BAB AL SALAMA CAMP, Syria — Fatima, an 80-year-old Syrian refugee stands in front of the tattered remains of her tent in this camp for internally displaced persons near the border with Turkey. She watched her home burn down late last month after the diesel stove she uses to keep warm set the nylon tarp of her tent on fire. Fatima blames bad fuel, which is smuggled in from oil fields controlled by the so-called Islamic State. “They mix it with other things,” she says angrily. Charred tents and third degree burns are now a common sight in this makeshift city.
Bab al Salama is one of Syria’s many internally displaced person (IDP) camps. It was first established to serve as a temporary refuge for people who fled the fighting in other parts of the country. But with the conflict entering its fifth year, the camp has become a permanent home for many Syrians with nowhere else to go.
The conditions here are notoriously unsanitary and this particularly cold winter has put the 20,000 residents at high risk of death by exposure. Additionally, the weather has caused the camp to flood with mud and sewage. Skin infections are common, and typhoid fever has become a serious danger due to infected water. Children are especially vulnerable.
Fadel, age two, runs around without pants because there aren’t any diapers for him. He treks through the icy and dirty water without any protection; his tiny legs and the naked lower half of his body are slick with freezing mud. His family is from Aleppo, but he was born here in the camp. Fadel is typical of a generation of Syrian children who are growing up vulnerable to the elements and without any concept of what peacetime life looks like.
The body count from exposure is shocking and steadily rising. According to camp director Mohammed Kelani, two adult women and four children died from exposure in February. A baby drowned in a sewage pit earlier in the year.
“When people die here, we drive them to a cemetery two kilometers down the road where we bury them,” said Kelani, who has a broad range of concerns for the residents but emphasizes the urgency of the freezing temperatures. “The cold is the biggest problem now, but there are so many other problems. The children can’t get education. The water is dirty, and there are diseases.”
Most residents of the camp rely on improvised diesel, gas, or wood heaters in their nylon tents to fight off the freezing weather. These stoves keep the cold at bay, but present significant fire hazards. Strong winds frequently knock the stoves over, setting tents on fire. This happens at an alarming rate. This problem disproportionately affects the elderly and those with disabilities.
Hussein, 15, lives with and looks after his neighbor Adnan. Adnan is a middle-aged man with developmental disabilities, who accidentally burned down his tent a couple of weeks ago. Adnan managed to escape with only minor injuries but remains unable to care for himself. He is fortunate to have found a kind and compassionate young neighbor to look after him and ensure his safety. Due to the lack of sufficient foreign aid, camp residents rely on each other for survival, with young residents often taking on the greatest responsibilities.
Fighting the cold is now central to the bizarre economy of Bab al Salama. Jamal, 15, sells fuel out of two oil drums in a small tent. Tiny fuel stations like this one have sprung up all over Syria, and despite his young age, Jamal has already been selling diesel for two and a half years. He makes about five dollars per day for his family—a very high income by Bab al Salama standards. “It’s not a good job, but we have to work,” he says with a shrug as his younger brother shows off a third degree burn he received in an accident involving a diesel heater. Jamal is aware of the risks involved in using diesel stoves but he emphasizes that the heaters are safer than the wood fires that less fortunate residents often use.
Like all the residents of Bab al Salama, Kelani is frustrated by the palpable indifference of the international community. There are thousands of people here, and the United Nations Refugee Agency believes there are some 6.5 million displaced persons throughout Syria. Only about half receive assistance.
In Bab al Salama many of the people have no proper documentation, which means Turkey, so close yet so far, will not let them cross legally. There are also a lot of women and children in the camp, several of whom say they are unwilling to go to Turkey because they don’t have any relatives there and many refugees end up living in the streets. Despite all the dangers many still prefer to risk the elements in their own country.
“The situation here is tragic and nobody cares,” says Kelani. As camp director, he believes that much of the suffering from cold could be addressed with relatively minimal cost. “The best solution would be prefabricated structures so that the wind will not be such a problem. The Syrian case will take a long time. We will probably be here for at least two more winters and we need a solution. This winter will be over soon, but we need help preparing for the next one.”
“I want the international community to think of us as humans and not animals—to ask themselves if they could survive here for two hours,” says Kelani. “We love our country. We don’t want to leave. Just help us find solutions here.”