UNHCR distributes aid to Syrians on Mediterranean island

News Stories, 4 July 2013

© UNHCR Syria
An aid worker checks relief items on one of the boats that brought the UNHCR aid to Arwad Island.

DAMASCUS, Syria, July 4 (UNHCR) Aid provided by the UN refugee agency has been distributed to some of the neediest local and forcibly displaced families among the 10,000 people living on Arwad, Syria's only inhabited Mediterranean island.

The head of the municipality confirmed at the weekend that most of the emergency relief items had been distributed in late June to 119 local families (600 people) and almost 60 families (300 people) who sought shelter on Arwad after fleeing their mainland homes in Homs or Aleppo. All the displaced have been hosted by families living on the island, many of whom are relatives and friends.

The aid items mattresses, sleeping mats, blankets, plastic sheeting, hygiene kits, kitchen sets, jerry cans, nappies for the young and older people, and sanitary napkins were taken on June 23 to the Syrian port of Tartus and then loaded onto three boats for the 20-minute journey to Arwad. They were stored in two empty cafés, which doubled as warehouses and distribution centres. The distribution was conducted by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

A small UNHCR team had earlier visited Arwad to assess the needs of people on the island, where the main livelihood is fishing, and to identify those who should receive assistance. They found that hygiene items, including the nappies and sanitary napkins, were in particular demand.

The UNHCR staff also said the economic situation on the small island appeared to have worsened since the Syria crisis began more than two years ago, and the fisheries industry has suffered due to the insecurity.

Elsewhere in Syria, UNHCR has for the first time sent life-saving medicine to East Ansari, a densely populated area of eastern Aleppo that has been out of governmental control since the beginning of the crisis. The medicine was delivered last Thursday to the Al Zarzour Hospital by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent on two trucks.

The medicine will be used for emergencies and to treat more than 6,000 people suffering from chronic diseases. The Al Zarzour hospital is one of the few still functioning in Aleppo, Syria's second largest city. The medical infrastructure in Aleppo, particularly in contested areas, has been seriously impacted by the conflict.

"The general humanitarian situation in Aleppo is very bad, but the health situation is particularly serious. Many public hospitals are not functioning," said Tarik Kurdi, UNHCR's representative in Syria. The delivery was made possible after discussions with the government, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and all other parties in the area. Turki said that while the delivery of medicine was welcome, "this assistance is far from being enough. We need and we are trying to have more convoys of this type."

In the meantime, UNHCR is continuing the distribution of cash assistance to the most vulnerable displaced families. After Damascus and Tartus earlier this year, UNHCR started last week the distribution of cash assistance for the first time to displaced families in the cities of Homs and in Qamishly.

Over three days last week, UNHCR gave cheques to 394 particularly vulnerable families (more than 2,000 people) staying in collective centres in conflict-ravaged Homs. Most were worth US$150. In total, UNHCR plans to support 15,000 vulnerable families in Homs this year, if security conditions permit.

In Qamishly, UNHCR has since last week given cash grants to more than 10,000 people (1,895 families). The cash distribution will continue this week and help up to 4,000 displaced families. The objective for the year is to help up to 20,000 families in Qamishly and Hassakeh governorate.

Cash assistance complements the standard emergency relief packages that UNHCR is providing to displaced families. In Hassakeh, however, the delivery of material assistance has been so difficult that UNHCR is planning to give cash assistance to all displaced families to ensure that they can meet their most urgent needs.

So far this year, UNHCR assistance has reached more than 1.2 million displaced Syrians across all 14 governorates of the country.

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Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

A Teenager in Exile

Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

Jihan's Story

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