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What is Becoming of Syrian Families Fleeing East Aleppo?

Jibreen Refugee Center, SW of Aleppo

Events as of December 11 are unfolding fast here while the shelling of East Aleppo continues unabated despite the repeated assurances of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, including yesterday on the sidelines of a European foreign ministers meeting in Germany: “I can tell you that today, combat operations by the Syrian army have positively been halted in eastern Aleppo because there is a large operation underway to evacuate civilians.” The oft-promised ceasefire is to allow for the evacuation of civilians trapped in the battle zone according to Mr Lavrov who claimed some 8,000 people would be taken out on December 8-9. Few here had much confidence in his words given all the false starts that produced nothing over the past year. Rebels in East Aleppo have also called for a truce to allow civilians to leave but both parties believe the other will use any pause to regroup for another round of fighting.

Moreover, despite Russian assurances, the bombing of East Aleppo has escalated as of December 10 after having eased for a few hours in the area. This morning a UN source emailed that 1000 people had been killed and up to 4000 injured during the past four weeks in the area under siege. During the same period rebel mortars have reportedly killed more than a dozen civilians in government controlled West Aleppo this past week.

Lavrov abruptly reversed himself, declaring that East Aleppo will continue to come under bombardment indefinitely and until there are no more rebels in the city. Announced Lavrov without taking reporters’ questions in Hamburg: “After a humanitarian pause, (the strikes) have resumed and will continue for as long as the bandits are still in Aleppo.” Lavrov told journalists meeting in Hamburg. This as his Ministry in Moscow claimed that 10,500 people, including 4,015 children have left eastern Aleppo in the past 24 hours. If so, there is no evidence supporting this statistics in the Jibreen Center SW of Aleppo where I am presently and where all who flee East Aleppo are immediately taken for “processing.”

While Lavrov and Kerry are once more in discussions on this subject it’s not clear if the Assad government will agree to a ceasefire other than on a surrender first basis. Some think it may have no choice in the matter given Russia’s political and military influence here but others claim that Iran and Syria will reject any Russian agreement penned with the USA and the regimes goal is total “liberation” of all of Aleppo.

That will likely happen within days even as ISIS reoccupies Palmyra because Russian and Syrian troops were ordered to leave Palmyra because they were needed in Aleppo. Meanwhile, Jan Egeland, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Syria in Geneva, said the parties to the conflict were poles apart on agreeing the terms of a ceasefire and the five months of negotiations over aid plans had all failed and produced “nothing”, adding that it was up to Moscow and Washington to agree a safe voluntary evacuation from east Aleppo.

Against this discouraging backdrop, most Syrian civilians fleeing East Aleppo are receiving some lifesaving aid from 12 Syrian volunteer student and civil society associations, UNICIF, WHO the UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Russia, Palestinian volunteers from their own nearby refugee camps of Neirab and the camp-based Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) among a few others.

For political reasons, Russia is making the key decisions regarding which NGO’s and which countries are allowed to participate in offering humanitarian aid to the fleeing civilians from the East. The message being conveyed by some Russian TV crews and journalists wandering the Jibreen Center grounds is that this is a Russian humanitarian undertaken (as was Palmyra and the Russian concert nice months ago in the ancient city’s Amphitheatre and that the EU and US among others are not welcomed.

But despite political point-scoring maneuvers, arrivals from East Aleppo are being helped and Russia deserves credit for its medical clinic and some food distribution although as noted below, much more help is urgently needed.

What do Syrian citizens arriving from East Aleppo most need to survive?

What refugees fleeing East Aleppo are most in need of as of December 11 at the Jibreen Center and the nearby Cotton Factory shelter and well as the village of Hanano where many are being transferred to include but are not limited to those described below. This summary is based on a three-day survey of residents and NGO’s undertaken by two volunteers from the Beirut, Nice and Washington, DC based

NGO, Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com.

Current needs of the internally displaced citizens include the following as patiently reported to me during interviews with arrivals from East Aleppo, Palestinian volunteers working here, and staffers from Syrian civil society associations.

They unanimously report that there is a great need for more sleeping bags, sleeping mats, blankets, mattresses, winter cloths, plastic sheets, fabric carpets of some sort for the frozen cement floors arrivals sleep on, jerry cans to fill with potable water, more nutrient supplementation, including fortified spread, high-energy biscuits and multiple micronutrients, rehabilitation of water storage tanks, kitchen sets, solar lamps as there is not much if any electricity, rubber boots given the frequent heavy rains, underwear kits, diapers, sanitary napkins, house cleaning kits, winter jackets, gloves, hats, scarfs, anti-lice shampoo.

The nutrition needs of arrivals from East Aleppo are acute given the long period without nutritious food. Women and children who constitute the majority of the East Aleppo arrivals have a poor nutrition status and are in urgent need of regular and sustained nutrition support. Nutrition screening reports on some of the arrivals from East Aleppo by two Syrian NGO mobile medical vans in Jibreen indicate that approximately 45% percent of the screened children have acute malnutrition while 35 percent of the screened pregnant women and lactating mothers have acute malnutrition.

A major urgent need is Education facilities for approximately 15,000 lovely children, between the ages of 3-17 years who survived the siege of their neighborhoods in East Aleppo risked their lives fleeing to West Aleppo. West Aleppo public schools cannot accommodate any of these 15,000 arrivals as they are already overcrowded according to local officials. Suspected “Revenge Politics” have been complained of in some rejections of students from East Aleppo while some West Aleppo Education officials lament for the media a lack of space— I am chagrined to report that one frustrated NGO staffer believes that Education has now become yet another ‘weapon of war’ added to the prevailing long list.

Very tragically most children arriving from East Aleppo have been out-of-schools for 3-5 years without any prior school certificates. In addition, a significant number of children with war caused disabilities are arriving daily. Secure learning spaces are rare due to damages and destruction of school building in nearby villages. Education related urgent needs include teachers, teaching material, school supplies, school desks, school bags, among others.

Risk education is needed for everyone arriving from East Aleppo to the two Centers, Jibreen and the Cotton Factory (see poster below). This urgent need is because rebels who occupied this area for more than two months have left more than a dozen kinds of booby-traps, IEDs etc. that have not as of yet all been discovered and removed by government Unexploded Ordnance sappers.

Other needs among those noted below include emergency care and protection arrangements for more than 3 dozen orphaned children and more than two dozen unaccompanied children form East Aleppo arriving over the past six weeks.

*Legal/political assistance for women who cannot register or prove their marriages and gain benefits because their husbands are reported missing. Some NGO’s claim that more than 700 men between the ages of 20-50 have disappeared at checkpoints while fleeing with their families;

*Child protection, legal support for gender-based violence (GBV), psychosocial support (PSS)

*Vocational training for women who have no husbands or other income sources;

*Psychological First Aid (PFA) activities is a big need for many arrivals at Jibreen because of surviving four years of brutal siege in East Aleppo;

There is an urgent need for medical assistive devices for many arrivals suffering from various war caused disabilities; There is need to strengthen immunization activities and a vaccination campaign. The UN World Health Organization (WHO) has arrived and is working on this. Adult literacy support is needed.

There is also an urgent need for a main sewage and water system at Jibreen and the Cotton Factory and an urgent need for rehabilitation of damaged houses in nearby Hanano where some “overflow” refugees are moving to become squatters until they can rebuild their own homes, if they ever can at all. Also Rehabilitation work is urgently needed on 76 of the 320 family rooms at Jibreen and the adjacent Cotton Factory;

As of December 11, Jibreen still hosts 7000 from East Aleppo with more arriving daily while its current capacity is less than 5,000, and IDPs in the adjacent Cotton Factory are arriving to quite bad conditions. Most available buildings are overcrowded or too damaged to safely shelter arrivals.

To date, only 200 households have moved from Jibreen to the nearby village Hanano, 80 percent of whom are not from the area and squat in partially damaged apartments, some in structurally unsound conditions. In West Aleppo, the 13 official shelters are stretched well beyond their capacity. Former receiving areas, such as 1070 and Ryiade, the only sites that could host large numbers from East Aleppo have been heavily damaged (40 per cent of building complex “1070” and 50 per cent of Ryiade). Badly bombed buildings on these sites need to be secured or demolished before any sheltering can happen. Close collaboration and advocacy is needed between the Governorate of Aleppo and the municipalities to clean the sites of all rubble and to conduct a thorough structural assessment of the damaged buildings.

In safe neighborhoods the rehabilitation of damaged houses of owners and tenants needs to be prioritized according to one UNICEF staffer organizing activities for arriving children. UNICEF has partnered with Palestinians from the nearby camp of Neirab in cooperation with their Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS). They conduct several activities from art, dancing, sports, give the children recreational kits etc. including providing nutritional snacks for the kids. A very impressive program organized and run by refugees from Palestine to help refugees from war-torn Syria.

Mahmoud whose family is from Nazareth, Palestine is one of many Palestinian Neirab camp volunteers at the Jibreen Center working with children arriving from East Aleppo. Mahmoud is proud to wear his Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) jacket. Art shown above was created by arriving East Aleppo children. Photo: 12/9/2016 by Nihad Roumieh.

In safe neighborhoods the rehabilitation of damaged houses of owners and tenants should be prioritized, where possible, according to UNICEF.

Syrian civil society volunteers, many being students at Aleppo University explained to me that there is a great need for more sleeping bags, sleeping mats, blankets, mattresses, winter cloths, plastic sheets, fabric carpets of some sort for the frozen cement floors which arrivals sleep on, jerry cans to fill with potable water, more nutrient supplementation, including fortified spread, high-energy biscuits and multiple micronutrients, rehabilitation of water storage tanks, kitchen sets, solar lamps as there is not much if any electricity, rubber boots given the frequent heavy rains, underwear kits, diapers, sanitary napkins, house cleaning kits, winter jackets, gloves, hats, scarfs, anti-lice shampoo Shelter kits and more one family tents are needed.

Residents of Jibreen and the adjacent Cotton Factory explained to this observer the urgent need for medical care for critically ill patients from east Aleppo needing treatment by advanced health care facilities for secondary and tertiary heath care.

The Nutrition needs of arrivals from East Aleppo are acute given the long period without nutritious food. Women and children who constitute the majority of the East Aleppo arrivals have a poor nutrition status and are in urgent need of regular and sustained nutrition support. Nutrition screening reports on some of the arrivals from East Aleppo by two Syrian NGO mobile medical vans in Jibreen indicate that approximately 45% percent of the screened children have acute malnutrition while 35 percent of the screened pregnant women and lactating mothers have acute malnutrition.

Another major urgent need is Education facilities for approximately 15,000 lovely East Aleppo children, between the ages of 3-17 years. West Aleppo public schools cannot accommodate any arrivals as they are already overcrowded according to local officials. Suspected “Revenge Politics” have been complained of in some of the rejections of students from East Aleppo while some Education officials lament for the media a lack of space–this observer is chagrined to report—on NGO staffer advised that Education has now become a ‘weapon of war’ being added to a prevailing long list. Very tragically most children arriving from East Aleppo have been out-of-schools for 3-5 years without any prior school certificates. In addition, a significant number of children with war caused disabilities are arriving daily. Secure learning spaces are rare due to damages and destruction of school building in nearby villages. Education related urgent needs include teachers, teaching material, school desks, and school bags.

In Jibreen and the adjacent Cotton Factory, clearing of rubbles is urgently required to allow the construction of prefabricated classrooms for immediate learning resumption.

As we all know the tragedy of East Aleppo ranks among the most brutal examples of man’s inhumanity to man recorded in modern history. But being with the Syrian people and learning of their intense patriotism and their fervent wish that the future for their beloved country be one of “Syria for the people of Syria” without outsiders’ hegemonic designs or presence one is encouraged. And we can only humbly wish them good luck and godspeed as they rebuild this hallowed cradle of civilization.

More articles by:

Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com. He is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com.

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