Winter The Biggest Threat – New Straits Times, Saturday, September 5, 2020

I tossed and turned on the bed that first night in Arsal, Lebanon during our emergency mission there. The extremely cold weather required me to sleep in my winter jacket and the thickest socks that I brought, along with my woolen cap and thick gloves.

The blankets we were provided with did nothing to help. I kept saying to myself, “Tomorrow morning I’m going to buy the thickest and the warmest blanket in Arsal.” I undoubtedly need so. Used to the hot Malaysian weather, I couldn’t bear the freezing weather.

It was my first time experiencing such low temperatures. To make things worse, the gas heater stopped functioning in the middle of the night. The gas had frozen. It felt as if I had been stuffed into a refrigerator. Despite the fatigue of 24 hours of travel time, I just couldn’t fall asleep.

I could hear strong winds wailing hard and loud outside. I felt alarmed. Never in my 50 years had I heard such strong winds. “You are in a brick house. You’re safe,” I kept reminding myself. But at the same time, I couldn’t help thinking about the hundreds of thousands of refugees living in nylon ‘shelters’ around the area. My heart wept.

I got up and went to the front door. Opened it slightly to record the sound of the wind. A gust of wind rushed in and almost threw me down to the floor. I am not a small person so you can imagine how strong the wind was. I quickly closed the door and rushed back into my room, tried my best to snuggle under the blanket, and finally fell asleep.

Early the next morning I woke up and went outside to catch the view around the house we were staying. It had been dark when we arrived in Arsal the night before after a four-hour journey through winding small roads up and down the mountains from Beirut. It was raining at first but as we went higher the rain turned to snow and our driver had to stop to add chains on the tires of his van. The road was very slippery. But Alhamdulillah we managed to arrive safely.

A majestic mountain sat in front of our house. Covered with snow from top to bottom, it was a beautiful sight. But just that instant I witnessed in front of me rows and rows of canvas shelters. I couldn’t imagine how they had survived the strong winds from the night before or the snowstorm that had hit the area prior to our arrival.

For us in Malaysia, traveling to a foreign land in winter is usually for fun and leisure. We almost certainly would go equipped with the best clothing we can find to keep us warm. Winter holidays are a treat for us. Yet for millions of Syrian refugees, winter can come as a death threat.

News of frozen babies has circulated for so many years, its unbearable. It breaks my heart to imagine what they had to endure during their last hours of life and what the parents had to face is unimaginable; trying to do all you can to save your child from the cold, but finding them frozen; dead.

An incident during our trip to Arsal comes to my mind. We were out to distribute aid at a camp among many in the area that early January morning. Just then a blizzard started. This camp situated up on a hill was already covered with thick snow from a snowstorm that hit them almost a week prior to our visit.

As soon as I stepped out of the van with the snow rushing down on us I saw a man standing in front of his makeshift shelter nearby. I was immediately drawn to him since he was seen holding a child. As I got closer to them I saw the young boy was wearing a light sweater and his feet were bare. I touched one of his feet and was shocked that it was as cold as ice. Tears automatically ran down my cheeks and I looked at our team members and exclaimed “He’s not even wearing a sock!”

There I was standing in front of them with 4 layers of thermal shirts and a thick coat that could withstand weather as low as -20⁰ Celcius or at least that’s what the tag said yet I was still feeling cold.I rubbed my hands on his tiny feet to give him some warmth. My colleague passed me a jacket that we had brought and I put it on him. I will never be able to erase that memory from my mind.

In Syria, the experience was almost the same. Nine years of war have displaced millions of families across Syria and the surrounding countries. After losing their home and all the comforts, they are living in tents or flimsy shelters made of old carpets and rugs, wood, metal, and canvas, which provide little or no relief at all from the harsh weather conditions. Their lives are at risk.

With temperatures predicted to drop to freezing and below in some areas, it is estimated that 1.3 million Syrian children will be in danger.They urgently need thermal blankets and winter clothing to protect them from the cold. With the support of Syria Care as a humanitarian organization determined to provide for them during these hard times, they have received warm clothing, thermal blankets, and food needed to keep them safe and warm throughout the winter.

Siti Sakinah Meor Omar Baki
Chairman of Syria Care.

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