Another winter is upon us in the Northern Hemisphere. While many across the country and the world have been following the U.S. presidential election and navigating holiday planning with COVID-19, we must not forget one corner of the Earth that will be enduring its ninth winter in the grip of war compounded with its first winter in a global pandemic. In April 2019, the Syrian Army and its Russian allies launched a major military campaign to take over Idlib, the northwest province of Syria. Although Syrian authorities claim they are ridding the area of rebel fighters and terrorists, extensive human rights documentation and media coverage have offered clear evidence that the Syrian regime is intentionally and systematically targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure.
The results for the people of Idlib have been catastrophic, and many times deadly, and while this is unsurprising in the context of the regime’s near decade-long war on the Syrian people, the situation in Idlib is becoming a humanitarian nightmare with ever-increasing human cost. Last winter, the Syrian Army escalated its offensive on Idlib forcing hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrian civilians to flee. By January 2020, an estimated 120,000 civilians had left their homes and by February, only one month later, that number had risen to nearly one million. A shaky ceasefire agreement between Russia and Turkey in March and periodic violations since have kept the region volatile and unsafe for return.
Most of the Idlib displaced have made harrowing journeys to the Syrian-Turkish border, the closest place out of the direct line of danger. Instead of finding relief, however, they have been left there in limbo to face new perils, including lack of shelter, food and necessities. Last winter was especially crippling. Many were forced to sleep in the open air in frigid winter temperatures without even tents for shelter. They did not have toilets or clean water, sufficient food, or adequate emergency medical care. Without enough nutrition to produce milk, mothers had to give their nursing infants herbal tea for sustenance. Desperate for relief from the cold, some refugees even reported burning old clothes and shoes for warmth.
Now, with another winter setting on the Syrian-Turkish border, not much has changed. In fact, it is only about to get harder. This winter will not be just “another winter” for Idlib’s refugees. This year, freezing temperatures and little shelter will be complicated by the risk of COVID-19. Idlib announced its first case of the novel Coronavirus in July. Others have followed, and the aid community now warns of a harsh COVID winter for refugee populations in Idlib and elsewhere. It is difficult, if not impossible, to implement preventative sanitation and social distancing measures in both formal and informal refugee camps given the immense lack of resources and over-crowdedness. Moreover, there are an extremely limited number of medical facilities, doctors, nurses and medical supplies, much less ICUs and ventilators specifically needed for COVID patients.
The hardships that Idlib refugees have already faced—and are preparing to face— should drive each and every one of us to ask ourselves: what will we do to help ease their pain even a little bit this winter? If we were part of the silence in the past, now is the time to take action. If we have long been active in condemning the attacks on civilian lives and supporting their humanitarian needs, now is the time to do more. We have an individual and collective responsibility to help the innocent Syrian men, women and children who only want to live peacefully and contribute positively, but have had their lives shattered by forces beyond their control.
A number of relief organizations coordinate winterization programs that focus on raising funds for winter supplies direly needed for refugees and others similarly situated this time of year. Helping Hand for Relief and Development’s Winter Provision program is one such program. It provides winter packages containing essentials such as gloves, blankets, jackets, nonperishable foods and more to families struggling to stay safe and warm this winter. Their international teams work tirelessly to ensure refugees, widows, orphans, the elderly and those living in unimaginable poverty receive high quality items to ensure their safety and dignity.
Supporting these efforts is the least we can do, and while immediate humanitarian response is critical, we must also push for long-term solutions to the Idlib crisis, and the refugee crisis at large. In a silver lining of the Coronavirus pandemic, many non-profits are creating more opportunities to gain awareness and support their work remotely, so donating our skills and expertise, time and social media space are all ways we can keep the conversation about these important issues going.
As we plan ways to help from the comfort, safety and warmth of our homes this winter, let us keep in our hearts and minds the Idlib refugees, and the many others around the world who are preparing to face months of unbearable cold and the risk of Coronavirus with little or no protection.
Bio: Ola Mohamed has been with the firm of Aljijakli, Kosseff & Prendergast, LLC for nearly six years, first as a legal fellow and then as an immigration attorney Of Counsel. She has worked on a number of Syrian asylum cases and volunteers with organizations that support refugees in the U.S. and abroad.
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