly susceptible to pneumonia. Simple treatments at the clinic help prevent tragedy. Many require nebulizer treatment to ease their breathing, while others need antibiotics to help their bodies fight infections. Refugees overcome insurmountable obstacles and without doubt, winter is the toughest time.
Sitting with Aida’s family, we laugh and drink tea. We tell stories and I ask what they miss most from home. They speak of simple times before the war; pushing kids on swings in the park, weekly meals with extended family; a community where they belong - where they were without the stigma of the “refugee” title. The older children, the ones who remember home, speak of missing friends and school. Almost all mention missing the “smell” of home. At first, I find it an odd statement, but realize that I too acquaint “home” in the northwest with smells of damp, earthy pine trees.
I stand to say goodbye and hug Aida’s mother with the promise to visit again soon. The food we leave behind will feed her family for nearly a month. They are overjoyed. I walk the path back to the car, children in tow. I stare at the slushy mush around my boots, as rain beats down on my shoulders. I can’t imagine living in these conditions day after day, and many have now endured in this camp for five, long years. I try to remember what I was doing in 2012 as I reach the car and waive a final goodbye.