As the car pulled into Adra industrial zone on the outskirts of Damascus, nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to see.
In four collective shelters, over 5,400 people were crowded together in three abandoned schools, while an estimated 13,000 people sought shelter nearby in a former institute for electrical studies.
The shelters in Adra are very overcrowded, forcing most families to sleep out in the open in cold nighttime temperatures. Those who managed to find space inside the buildings are sleeping on the floor in the corridors.
“I just want to go to sleep without sharing my space with thousands of people, is that too much to ask?” one woman asked me.
Amidst this chaos, it is very easy for children to get lost.
We found one little boy, Hamzeh, who had lost his father while queuing for food. As we waited for colleagues to track down his family amongst the thousands of people, Hamzeh asked me between his sobs: “Wouldn’t it have been better if I had died back in Ghouta?”
No child should ever have to ask this question. Hamzeh did not die, he and his family survived and we all have a responsibility to help him thrive and reconnect with his childhood.
Conditions at these shelters are less than basic. Water and sanitation facilities are lacking, making things even worse for the families sheltering there. UNICEF is trucking water to the four shelters daily, and has also installed water tanks, showers and latrines.
But this is not enough. Families continue to come from Eastern Ghouta to the shelters every day and need grows. Queues for the bathrooms are very long — children have to relieve themselves out in the open.
In one of the schools, a mother and her son were squatting by a wall as she bathed him using a small bottle of water. She had been waiting to use the showers for days and finally gave up. So many women told me that they had not bathed or changed their clothes in over one month, after hiding in the relative safety of overcrowded basements. “I never thought I would one day dream of showering!” one woman told me.
UNICEF is supporting three mobile health teams to provide primary healthcare services for children and mothers, including consultations, screening and treatment for malnutrition and providing essential micronutrients. The teams also administer vaccinations to children.
“I’m treating many children for lice, diarrhea and insect bites,” a UNICEF-supported doctor told me as she examined school children. “These are all issues related to hygiene and sanitation,” she added.
Many children and families arriving at the collective shelters have endured for years with limited access to adequate health care. UNICEF-supported mobile health teams are at hand in all shelters to provide medical consultations, basic treatment and referrals to hospitals —through our partners — if needed.
Families fled the basements where they were hiding in besieged Eastern Ghouta with no belongings. Many children are wearing their mothers’ shoes, while the mothers go barefoot. Is there anything a mother would not do for her children?
At the shelters, I saw men and women queuing in separate lines. It took me 20 minutes to walk to the end of the queue; they were queuing for bread that was being distributed from a truck. There were long, disorganized queues everywhere for food, for cleaning materials, for clinics, for latrines. I could not help but think of those science-fiction movies where the world has come to an end — only this wasn’t fiction, this was a reality in in Syria.
As we were leaving, we watched a mother and her children leave one of the collective shelters to be reunited with relatives they had not seen for over four years. As they hugged, kissed and cried, everyone stood around them in awe of a moment that captured the essence of the loss brought about by years of war.
We have teams on the ground working around the clock to serve these families. We have secured funds and planned our response to serve 50,000 people, but as of today, the numbers have exceeded our capacity. We must now plan to provide urgent humanitarian assistance to around 200,000 in and around Eastern Ghouta.
The children of Eastern Ghouta and others who are still bearing the brunt of the brutal violence in Syria need our help now. Children displaced from Eastern Ghouta need spaces to sleep and shower, enough food to eat, and clothes on their backs. They need toys and healthcare, education and everything else a child needs not just to survive, but also to thrive.
Yasmine Saker is a communication officer working with UNICEF in Syria.