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'We escaped death': Syrian refugees struggle with cold, hunger and uncertainty

NBC News

Syrian refugees Qassem and Aminaa with baby Mariam.

HAMED ONE RECEPTION CENTER, Jordan -- Just after dark on a bitterly cold January night, a truck full of refugees arrived at a reception center on the border with Syria. Carrying their belongings in suitcases and plastic bags, about 50 men, women and children climbed out of a Jordanian military vehicle.

A little girl cried while clinging to an older sister. A frail elderly man had to be helped off the truck. One teenage boy arrived without a coat and wearing plastic sandals on his bare feet.

Each new arrival was registered by the Jordanian military, given a blanket, orange juice and a bottle of water. A clinic nearby treated the sick. More than 152 people crossed at this border point on Sunday, and more than 500 refugees entered the country in just 12 hours, the Jordanian army said.


Just across the valley from the reception center is the Syrian city of Dara'a, which has experienced some of the fiercest fighting during the nearly two-year-old conflict.

Difficult terrain and fighting make the crossing to Jordan perilous.

Aminaa, 25, and her husband Qassem, 33, had just arrived with their three daughters — 2-month-old Marian, 4-year-old Shaima and 6-year-old Sham.

The family fled their home in the outskirts of Syria's capital Damascus and, after spending several weeks in Dara’a, crossed over to Jordan.

"There was shelling every day in our neighborhood," Qassem said. "I waited until I could find secure passage for us. We're apprehensive about life in Jordan but we had to leave. I carried my two daughters for a mile through the mud to get to the border.” 

Most refugees declined to give their last names so as not to endanger family remaining in Syria.

Once the new arrivals were registered, the Syrians boarded a waiting bus that took them to Zaatari refugee camp, about a half hour drive away.

Jordan hosts the largest number of refugees fleeing the conflict that has raged in Syria for nearly two years and killed an estimated 60,000 people. According to United Nations refugee agency UNHCR there are nearly 176,000 registered refugees in Jordan, but the Jordanian government puts the total number at around 280,000. An estimated 10,000 new refugees arrived in the last 10 days, according to the UNHCR.

At least 600,000 refugees live in neighboring countries, mainly in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, the UNHCR says.

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A look at the violence that has overtaken the country.

The population of Zaatari camp has grown to nearly 60,000 since it opened in August. Although its stated capacity is 75,000, the camp is struggling to keep up with the influx.

Last week, while aid workers and the Jordanian government were dealing with the dramatic increase in new arrivals, the first winter storm hit -- heavy rain and snow left much of the camp flooded and hundreds of tents collapsed under the weight of rain and snow.

“During the storm, the rain was pouring into our tent,” said Sahar, a mother of four from Dara’a. “We were sleeping on wet ground, on very wet blankets. Then our tent collapsed so we were evacuated to a different place.”

A riot broke out as frustrated residents demanded better living conditions at the camp. Up to eight aid workers were injured.

“People are frustrated, they have family, small children, and they’re cold,” said Rob Maroni, country director for the NGO Mercy Corps. “It’s understandable that people would be stressed and when that happens, tempers flare.” 

During NBC's filming, children played on swings in a designated area managed by Mercy Corps. A group swarmed to grab used clothes being handed out by the NGO -- the clothes, and even the plastic bags they were in, were gone in a matter of seconds.  

While a few lucky refugees have been moved to more secure pre-fabricated mobile units with electricity, money is needed to build more housing and improve sanitation, said Andrew Harper from UNHCR.

"People need to have a more dignified place to live,” he said. “This is now quite a large city and we need to make sure that this city has got the facilities that a population this size demands.”

“Thank God it’s warmer,” said Sahar after weather improved. “Which made our clothes and blankets dry. We pitched the tent again and we dug trenches around the tent to protect it from water, and we’re now building a tin hut to install a gas cylinder for heating. But right now all we have are blankets to keep us warm."

Qassem and Aminaa's family moved into Zaatari camp Monday morning, unpacking the family of five's one suitcase.  

“In Arabic we say that the worst situations actually make you smile... so I’m smiling,” Qassem said in the tent with no electricity or heat that was their new home. “But at least we left the prospect of death in Syria. So if you escape death of course you’re happy.  We know we have a difficult life ahead, but we escaped death.”

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