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Syria refugees’ plight worsened as harsh winter storm lashes over-packed camps

AMMAN, Jordan -- Syrians at a sprawling refugee camp in northern Jordan scrambled to batten down their tents against torrential rains and high winds as a blustery winter storm battered parts of the Middle East for a second day Thursday.

The storm, dubbed Alexa, already has pounded much of Lebanon and parts of northern Syria, pushing temperatures below zero and dumping snow and heavy rains. In some parts of Israel and the West Bank, meanwhile, government offices and schools shuttered to wait out the winter weather.

Syrian refugees across the region, however, were among the hardest hit by the storm, which heaped another layer of misery on the already grim existence of many of the more than 2 million Syrians who have fled the civil war raging in their homeland.

At Jordan's sprawling Zaatari refugee camp, which is home to 120,000 refugees, wind toppled at least 10 tents overnight, leaving residents vulnerable to freezing temperatures.

}     "It was very cold, windy and muddy and all I was able to think of is how to protect my wife and four children," said Ali Shatri, 36. He said aid workers quickly evacuated him and other families whose tents were blown down to other secure areas in the camp.

Zaatari spokesman Wadah Hmoud said two days of heavy rains have flooded several areas of the camp. He said aid workers were struggling to replace tents with prefabricated housing units for the camp's 120,000 inhabitants.

With the weather making life more miserable in the refugee camps, Amnesty International published a report Friday chiding European nations for “the pitifully low numbers of refugees from Syria they are prepared to resettle.”

International resettlement has seen a startlingly low number of the more than 2 million Syrian refugees given new homes in Europe and the United States.

According to Amnesty, while Germany has pledged to re-home 10,000 Syrians, all other EU countries combined have offered places to just 2,340, and Britain and Italy are among the nations which have offered no resettlement places.

The United States has resettled less than 100 Syrians, according to news reports and aid groups.

Amnesty’s report, entitled “Fortress Europe:  Syrian refugee shame exposed,” calls on EU nations to “open its borders, provide safe passage, and halt these deplorable human rights violations” against Syrians who try and escape their plight by sneaking into Europe illegally to claim asylum. 

Those more fortunate

To others in the Middle East, the snow was seen more as an aberration -- bringing joy to children and complications to their parents trying to go about daily life.

The storm battered most parts of central and southern Jordan, shutting down government offices, causing power disruptions, blocking roads and stranding motorists.  

The snowstorm was expected to continue through Friday and possibly early Saturday, Jordan's Meteorology Department said.

Ultra orthodox jews walk past the Damascus gate outside Jerusalem's old city
Ultra orthodox jews walk through the snow past the Damascus gate outside Jerusalem's old city, Dec. 12, 2013. Getty

In neighboring Israel and the Palestinian territories, the early snow surprised many.

In Jerusalem, schools cancelled classes and buses in and out of the city were not operating. Snow blanketed palm and cypress trees. Revelers threw snowballs along the walls of the Old City, while others built a snowman across from a U.S. Consulate building.

By midafternoon, the snow had turned to a cold rain, leaving Jerusalem streets slippery with slush. The main highway linking the city with Tel Aviv was closed till midday.

A light snow also fell throughout the West Bank, prompting officials to close schools and government offices for the day.

In the Gaza Strip, the Health Ministry said authorities evacuated 30 people to hospitals and moved others into shelters after heavy rains caused flooding and power outages.

Yousef al-Zahar, the director of Gaza's civil defense, said most of the water collecting pools were already filled with rain. He said a lack of fuel meant municipalities could not pump it out, so authorities were trying to close some streets with sand bags to channel water away from homes as a temporary solution.

Snow in Cairo
Snow covers a square in Cairo, Dec. 13, 2013. Twitter/Amr ElGabry
 Even Cairo, the capital of Egypt which swelters in temperatures well over 100 degrees through much of the summer, saw a fresh coat of snow fall on Friday.

While the Egyptian capital has had some flurries in recent years, many in the country couldn’t remember the last time the white stuff stuck around long enough to make a snowball.