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Cape Town -
Overcrowding in dusty refugee camps on the outskirts of the Syrian province of Idlib has forced thousands of families to take refuge in the olive groves that line the country’s mountainous border with Turkey.
But while they may have found shelter from a bloody two-year civil war that has left most of the country in ruins, a South African relief worker has warned that the camps are ill-equipped to house the millions of refugees who have fled their homes.
South African Mohammed Saloojee, head of the Al-Imdaad Foundation relief mission in Syria, said his first encounters with the camps during a fact-finding mission last week brought “tears to his eyes”.
“A child ran up to me, his clothes in tatters. He was covered in dust because there is no water to wash and he hadn’t eaten in days.”
“There is also no waste management, so these people are living in squalor. These are terrible conditions.”
The UN reported that there were over a million child refugees in the country, and the Humanitarian Relief Foundation estimates that there could be up 4.25 million refugees in total, putting strain on the limited number of refugee camps.
In “the camp of the martyrs”, so-called because it is populated by women and children who have been widowed or orphaned during the civil war, Saloojee said families received food once every five days.
The Johannesburg-based religious leader said there were a further 3 000 families living among the olive groves.
“It is worst for these families. Winter is settling in, and in these desert conditions it will be very harsh.”
But the Al-Imdaad Foundation is already aiming to improve living conditions for some of the refugees. Plans to set up a “mini-village” in the area, complete with working toilets, running water and a clinic are under way.
“We hope to accommodate 100 families and we will be mainly focusing on the families of widows. If this is successful we will roll out similar projects elsewhere.”
The organisation will also continue to provide food packages and health care to refugees on Turkey’s and Jordan’s borders with Syria.
Some of the nearby hospitals had their own horror stories.
At a specialised clinic for paraplegics, Saloojee met children as young as 12 who had been paralysed by snipers who shot them on their way to school. He also met children who had lost arms and legs during the country’s frequent bombing attacks.
“It is a mess out there at the moment.” - Cape Argus