Sheikh Bilal camp, Syria – The residents of the Sheikh Bilal camp for internally displaced people in Afrin, northwestern Syria, are struggling to keep their homes intact after a fierce winter storm brought more than a foot of snow.
As children built snowmen and took part in snowball fights in the subzero temperatures on Thursday, their parents struggled to fix their collapsed tents and clear the roads of snow.
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Some 160 families have been trapped by the storm for the past two days, and are struggling to keep their tents from breaking.
“When the snowstorm started, I prayed to God that it would be light, but it just kept getting worse,” Douja Al Ali, who has lived in the camp for the internally displaced for four years, told Al Jazeera. “Everything is freezing! We need help!”
At least one child has died after a tent collapsed, and their mother is in the intensive care unit.
The millions of internally displaced people and refugees living in tented settlements in Syria have long struggled to cope in the winter, but the United Nations has said this year is far worse, amid rising poverty and dwindling aid.
An overwhelming 97 percent of people in northwestern Syria live in extreme poverty, and more than two-thirds of the four million living there are internally displaced. It is the last opposition stronghold in the war-torn country, and parts of it are still hit with routine air raids by the Syrian and Russian forces.
On top of funding gaps for humanitarian organisations and UN agencies, the spillover Turkey’s currency crisis has compounded years of misery.
Local volunteer groups told Al Jazeera that it costs between $50-75 per month to keep a family adequately warm, a luxury for the vast majority who live on less than $2 a day.
“The price for diesel has increased by 19 percent and petrol by 36 percent over the last six months,” said Santana Quazi, head of office at the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Turkey.
“People are resorting to burning any material that they can find for heating, which sometimes includes unsafe material producing toxic fumes upon burning, such as plastic bags.”
More than two million people need better shelter, Quazi said, because many of the tents were old and no longer able to help families survive the winter.
At Sheikh Bilal camp, Sultana al-Douhan said getting enough food and water for her family is already an expensive ordeal. And like most other families there, she cannot afford adequate wood and diesel to keep her family warm.
“When we used to live at home and would see it snowing outside, we would be so happy. We used to have a great time and play outside with the family,” al-Douhan told Al Jazeera. “But not when we’ve already fallen into this hole.”
The UN has so far reached 260,000 internally displaced people in northwestern Syria, and is pushing to reach another 848,000 in need as it tries to clear snowcapped roads.
Meanwhile, local initiatives like the nonprofit Molham Volunteering Team are trying to help families trapped in the storm. They said they have helped 2,000 affected families since the storm started.
“We’re happy to be able to keep the children, women, and elderly warm, but you also feel miserable when you see that a family with seven children are barely able to get by,” Ahmad Nahel, a member of the organisation, told Al Jazeera. “But for now, we’re anticipating more snow next week, so we’re trying to secure everything we can.”
Internally displaced Syrian families, some of whom have moved around the country several times since the war started 10 years ago, say they are unable to live in fragile tents.
Several families told Al Jazeera that they fear their tents getting flooded once the snow melts.
“Most families are telling us they don’t want to live in tents any more, but want to find a way to live in regular homes,” Nahel explains. “They struggle in the winter under the rain and snow, and then they have to put up with the heat in the summer.”
Kareem Chehayeb reported from Beirut, Lebanon, and Ali Haj Suleiman reported from the Sheikh Bilal camp, Syria.