12/19/2012 04:43 EST | Updated 02/18/2013 05:12 EST

Canadian aid groups say UN Syrian refugee appeal needed to counter winter threat

OTTAWA - The words of Syrian children, forced to flee violence in their own country, offer a bitter counterpoint to the cheery holiday spirit so many of their counterparts in Canada experience at this time of year.

Their grim testimonials leap from the pages of numerous reports from various international aid agencies that have struggled for months to draw attention to their suffering during the 21-month Syrian conflict, now a civil war.

Taken together, they tell the story of frigid youngsters huddling against sub-zero temperatures under thin blankets with no heat, their untreated coughs evolving into more serious untreated illnesses.

School is non-existent. Hygiene is out the window — who can brave bathing when it's -4 C under the shower head?

"I do not want anything for myself, but I want you to give blankets to my little sister," a five-year-old Syrian boy living in a northern Iraq refugee camp tells Save The Children in their report, 'Out In the Cold.'

"She is three years old and very sick. She is crying and in pain, and I love her so I cannot see her cry."

Aid workers in Canada are hoping such stories might hit the hearts and pocketbooks of their fellow citizens after the United Nations launched a $1-billion pre-Christmas emergency appeal Wednesday.

The UN wants to stave off the latest threat to more than 500,000 Syrian refugees, the majority of them women and children: the prospect of a frigid winter in neighbouring Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon or Iraq.

The UN is also appealing for another $500 million to help the estimated two million displaced people inside Syria who have been driven from their homes as violence spreads throughout the country.

"The situation is going from bad to worse. It seems to be headed to 'even worse' for refugee populations," said Nicolas Moyer, the executive director of the Humanitarian Coalition, which includes the agencies CARE, Oxfam, Plan and Save The Children.

"As winter is coming, that is something that is under-reported — it does get cold in Syria. It goes down easily to the freezing point."

Moyer said he thinks Canadians are generous people, but they don't necessarily appreciate the struggle of Syria's fleeing and traumatized civilians because most reporting focuses on the fighting of the civil war, and the largely unsuccessful international political machinations aimed at ending it.

"The majority of refugees crossing the borders are women and children. They've left the breadwinners behind," he said. "The people that are moving are very vulnerable."

Veteran Canadian aid worker Dave Toycen, president of World Vision Canada, got a first-hand look when he travelled to Lebanon's Bekka Valley this past week.

Lebanon has hosted 150,000 fleeing Syrians, half of them children, says World Vision's report, titled 'Robbed of Childhood: Running from War.'

In addition to the hardship of winter, Toycen said the refugees face other problems. Almost one-third of them are undocumented so they have difficulty getting assistance from aid groups on the ground. Most children are languishing without access to school.

"As it gets colder, the kids get coughing, then it's pneumonia. This real concern is that this could turn into a much greater crisis, if this isn't dealt with," Toycen said in a telephone call from Lebanon.

"It was four degrees the last two days we were there, and it gets down to minus 10. The worst situation we saw was people living in tents. One man had patched together a series of sticks and plastic and grain sacks," he recalled.

"They had five children. They had one room that didn't leak when it rains. And the wind is blowing in through the cracks."

World Vision's report describes another hardship — bullying at the hands of their Lebanese hosts.

"I'm not playing with Lebanese children because they are saying things that I don't want to hear about me. So we stay away from them and go inside," says a young boy quoted in its report.

Toycen said with Christmas approaching and Canadians celebrating our "goodwill and good luck," he hopes they will be generous.

World Vision has launched its own $12 million appeal that targets 40,000 Syrian refugees, and will focus on food, fuel, stoves and other winter supplies.

Moyer urged Canadians to do an Internet search on their preferred aid organization in order to make a donation.

Moyer and Toycen both say the suffering of the Syrians is compounded by the fact many refugees have traded comfortable middle-class lives for their current squalor.

In many cases, that's creating anguished, frustrated parents — often mother-led, single-parent families — who can't provide the necessities for their freezing, coughing children.

"As one lady said it, 'I'm just so humiliated living with rats, wondering where the next meal is going to come from for my children,'" Toycen said one woman told him while her five-year-old huddled under a blanket.

"She was seven months pregnant. Her husband's stuck in Syria. She's paying about $120 a month for the tent they're living in," he added. "Another child has a heart condition, and she's not able to get treatment."

The UN's new appeal is based on revised estimates that say as many as one million Syrian refugees will need help during the first half of 2013.

The Conservative government last week announced an additional $15 million to help Syria's neighbours cope with the refugee influx.

"We have to pull away from the stats," said Moyer, urging Canadians to learn more about the human suffering of the civil war.

"It's a great contrast compared with the time we'll all get to spend with family over the holidays."