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Cold Weather Punishes Syrians In Refugee Camps

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Middle East is in the midst of its harshest winter in at least a decade. That is adding to the misery of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled the civil war in Syria and are now shivering in camps in neighboring countries. Sheera Frenkel visited one camp along Jordan's border with Syria, where riots broke out and aide workers were attacked with sticks and stones by refugees angered by the lack of supplies and services.

SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: Shallow pools and mud are everywhere you look in the Zaatari camp. It was built on a flat expanse of land, large enough to house the more then 40,000 refugees that governmental agencies estimate live here now. The problem is that when it rains, there is nowhere for the water to go.

So last week's snow and rain storms left the camp flooded. Umm Muhammed fled Syria five months ago, with her four young children. The single tent they share was nearly destroyed by the weather, she says.

UMM MUHAMMED: (Through Translator) Everything was floating, floating.

FRENKEL: When the rain and snow came, all she could do was hug her children for warmth. She says she has been waiting for a heater for nearly five weeks. Still, she says, she is one of the lucky ones. The Walid family was among the first to arrive at the camp six months ago when it was erected. They are envied by many because they have a prefab shelter with two rooms, rather then a tent.

They welcomed the newest member of their family, a baby named Muhammed, who was born just days after the family arrived in Jordan from their hometown of Daraa in southern Syria. Waheeba is the family matriarch. She says that from the beginning Muhammed had respiratory problems.

They thought that being in Zaatari would be good for him. Despite the bitter cold last week, she recalls Muhammed was happy and laughing as he went to sleep the night of January 11th.

WAHEEBA WALID: (Through Translator) He was doing OK. In the morning when we woke up his mom was really sitting here next to us in the caravan. When I touched him, he was like, you know, an ice bar. As an ice bar.

FRENKEL: The family rushed him to a hospital near the camp, but the four-month-old was pronounced dead. Waheeba doesn't say it was the cold that killed him, but it certainly didn't help. After the baby's death, she says the family split apart. Her son and his wife couldn't bear to stay in Zaatari, so they took their two other children and moved to Jordan's capital, Amman.

They are staying with friends for now, says Waheeba, but they have no money and no work. They hope that somehow, being in the capital will save them if the cold comes again. Waheeba says her family never thought they would be refugees for this long. Despite the horrors they faced in Daraa, she says they are desperate to return.

WALID: (Through Translator) We were just asking, we thought we might only stay here for one month. We ask God. Of course you want to go back, you love to go back to your country.

FRENKEL: Marin Kajdomcaj, an official with the U.N. refugee agency is one of the camp managers at Zaatari. He says he knows many of the refugees are frustrated and angry, but that the U.N. is doing its best to provide services in the camp.

MARIN KAJDOMCAJ: Here in Zaatari we had, in one week, we almost had 10,000 people coming. So, there was discontent with people. There was a situation where it was difficult to provide distribution. And it was difficult to provide services for them. But, we and our partners, we were here 24 hours.

FRENKEL: He says they hope to repair the infrastructure in Zaatari to avert any more flooding, but refugees continue to arrive at the camp daily, adding to the burden as the fighting across the border in Syria rages on. For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.

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