HOPE arrives for refugees from civil war-torn Syria

Posted: September 21, 2013

The Winchester Star

This canvas tent housing is issued to families when container-style housing is not available. The tents are cold in the winter because it is dangerous to operate kerosene heaters inside them, and hot in the summer because they have no options for air-conditioning or fans.
These are some of the refugee youngsters at the Za’atari Syrian IDP Camp in Mafraq Governorate, Jordan.

MILLWOOD — The disadvantaged children affect Frederick Gerber the most.

He is at the Al Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan this week, delivering 186,000 doses of vaccine from Project HOPE in Millwood to children there.

Gerber is a director of operations in Iraq for Project HOPE (Health Opportunities for People Everywhere) and helped to build a hospital for children in Basrah, the first new hospital in Iraq — a country with a population of about 33 million — since the 1980s.

His organization is trying to help Jordan and other countries in the area to cope with the influx of refugees from the two-year-old civil war in Syria.

The conflict has generated a flood of refugees into countries neighboring Syria, Gerber said.

Al Za’atari opened two years ago, with 60,000 men, women and children.

Now, Gerber said, Jordan is sheltering more than 600,000, with more than 200,000 in United Nations refugee camps. Al Za’atari is the second-largest refugee camp in the world, and would qualify as Jordan’s fourth-largest city.

“It’s the size of 600 football fields,” Gerber said.

Those in the camps could be said to be the lucky ones. He noted that they receive deliveries of clean water, food and blankets.

Other refugees try to find shelter with family members or friends, or simply squat in empty or abandoned buildings.

“They live in dire circumstances,” Gerber said.

Project HOPE, with its focus on health projects, has been working in the Middle East for a dozen years, he said.

This situation, with the refugee totals of those who have left Syria expected to top 3.5 million by year’s end — and another 4.5 million believed to be displaced in the war-torn country — is swamping the resources of its neighbors.

“Jordan needs a lot of help to help them,” Gerber said.

Project HOPE’s donation of vaccines to fight rotavirus is a preventative operation, he said.

Rotaviruses are known to cause diarrhea and dehydration, especially in children, and break out where people are crowded together and clean water and good sanitation are lacking.

Project HOPE is also readying some $30 million in medical supplies in its Winchester warehouse for shipment to Jordan.

Much of that shipment will be used in the camps — but, Gerber said, he hopes some can be moved over the border into Syria, where about 2,500 medical professionals are working under battlefield conditions to help casualties from the fighting.

“These are the real heroes,” he said.

Estimates indicate that 70 percent of Syria’s doctors have fled the country, Gerber said. Most of the nation’s hospitals have been damaged or destroyed.

The physicians remaining are working in field hospitals and aid stations, dealing with battlefield casualties with sparse modern supplies or equipment.

Without proper retractors, Gerber said, he has heard of doctors holding a chest open for surgery “with a pair of pancake flippers.”

In addition to immediate medical emergencies, he sees a future threat in post-traumatic stress disorder for all refugees and a dim future for the children who may live in refugee camps for years without any hope of getting an education.

Gerber would like to find ways to have Jordanian professionals trained to handle the “stress, depression and anxiety that are so palpable” in and outside the camps.

“Very few have any training in psychosocial illnesses,” he added.

But his first focus now is keeping the children healthy.

“I love what I’m doing,” said Gerber, a Washington, D.C., resident who spent 32 years in the Army health services.

“And it’s wonderful to do it with an organization like Project HOPE.”

But seeing children starved or injured ”never fails to bring a tear to my eye.”

— Contact Val Van Meter at vvanmeter@winchesterstar.com