Lessons from 2013 storms keep refugees warmer in Jordan

  • Date January 12 2015
  • Publication Middle East Eye

Five days into the cruellest storm to hit the Middle East in years, Jordanians and their refugee guests are shivering, snowbound and gritting their teeth: storm Huda isn’t over yet.

Sunday morning brought a fresh dump of snow and a fifth consecutive day of frigid temperatures, closed roads, and warnings from authorities to stay indoors. This year’s storm, known in Jordan and Syria as Huda, is eerily reminiscent of last year’s Artic blast which saw warnings from authorities to stock up on food, drinking water and heating fuel, and then the long, cold stretch of a frigid lockdown.

But for the organisations working to protect Jordan’s poorest from the bitter chill, Huda has offered a chance to get right something that went wrong with Alexia, the region’s December 2013 blizzard. For most NGOs, that starts with keeping people warm at home.

The extra effort has helped Jordan heed off some of the worst consequences of the chill which has caused casualties in both Lebanon and Gaza where people, including several children and infants, have frozen to death due to the unseasonably cold temperatures.

“Heating fuel is a priority for us because the refugees we serve don’t live in camps but in stone apartments with no central heating. Apartments are very cold even without the super cold temperatures we currently have,” said Amanda Lane, Executive Director of the Collateral Repair Project, an NGO that works with the urban poor in East Amman.

Although this winter is colder than last year, the country’s stores of heating fuel are more plentiful. Last year, an entire container ship’s worth of fuel canisters was turned away from the port in Aqaba when its contents were found to be of dubious quality. This led to a shortage and price hikes, with some suppliers giving preferential access to Jordanians before they served refugees.

This winter, prices haven’t risen: today, as it did in August, a tank of gas for a soba heater costs 10 JOD ($14 USD) in Amman. For those who can afford them, the steady prices are a relief.

“It’s very cold right now so we keep the gas heater switched on 24 hours a day, but the fuel prices are cheaper than last year, which is great,” said Maram, a 21-year-old Syrian refugee living in a rented apartment in Amman.

Okba Albalkhi, a 31-year-old Syrian refugee living in the hilly town of Salt, agreed: “The prices in general and the fuel prices especially are fair. The dealers are committed to the government prices and they’re not trying to use this situation to increase profits.”

Steady prices are a reprieve for those on a budget. But for the bulk of Jordan’s million-plus refugees, most of whom are forbidden from working legally, the price of a canister of fuel, whether the usual 10 JOD ($14), a discounted 9 ($12.5) or an inflated 12 ($17), simply doesn’t matter: it’s all out of reach.

In Jordan’s two biggest refugee camps, the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR and its partners distribute gas heaters and fuel. Food vouchers ensure everyone is fed and constant oversight by armies of aid workers makes it likely that the most vulnerable will be identified and supported.

But the vast majority of Jordan’s Syrian refugees - and all of its Sudanese, Somali and Iraqi refugees - live in the community. The poorer stretches of Amman, Zarqa, Salt, Mafraq and Irbid are teeming with families far from home, struggling to make ends meet.

Miraj Pradhan, UNICEF’s communications head in Jordan, said his organisation was reaching out to urban refugees with a winterisation programme that targeted the most vulnerable children: child-headed households, children living in tents, and disabled and foster children. He told Middle East Eye the agency had distributed 11,900 winter clothing kits – consisting of winter jacket, woollen sweater, winter trousers, woollen hat, scarf and gloves, woollen socks, and winter boots – before Huda struck and was currently handing out another 5,800 kits to families affected by the storm.

Chronically underfunded UNHCR said it had provided emergency cash grants to 27,000 of the most vulnerable families and was distributing 109,000 additional blankets to refugees throughout the Kingdom. The massive influx of blankets was funded by a recent donation from United Arab Emirates, an oil-rich country that has injected funds into Syrian programmes in Jordan and Lebanon rather than take refugees in itself.

Blankets and clothing are easier to move than heaters and fuel, but the families lining up outside the Collateral Repair Project office in impoverished East Amman say high-thermal blankets aren’t enough.

“Families often tell us that they have knocked on all the doors of larger organisations and are on long waiting lists for assistance. This is why we distribute heating fuel: many families receive heaters as part of huge distributions by large organisations, but they don’t provide fuel, and families simply can’t afford it,” Lane said.

“The first time the temperatures dropped a few months ago, people called us saying their heaters were sitting like statues in their living rooms and their families were freezing. Sadly, we don’t have the funds to provide ample fuel for everyone throughout the winter; most families receive a two-week supply every month or two from us.”

Another lesson learned from last year’s storm is around communication. By day two of Alexia, it wasn’t clear whether businesses were running or roads were open. This year, official warnings came thick and fast. An informal curfew was in effect and emergency services have remained in operation. Residents say they notice the difference.

“We haven’t needed the help of the rescue teams this year but I remembered that last year the electricity cut out for two days during the storm and nobody came to help until all neighbours called the emergency services many times. But I hear the emergency vehicles all the time now which means that they are ready to help this year,” said Yaman Abdallah, a 30-year-old Syrian father living in Amman.

Temperatures are still around zero in Amman, and though they look set to rise by the end of the week, January is typically the coldest month of the year. Even if Huda loosens her grip on the region, Jordan’s winter is far from over.