“Life in refugee camps in winter reflects the catastrophe of lives of refugees the world over,” said Abu Ahmed. “Crowded shelters with no ventilation, unemployment, insecurity.” Abu Ahmed is a 52-year-old father from Tulkarm camp in the northern West Bank. The camp community was left reeling last week after a house fire took the life of baby Siraj, aged just four months old. The fire started in little Siraj’s room, probably caused by the heater left there to keep him warm. “It was so smoky that we couldn’t find the baby. By the time we did, it was too late,” Siraj’s father says.
This fire in Tulkarm camp is indicative of how winter dangers in Palestine refugee camps come in many guises. A lack of central heating means heaters with open flames are common; consequently, so too are house fires. The apartment building where Siraj died housed 16 members of an extended family, with each nuclear family sharing one room. All are now homeless, and being hosted by neighbours.
Nowhere across the region have Palestine refugees escaped unscathed from the winter storm dubbed ‘Huda’ (‘Zeina’ in Lebanon). Close to Tulkarm, in Nur Shams camp, Abu Ammer’s family had a near miss when floods caused a concrete yard attached to their home to collapse. “It sounded like an explosion,” the father of nine says. The family’s home is now structurally unsound and dangerous to live in. “I am looking for a place to rent, but that will cost a lot of money. It’s now dangerous for the kids; the collapsed concrete forms a deadly cliff for them. It is going to be hard to leave my home, but the safety of my kids is my priority.”
In Gaza, freezing winds and rains sweeping across the Mediterranean battered families whose homes remain in ruins following the summer’s conflict. Dozens of the remaining homes were evacuated due to flooding. Mohammad’s family of four from Shejaiya neighborhood in Gaza were forced to flee their home in mid-July after it was severely damaged by bombing. Almost six months later, the family are still taking refuge in an UNRWA shelter and hoping for assistance to help them rebuild and shelter from the harsh winter. Mohammad says that all he hopes for is to see an end to the blockade and be able to lead a decent life in peace and security.
Meanwhile, in Syria, Palestine refugees internally displaced by conflict and sheltering in collective centres are struggling to stay warm despite the snow. “Snow brings joy for the children, but in light of the prevailing situation, it came as a catastrophic blow,” says 71-year-old Ahmad, who is taking refuge at the UNRWA al-Kabri school collective shelter in Jaramana camp.
Many of the collective centres are converted UNRWA schools and while some refugees are sheltering inside the school buildings, lack of space means others are living in tents in the school courtyards. Khalil, 36, and his family are among those living in tents. "We live in unheated tent in a bitterly cold temperature,” he explains. “I had a sleepless night yesterday. I was worried about my tent because of the strong winds. Winter conditions are a concern here. My 10-day old daughter died of cold last year."