"We would even eat the grass when everything else ran out"
In Al-Hol camp in Syria Muhammad finds respite from months of living amid conflict
Twelve-year-old Muhammad arrived at Al-Hol camp after three days of travelling in the back of a truck from Baghouz, near Syria’s eastern border. “We slept on the open truck bed, cramped together with nothing to keep us warm or dry from the rain,” says Muhammad who was travelling with his three siblings and parents.
He and his family are some of the 63,000 displaced people who, since December last year, took the exhausting 300-kilometre journey to Al-Hol camp fleeing violence in Hajin, Susa and Baghouz villages.
In less than four months, the camp went from hosting some 10,000 people to hosting more than 73,000 people; almost twice the planned capacity of the camp.
Since their arrival six weeks ago, Muhammad’s family has been living in one of the large shared tents in the camp while ongoing efforts continue to increase the number of family-sized tents. With thousands of people arriving weekly, humanitarian actors in the camp were barely able to increase available services and space quickly enough.
Nevertheless, for Muhammad, the conditions in the camp feel better than what he had witnessed in Baghouz.
“Most of the houses back in Baghouz were destroyed. We had to dig pits in the ground and live inside them. We covered the pits with canvas to protect us from rain and cold,”
For thousands of children, the sustained lack of access to safe water, nutrition and other essential services for many years meant that children arriving at the camp were in very poor health.
“For months we drank water straight from the Euphrates river. All we had to eat was barley and bulgur. We would even eat the grass when everything else ran out. I was very afraid of the shelling, I wouldn’t know where to hide when it started.”
At the camp, UNICEF is supporting one fixed and three mobile health clinics to ensure 24-hour primary health care and nutrition support is provided for Muhammad and thousands of children arriving from Baghouz, including referrals to the nearby hospital when necessary.
UNICEF is also supporting six child-friendly spaces and two mobile teams to provide some respite to around 12,000 children through various recreational activities and child protection services. “There were no games or any fun activities for us in Baghouz,” says Muhammad. “Here it’s better. We play football in a yard in front of our tents and sometimes we participate in activities with volunteers.”
Muhammad’s journey to Al-Hol was only one in a series of displacements starting from his home in Aleppo city six years ago. Today after fleeing the recent violence in Baghouz, Muhammad still remembers better days. “I was in first grade when we fled Aleppo. I still remember my classmates. That year was the best time of my life.”
For children like Muhammad, bringing back some normalcy into their lives, helping them reclaim their childhood and making up for years of lost education remains one of the pressing challenges beyond ensuring their physical wellbeing.
Around 63,000 newly arrived people in Al-Hol camp accessed lifesaving services provided by UNICEF and partners. Over the past months, more than 12,600 children under-five were vaccinated, 21,300 children aged 6 - 59 months have been screened for malnutrition, 265 children with severe acute malnutrition and medical complications were referred to hospital, 12,000 children received child protection services and 458 unaccompanied and separated children were identified.
In addition, more than 62 million litres of water are being delivered to the camp by UNICEF and WASH partners, 12,327 family hygiene kits and 28,202 winter clothes kits have been distributed to new arrivals. 1,000 school-aged children accessed self-learning programmes and UNICEF is expanding its partnerships to reach up to 5,000 children in total by mid-May 2019.