A displaced family prepares an evening meal at a shelter near Homs. The humanitarian situation continues to worsen in Homs – which has been a site of protracted violence during the conflict, forcing many residents to flee.
By Abdulkadir Musse, UNICEF Senior Emergency Specialist
A visit to an area outside Homs where many residents have fled reveals the desperation of families caught amid the Syrian conflict, and the enormous challenge of providing emergency assistance.
HOMS, Syrian Arab Republic, 14 October 2013 – An eerie calm descends over Al Waer, an outer suburb of Homs, as we enter an area that is home to some 400,000 people caught in the middle of conflict.
I am with a humanitarian assessment mission that includes the World Food Programme (WFP), the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the UN Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS), the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and UNICEF.
Al Waer has been the scene of regular shelling over the past two weeks. Some areas are watched over by snipers, making it extremely hazardous in certain areas. To gain access for UN staff, permission had to be obtained from all parties involved. The shelling effectively stopped during our three-hour visit, a brief respite for the local residents.
After we left, the calm was shattered with the sounds of renewed shelling.
When the crisis began in Homs, many families fled, seeking shelter in Al Waer, which at the time was a quiet place on the northwestern outskirts of the city. As the fighting spread, however, Al Waer was flooded with displaced families, who now represent around half the residents, or 200,000 people.
The area is largely sealed off, with severe restrictions of movement in and out – including access for humanitarian personnel and supplies.
Since my last mission here in May, it is clear that more buildings have been destroyed. Garbage accumulates in the streets. Children are covered with insect bites. Essential services – health care and education – have deteriorated.
A doctor examines an infant at a shelter for displaced people in Homs. UNICEF-supported mobile medical teams are providing critical care amid the disintegration of health services.
One hospital managed by a local partner was full of patients five months ago. Today it is on the verge of shutting down. Its director told me that the number of mothers coming for delivery services has dropped by about 70 per cent. Medical supplies are limited. A third of the staff have left the area, while remaining staff are hardly able to get to work.
UNICEF supports two mobile health teams that visit shelters daily, providing medical assistance and assessing the nutritional status of children. Around 72,000 children have been reached since the teams started work in March.
Children’s education is badly affected. Of the 11 schools in Al Waer that used to support 70,000 children, 10 of them are being used as shelters for displaced families. The one operating school, which serves around 2,000 children, also devotes some of its limited classroom space to emergency accommodation.
Classes that do run are overcrowded. A church basement caters for a further 500 students. Other children learn in the yards or open verandas of schools, where they are exposed to the increasingly cold temperatures and the risk of stray bullets – some students have already been wounded.
In the shelters, UNICEF supports remedial education classes, linked to psychosocial support, for children in grades 1 to 6 to catch up on missed learning.
A crowded space
To help reduce classroom overcrowding and provide more children the opportunity to learn, UNICEF is negotiating with local partners to construct temporary learning spaces. In addition, 13 prefabricated classrooms are on their way to the area.
Although most displaced people in Al Waer live with host families or in rented apartments, around 13,000 displaced people rely on the 38 collective shelters set up in schools and tower blocks.
Children attend a remedial class, held inside a building sheltering displaced families in Homs. UNICEF-supported remedial education helps children to bridge learning gaps caused by interrupted school attendance.
I visited a shelter in an unfinished building. Conditions are basic but clean. Some rooms are partitioned with plastic sheeting, where up to eight people sleep on mats on the floor. Many windows and doors are open to the outside, a serious concern with the approach of winter.
Children I spoke to in a UNICEF-supported recreation class said that they ran to the basement whenever they heard the sound of shelling.
The biggest concern for mothers I met was the safety of their children amid the shelling. This particular shelter is close to the front lines and could be hit anytime. Winter was another major issue, with a need for children’s winter clothing.
“How are we going to keep the children clean during winter if there is no hot water?” one mother asked.
UNICEF-supported emergency assistance in Al Waer is provided through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and partner NGOs that demonstrate an incredible commitment to humanity. Their workers risk their lives daily to get vital help to children in need. The health teams, for example, have come under fire four times in the last month alone. Just a few days ago, the office of one of our partners in Al Waer was hit by a rocket. Fortunately no one was hurt, but computers and vital records were destroyed, putting the programme work in jeopardy.
Al Waer presents extraordinary challenges to the provision of emergency assistance, but we and our partners are committed to helping children make it through such desperate situations.