ZAATARI, Jordan – A winter storm is magnifying the misery for tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing the country's civil war, turning a refugee camp into a muddy swamp where howling winds tore down tents and exposed the displaced residents to freezing temperatures.
Some frustrated refugees at a camp in Zaatari, where about 50,000 are sheltered, attacked aid workers with sticks and stones after the tents collapsed in 35 mph winds, said Ghazi Sarhan, spokesman for the Jordanian charity that helps run the camp. Police said seven Jordanian workers were injured.
After three days of rain, muddy water engulfed tents housing refugees including pregnant women and infants. Those who didn't move out used buckets to bail out the water; others built walls of mud to try to stay dry.
Conditions in the Zaatari camp were "worse than living in Syria," said Fadi Suleiman, a 30-year-old refugee.
Most of Zaatari's residents are children under age 18 and women. They are some of the more than 280,000 Syrians who fled to Jordan since the uprising against President Bashar Assad broke out in March 2011. As the fighting has increased in recent weeks, the number of displaced has risen.
About a half-million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries including Turkey and Lebanon to escape the civil war that has killed an estimated 60,000 people in nearly two years of fighting. Wet and wintry weather across the Middle East has made conditions miserable for refugees in those countries as well – even flooding two camps in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley after a river overflowed its banks.
Several large pools of standing water – including one nearly the size of a football field and about 4 inches deep – have spread in the Zaatari camp. Children clad only in plastic sandals waded in despite the frigid water. An old woman wore plastic bags on her feet as she walked to pick up some food.
"Zaatari is sinking," said a refugee who gave his name as Abu Bilal from the southern Syrian town of Dara'a, across the border. The 21-year-old father of two toddlers said his tent has been flooded for days, and when he appealed for help, he was turned away by both the U.N. refugee agency and the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization, which administer the camp.
His family of five lives in a neighbor's cramped cloth tent, which already houses eight people.
"We're desperate. We need a solution fast," said Abu Bilal, who wore a red and white checkered scarf on his head for warmth. "People's reactions may get out of hand, especially if they see their child fall ill or even die. They could do something that nobody will be able to control or blame them for."
Like most of the refugees interviewed in the camp, Abu Bilal asked to be identified by his nickname because he feared retaliation against relatives still living in Syria.
Suleiman complained that life in the camp was "one misery after the other as the international community sits idle, doing nothing to help us get rid of the tyrant Assad."
He worried that the winter storm was serious enough to "kill children and old people."
A woman who gave her name as Um Ahmed and whose tent was also flooded said her 9-month-old daughter died at Zaatari recently. She blamed the cold, saying the girl suffered from acute diarrhea and vomiting. Camp officials, however, have not attributed any of the deaths to the cold.
A 37-year-old refugee, who gave his name as Abu Samir, said he complained to camp authorities about the conditions — and asked if those in the flimsy tents could receive one of the 2,500 trailers donated by Saudi Arabia — but the officials only dug a drainage hole that did little to draw away the water from his and other sodden tents.
Another who called himself Abu Abdullah griped about the length of time needed to meet even the simplest needs and joked bitterly that a request for diapers for his two young sons required a signature from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Ali Bibi, a liaison officer with the U.N. refugee agency in Jordan, said the group was in the process of finalizing plans for distributing the Saudi trailers. But he added that the international community's financial support to Syrians – both those displaced internally and those sheltering in neighboring countries – was "less than modest" in response to a recent appeal.
Last month, the U.N. said it needed $1 billion to aid Syrians in the region, while $500 million was required to help refugees in Jordan. The UNHCR says 597,240 refugees have registered or are awaiting registration with the agency in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Some countries have higher estimates, noting many have found accommodations without registering.
"We have asked the international community to step up and support the Syrian refugees with better infrastructure, like trailers and prefabricated units, to deal with harsh winter elements," Bibi said.
Late Tuesday, Jordan's state TV reported that after a regional official visited the camp. 70 families were evacuated from tents to a different location.
The World Food Program said it is unable to help 1 million people who are going hungry inside Syria.
WFP spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said the agency plans to provide aid to 1.5 million of the 2.5 million Syrians that the Syrian Arab Red Crescent says are internally displaced. But the lack of security and the agency's inability to use the Syrian port of Tartus for its shipments means that a large number of people in the some of the country's hardest hit areas will not get help, she said.
"Our main partner, the Red Crescent, is overstretched and has no more capacity to expand further," Byrs said.
The stormy weather also added to the plight of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, where there have been torrential rains and flooding throughout the country. Private and public schools in Lebanon were closed Tuesday and Wednesday, when the storm was expected to be at its peak.
Two Syrian refugee encampments in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley were immersed in water after the Litani River flooded. Dozens of Syrian refugees left in search of alternate shelter along with their soaked and muddy belongings.
Hiam al-Hussein, a 23-year-old from Syria's war ravaged Homs district of Baba Amr, was among a group of refugees who were sheltering in an open garage near the flooded al-Faour encampment.
"We had brought along with us a couple of mattresses, some carpets. Everything is gone now," she said, wearing a sweater, pajama pants and a pink scarf.
"God help the women and children. The river flooded last night and suddenly everything around us was swept away and swimming in water," said Abdullah Taleb, a refugee from the northern city of Aleppo who arrived in Lebanon three months ago with his wife and two children. "It's a nightmare we are living – a nightmare."
In the eastern Lebanese town of Marj near the Syrian border, refugees reinforced flooded tents, and some were blown away in the wind and rain. The small settlement of about 40 tents donated by a Saudi charity and set up in cooperation with the UNHCR houses mostly women and children.
"You tell me, is this a life?" cried a middle-aged woman who gave her name as Ghalia. She fled with her son to Lebanon after her husband died in shelling of the Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun last year.
"We've been driven away from Syria by the war and we cannot afford rent prices in Lebanon. We have nothing but the clothes we brought with us to this tent, and now look at us!" she said as water seeped into her tent.
Imad al-Shummari, head of the al-Marj municipality, said authorities were working with the refugees to reinforce their tents and provide alternate shelter, as well as distributing heaters and extra blankets and other needs.
"We had flooding in many areas," he said.
Lebanon has about 175,000 Syrian refugees, according to U.N. figures, although the Lebanese government estimates the number at 200,000. Most are in schools and apartments, but a few are staying in tents they pitched near the Syrian border.
The cold and rainy weather also was causing problems at camps in Turkey, and tragedy struck at one site. Fire spread through several tents at the Suleyman Shah refugee camp, killing two children and injured four other people, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency. A 5-year-old child died at the scene, while a 15-year-old died later of his injuries in a hospital.
The fire apparently was caused by the refugees' illegal use of electricity that is provided for radiators for the tents, said Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay.
Turkey's Disaster and Emergency Management Authority, which oversees the refugee camps, said authorities have been preparing for winter conditions since August. An official from the unit in charge of the preparations said all refugees were given winter boots, warm clothing, coats and blankets in November.
Almost all of the tents were either revamped for cold weather or replaced with ones able to withstand winter conditions, he said. All tents have heaters, according to the official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of government rules.
Despite that, Mohammed al-Abed, a 30-year-old Syrian in Turkey's Yayladagi camp, said conditions were "cold, wet and miserable."
Temperatures were close to freezing, he said, adding that the tents were equipped with heaters but that bathrooms and lavatories were about 300-500 yards (meters) away.
"Often there's a long line of people, including freezing children, waiting in the cold to use the bathrooms," he said.
"There is no hot water. People are getting sick, especially the children. There are lots of coughing, infections and people with colds," he added.
"It's a miserable situation, but I am ashamed to complain because we're much better off than our brothers trapped in Syria," he said, citing conditions at the Atmeh camp on the Syrian side of the border.
"At least we are better equipped with some heaters and blankets. They have nothing, no heating, no electricity. Nothing."