International

Winter’s no wonderland for beleaguered Syrian refugees

Many thousands shiver in tent camps as snow blankets the Levant

Syrian refugees languish as winter bears down on the Middle East.
Ahmad Shalha/Reuters

The breathtaking beauty of the surrounding snow-covered mountains offers no consolation for the misery that winter has brought for thousands of Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley. In farmland repurposed as an unofficial refugee camp for those fleeing Syria’s war, snow dumped by Lebanon’s first storm of the season melts when the temperature rises a few degrees above freezing during the day, turning the narrow paths between tents into shin-deep patches of mud. 

Thursday found children standing shivering by a puddle, their rubber sandals sinking into the mud and their pajama pants rolled up in a futile attempt to keep them clean.

“These children have no clothes — how can they not get sick?” said a refugee who identified himself by a nickname, Abu Ali. Like many refugees in Lebanon, he was afraid to disclose his real name.

At least 80,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon are living at winter’s mercy in tent settlements like this one, according to Dana Sleiman, a public-information officer with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  Hundreds of thousands more are living in unfinished buildings, garages and other structures offering insufficient protection against winter’s bite.

The hundreds of tent settlements spread across Lebanon are portraits of misery as refugees find themselves locked in a daily struggle to stay warm and keep their shelters standing.

“If winter carries on like it looks like it is going to, there are many tents that are going to collapse,” said Abu Ali.

Lebanon snow refugees
A man clears snow from his tent in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images

The ramshackle tents in these settlements are mostly made of billboard advertisements stretched over flimsy wooden frames. The ads are for things the refugees know little about and could never afford — a luxury resort on the Mediterranean, a supermarket chain that carries Western products, a waterfront performance by Colombian pop star Shakira in Beirut a few summers back, a liquor store that carries American booze. They offer little protection from the elements, and water drips from holes punched in their roofs and floods in from the sides.

While some refugees can afford to lay concrete for their tent floors, others cannot, leaving them living in mud when the water eventually makes its way in.

“My house does not have concrete. It is just dirt, and I have no method of heating, just a few blankets,” said Mousa Ali al Kadri, a refugee from Damascus’ al Midan neighborhood who arrived in Lebanon two months ago. On Wednesday night, winds from the storm picked up and thrashed his tent in El Marj as the snow fell.  “I thought the roof was going to come off. I do not know how we made it.”

At this time last year, the U.N. had registered 175,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon; it now lists 840,000, although the Lebanese government and others say there are well over 1 million refugees in this tiny country of just 4 million.

For many refugees like Kadri, their first winter in Lebanon is proving that life away from the war is not an end to their hardship and suffering.

“We pray to God that there is a better future. We hope that things get better, but it does not look like it is going to get better,” he said.

Fearful that refugees could remain in Lebanon and alter the country’s sectarian balance — as an influx of Palestinian refugees fleeing fighting in Jordan did in the early 1970s — the Lebanese government has resisted establishing official refugee camps, as Turkey, Jordan and Iraq have done. That means most refugees here have to pay for their accommodations. And with most living in the poorest parts of Lebanon, where work is scarce, there is little money left to winterize their shelters or afford heating supplies.                                      

“If we stay in this situation until next year, we are going to die from cold and mud and disease,” said Maher Ibrahim al Halabi, a 30-year-old refugee in El Marj.

For Halabi, money is tight. He recently got a job with El Marj’s municipality hauling trash and doing manual labor for $100 a month but is unable to afford his $56 monthly rent and fears eviction. Last year he received food vouchers for his family from the World Food Program, but he sold those to pay rent. Since then, budget shortages have forced the World Food Program to cut off food distribution to many refugees in Lebanon.

Ahead of this week’s storm, the United Nations and its aid agency partners rushed to deliver aid to refugees. World Vision, a Christian aid organization, has distributed blankets and cash vouchers for heating supplies to 25,000 families in Lebanon. But “despite all the efforts World Vision and other partners are doing to provide refugees with winterization items, they basically live in substandard shelters,” said Patricia Mouamar, World Vision’s communications coordinator in Lebanon.

“The concern is with the snow coming, those tents will not be fit to support the snow,” she added.

For the refugees, the help is welcome but often still not enough.

Abu Ali received a cash voucher for about $150 for a heater and fuel. He bought a heater for $100, but without work he can afford to keep it on for only two hours a day to warm the tent he shares with 11 members of his family.

Like many refugees, Abu Ali was not accustomed to such hardship. Before he fled to Lebanon, he owned a four-bedroom home in Ghouta in Damascus’ suburbs and worked as a driver. His family was warm in their home last winter but fled half a year ago as violence worsened. The house was destroyed not long after they left.

“Twenty years of hard work … one missile,” he said. “As long as there are barrel bombs and missiles, there is no going back.”

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Click for in-depth coverage of the humanitarian crisis

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter