Ramiz Dallah / AP

‘We are slowly dying here’: Syrian refugees suffer in storm-hit Lebanon

Onslaught of snow and rain from Storm Zina leaves at least four refugees dead as aid agencies struggle to help victims

BEIRUT, Lebanon – At least four Syrian refugees have died as a result of the huge storm that is currently sweeping across Lebanon, as more than a million refugees try and survive against the onslaught of snow and rain.

A three-month-old baby girl died on Tuesday night after being stuck at the Masnaa border crossing for four days. 

Three members of a four-person group crossing into the Shebaa area in southern Lebanon from the Syrian village of Beit Jin, including a six-year-old boy and two men, were also killed by the storm, according to sources who spoke to Al Jazeera.

Storm Zina, which is now in its second day, has already forced road and school closures up and down the country, as well as temporarily shutting down the airport on Tuesday night as winds gathered speed of up to 90km per hour.

Thousands of refugees have been left stranded in the Bekaa Valley with very little food and heating oil, as aid agencies struggle to gain access to them following the closure of roads due to the heavy snowfall.

There are currently 1.1 million registered refugees in Lebanon who have fled the conflict in neighboring Syria, with another reported 300,000 unregistered refugees.

On Wednesday, entire refugee settlements in the Bekaa were blanketed in snow, with many refugees forced to dig their own way out.

"We are slowly dying here, no one is coming to help us and we have nothing," Um Abdo, a Syrian refugee based in Arsal told Al Jazeera, adding that she is worried about the children living with her, who may suffer from hypothermia.

Living in a makeshift tent with 11 members of her family, Abdo came over from nearby Yabroud, based in the Qalamoun mountain-range, a year ago.

"We have no food, we have no bread, we have no heating oil, and we don't know what to do," she said, crying. "We have been forgotten about and we are going to freeze to death."

'Dire' situation

Abu Khaled, an aid worker who is attempting to help the refugees in Arsal, told Al Jazeera the situation is "very dire" because of the restricted access to the refugees.

"It's really bad up here and no one is able to come in to help the refugees; there is no food and no heat," he said. "The refugees are very scared, we're all very scared."

According to Ninette Kelley, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Lebanon, the refugee agency has been preparing emergency stocks consisting of fuel vouchers, blankets, stoves and food parcels since October as part of its winter program.

"We have distributed fuel vouchers to all those residing over 500 meters, but the problem is that no matter what we do, and we do a lot, there will always be gaps," she told Al Jazeera.

"We have 1,700 localities across Lebanon to assist, and in this weather it is extremely difficult," she said, explaining that "some settlements can have four tents, and others 50, and we have to attend to each and every one of them."

As of midday on Wednesday, UNHCR staff were also facing logistical problems.

Some were snowed in, while other offices had no electricity due to severe power outages in the area.

The UNHCR has 402,000 registered refugees in the Bekaa, living in a variety of shelters – ranging from abandoned buildings to sheds to 'informal settlements'.

It has been able to provide assistance to at least 80 percent of those refugees through its winter program, but it has voiced concern for the 19,000 refugees living in informal settlements in Arsal.

Um Omar, a refugee who fled her home in Qusayr two years ago and is now living in an informal settlement in Arsal, said there was absolutely "no heating oil whatsoever to even warm the tents."

"We've been without heating oil for two months now," she told Al Jazeera. "An aid agency came before but were only able to provide fuel for a quarter for the families here. We are actually freezing to death."

The Lebanese Red Cross said it had conducted at least 30 rescue operations in the Bekaa and Mount Lebanon for people stranded by the snow, while the Minister of Education said schools may be closed again on Wednesday if the storm "continues with the same intensity."

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