As the fierce violence in Syria continues to force families to flee the country, another crisis is looming: winter. Temperatures are plummeting, making living conditions even more precarious. The United Nations estimates that more than 500,000 Syrians have flooded across borders into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, with thousands of new refugees crossing every day.
"Most of the refugees are women, children and the elderly, and they are completely traumatized," says Sean Callahan, Catholic Relief Services chief operating officer. "They've left everything behind in Syria and have no idea when or if they'll return. Many of their homes and communities have been destroyed."
Callahan recently traveled to Jordan and Lebanon to see the humanitarian crisis, offering comfort and support to refugee families and CRS partners.
"One of the mothers I met showed me the passports of her three sons, all of whom had been killed." Callahan recalls. "She was with her daughter, her sons' wives and their 11 children. She broke down in tears: 'What do I do now? How do I take care of these children?' "
"These are everyday, innocent people who just want to get on with their lives," says Jennifer Poidatz, regional manager for the CRS' Syria response. "They're caught in a conflict with no end in sight, and they're really suffering. In Turkey alone, there are more than 230,000 Syrian refugees. Some days, thousands of people cross the border."
Preparing for Freezing Temperatures
Through a network of Church partners, CRS is supporting refugee families across the region with medical assistance, food and winter essentials such as stoves, blankets and heaters. The agency is also providing counseling and care for women and children. With freezing temperatures ahead, CRS is ramping up efforts to help refugees survive the region's harsh winter.
"With falling temperatures and no money to buy basic necessities, mothers are afraid for their children," says Poidatz. Speaking from the town of Kilis, Turkey, she notes that the weather is rainy, cold and expected to get worse.
In Turkey, CRS has established a one-time cash transfer system in which 2,600 refugee families will receive $150 to purchase items needed during cold weather. "That money can help people buy electric heaters, children's clothing, beds and blankets—items they desperately need to survive the harsh weather," Poidatz says.
Providing Care for Refugee Children
"Parents want what's best for their children," Poidatz continues. "That means a place where it's safe and where they can have a structured, social outlet under the guidance of trained staff.
CRS plans to provide education and social activities for children across the region. Many refugee children have been out of school for as long as a year, and most lack the necessary documentation to attend local schools. It is not uncommon for uprooted children to become income-earners for their families. Many spend their days selling small items or begging in the streets.
The benefits of education in times of crisis are many: safety, routine, a supportive environment, counseling and other services, and daily meals.
With its long-standing presence and network of local, Catholic and international partners, CRS is well-positioned to help Syrian refugees survive the brutal winter. The Church has a history of providing classroom and less formal types of education to vulnerable people, including refugees.
Liz O'Neill is a CRS communications officer covering Asia, Europe and the Middle East. She is based in Baltimore, Maryland.