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Syrian refugees face winter misery

But even as they brace for the cold months ahead in Iraq, they have not lost their culture of hospitality.
Last modified: 30 Nov 2013 16:17

I'm not embarrassed, it's more than that. I'm not even humbled. It's more than that. I'm ashamed.

Ibrahim is probably 13 or 14 years old, he is not sure. He speaks a few words of English and has just bought me a bottle of water.  He's one of 14 thousand Syrians that live in this camp that rely on handouts and subsidence wages from manual labour to survive. 

Yet here he is, showing me a generosity and a spirit I see all over this camp. That bottle of water represents his holding on to his culture. A culture that insists guests should be treated with generous hospitality. For Ibrahim, I'm clearly a guest. "Welcome, welcome," he keeps on saying.

I accept the water and say: "Thank you". His smile stretches from ear to ear and for a couple of minutes we talk football in broken English.

I should have been humbled by his genorosity. I should have been embarrassed by it, but I'm not. I'm ashamed that he has to live in such vile conditions, I'm ashamed that Syria's conflict has dragged on for so long that he has to live in such squalor.  

And it's about to get worse. Winter is here that will bring bitter cold, harsh rains and extremely tough conditions.

'Winterising' camps

The aid agencies have tried to make this camp ready for that onslaught. Drains have been dug, plastic sheeting for tents have been put in place and warm clothing has been distributed. For the aid agencies, to use an ugly technical term, Kawergosk has been "winterised". A box has been checked.

But it's one thing preparing a camp for winter and quite another having to live through it. Aid workers, journalists and politicians can all go home in the evening. We don't have to bed down in a tent that during the night has near freezing winds billowing through it. We don't have to share a toilet with 20 others, with a stench so overpowering I saw a small child nearly hurl after she came out. 

You can't be too harsh on the agencies. They have done a sterling job in incredibly difficult circumstances. To set up a camp from scratch for 14,000 people is quite extraordinary.

When I was here in late summer, this camp was just being set up. In last three months the change is immense. There are rubbish trucks and sanitation vehicles. Running water taps and shops. In one part of the camp shawerma meat rotates as, after school, young girls and boys cue up for sandwiches. A barber shop blasts out music and a fruit sellers rearranges his fruit.

If you ignore the tents, you could be in a village in Syria.

But you can't ignore the tents. You, however, try and make do as many here have. Beyond the grim conditions there are smiles and moments of hope. As I walk around the camp I'm struck by how people have made the canvas tents home. Some entrances have little rock strewn pathways. Others have satellite dishes placed outside. There is electricity and a lot of the men have left here and work to send money back so their families can have some semblance of a normal life.

However, whatever home comforts you create, whatever kind of life you create, you live in a tent in a field with thousands of others and you have no idea when and if you'll ever go back to Syria.