This past week, the UN in Syria mobilized one of its largest humanitarian aid convoys to bring much needed lifesaving supplies to 40,000 people stranded at Rukban camp, in the arid desert on the south-eastern border between Syria and Jordan. We went with 118 supply trucks and more than 300 humanitarian workers from UNICEF, the UN and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to set up camp for ten days and deliver assistance to children and families living in unthinkable conditions. Some of them have been stranded at the camp for the last four years.
The living conditions in Rukban are some of the hardest I have ever experienced in my career. This winter has been particularly harsh: temperatures that drop close to freezing at night, dust, wind and rain. For a few days we had the briefest glimpse of what families have had to endure for years – living in flimsy tents that barely protect from the cold, limited access to water and food. A couple of layers of tarpaulin covering your mud house is all that’s between you and the elements. Keeping the roof from flying off is a daily concern – on top of all the other hardships that families endure.
But despite the weather, these homes welcomed us warmly. A headmaster of a school, a former tourist guide from Palmyra who fled violence in his city, told us in fluent English:
Here in Rukban, we trust no one. The many parties to this war have an agenda. But the UN is here because they care about us
We had our work cut out for us for the next days.
Today, Rukban is home to several different tribes and communities. Distributing supplies for 40,000 people was going to be a collaborative effort. Many hours were spent discussing and re-discussing plans to find common ground. The communities helped us transport the supplies form our big trucks into the camp and our colleagues from the UN and the Syria Arab Red Crescent were with them in the camp to ensure that the supplies reached the families they are meant for.
This is the UN’s second convoy into Rukban from inside Syria. This time, in addition to essential health and nutrition supplies, we brought education and recreational kits, winter clothes and vaccines for 10,000 children. We set up vaccination points and child friendly spaces in the four schools within the camp.
Rukban’s schools stretch the meaning of the word ‘school’ to its limit. A one-room mud structure with no furniture and a large sheet of paper pinned to a wall as a blackboard is a school only through the sheer willpower of the 60 eager children crammed next to each other on the floor. They recite their ABCs and share a single textbook – one that their teacher brought with her when she was displaced from Palmyra years ago. Some of these children remember their old schools. 15-year-old Nour told me that all she wished for is for a school that looked like the one in her hometown of Homs “because she wants to be successful in the future.”
Schools matter for education and for children like Nour to have a chance for a better future. But they are also safe havens for children in places like Rukban. Children told us of the violence they have seen or experienced, girls expressed their fears of fetching water alone. But for a few hours every day, these children can put their new school bag on their shoulders and go to a place that is safe for them and that helps them heal from the trauma and hardships of their everyday life.
For the 10 days we were in Rukban these schools were also the community vaccination points. Parents were bringing their children in droves. With very limited access to healthcare services they are keen to protect their children from diseases, and so are we. Every day, twenty volunteer health-workers tirelessly immunized thousands of children and screened the nutritional status of children under five.
The few days I spent in Rukban made me even prouder of my colleagues, seeing them go to work in extremely challenging conditions. When the going gets tough, we get tougher. But to see the team do everything in their power to deliver vital assistance to every child, woman and man who has endured extreme duress for years, cannot but reinforce the deep sense of pride for humanitarian workers and volunteers.
The common thread in my exchanges with people living in Rukban is that they want to leave and return to Palmyra, Deir ez-Zor, Hama, Homs. The message they gave us to deliver to the world is that the children, women and men in Rukban want to go home safely and with dignity.
We can only hope that those who have the power to make this happen are listening.
Fran Equiza is the UNICEF Representative in Syria.