As Lebanon storm approaches, some Syrian refugees are better prepared than others

Aid cuts mean nappies are among the products being burnt to try and stay warm

Syrian boys play with snowballs at the Deir Zeinoun refugee camp in the Beqaa Valley, eastern Lebanon, on January 28, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / HASSAN JARRAH
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Lebanon has experienced a mild winter so far this year, but as colder weather sets in, many Syrian refugees are taking desperate measures to stay warm.

As a storm on Tuesday approached the Beqaa Valley, where temperatures often fall below freezing at night and snow is expected by the end of the week, some are better prepared than others.

Dheba Al Ahmed, who has lived with her family in Adam Camp near the town of Bar Elias for six years, knows the drill.

With buckets placed around her tented home to catch leaks, other refugees are preparing their shelters and collecting fuel.

Most of the camp's 200 tents — tarps stretched across wooden frames that have multiple rooms and occasionally even second storeys — are now sturdy enough to handle heavy snowfall.


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It wasn't always that way. “The first year, half of our tent collapsed, and it flooded,” Ms Al Ahmed said.

The paradox this year is that her preparedness means she will get less help to battle the cold. Staff from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recently visited and classed her tent as sufficient for storms, opting instead to give building materials to those in less-sturdy dwellings.

Though the number has dropped slightly this year, there are still nearly one million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

In an extreme example of how dangerous winter weather can be, 15 Syrian refugees froze to death over the weekend as they attempted to cross the border into Lebanon. That was 20km away from Bar Elias.

Syrian refugees living in the Adam camp near Bar Elias in eastern Lebanon wait to collect stoves donated by the UAE. January 22, 2018.

Freezing temperatures also exacerbate existing medical conditions, particularly for the young or elderly.

But the problems refugees face this winter are being made worse by funding shortfalls at UNHCR, which provides the majority of aid to Syrians in Lebanon. Beyond tents, late last year 20,000 families were removed from a monthly cash assistance programme in favour of 20,000 families deemed more vulnerable who had not previously been receiving payments.

To try and make up part of the gap, seasonal aid is also available.

UNHCR began providing winter cash assistance in November of between US$225-375 (Dh826-1,377) per family to help with additional costs such as fuel, clothing and medical expenses, according to Lisa Abou Khaled, a spokeswoman in Beirut. “So far around 156,000 Syrian refugee families, or 780,000 people, have received such payments out of a planned total of 800,000 individuals.”

She admits: “It's far from enough.”


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Other donors have stepped in — on Monday in Adam Camp, families lined up for heating stoves donated by the United Arab Emirates, and delivered by Dar Al Fatwa, a Lebanese aid organisation.

The stoves, referred to locally as “sobia,” are designed to burn diesel fuel or wood, but what some refugees use is a sign of the financial difficulties many of them still face.

Camp residents say shoes, old clothes, plastic crates and bags, garbage and disposable nappies are often burnt when wood is short.

Those in Adam Camp order nappies by the truckload from a nearby factory that sells the ones deemed rejects at quality control inspections. At $100 per load, they represent value.

“We mix these with the wood,” said Ms Al Ahmed, holding a plastic bag of nappies more than half her height. “The nylon makes the wood burn better.”

The smell and the health risks were deemed severe enough that the camp's guardians tried to ban burning of plastic, but residents say it continues.

The UNHCR found that nearly 60 per cent of Syrian households in Lebanon in 2017 were living in “extreme poverty” — meaning they survive on less than $2.87 per person per day.

They live wherever they can find space. Moaz Yasser is on a remote hillside outside the town of Qusaya, about 15km from Bar Elias.

“We were in Dulhamiya until the military moved us,” said Moaz Yasser, among thousands of refugees evicted from camps in eastern Lebanon last year which the military deemed too close to an airbase.

Without regular work, the 24-year-old and his wife couldn't afford shelter.

“We borrowed to buy the materials,” he said, as he finished preparing his tent for the storm as the wind began to pick up on Monday. Among those who said they had lost the monthly UNHCR assistance, a shopkeeper has allowed him to buy the tent's coverings on credit this time round.

Rather than sheeting designed for purpose, the tarps are repurposed advertising billboards, a common sight across camps in Lebanon. One side of Ms Al Ahmed’s tent offered a free Burger King Whopper burger for any patrons wearing a Halloween costume. The tent of his only neighbour, also freshly prepared for the storm, offered make-up.

A little further up the hillside, Howia Ali Shabat waited with her two young children for the storm to start. Part of her tent had collapsed two days ago from the wind, and though her husband had repaired it, she was still concerned. "We fixed the tent — but we don’t have much fuel. Whatever we have, we burn."