Syrian refugees die in worst Middle East storm in decades

First displaced by war, then beset by harsh winter, Syrians continue to suffer.

AMMAN // The worst winter storm in decades swept the Middle East on Wednesday, killing at least three Syrian refugees and piling more misery on the hundreds of thousands of others with scant protection from the biting cold, flooding, high winds and heavy snowfall.

A 10 year-old girl who fled the Syrian city of Homs died in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley on Wednesday, an activist said, as a result of the cold weather, and a Syrian man and six-year-old boy were found dead in the Shebaa region of south Lebanon after crossing over the border, officials said.

The cold polar front, with wind speeds exceeding 110 kilometres per hour, hit as increasing refugee numbers and funding shortfalls have already affected crucial assistance to Syrians throughout the region.

More than 3 million refugees in countries adjoining Syria, and more than 7.6 million people inside the country, have been forced to abandon their homes since an uprising began there nearly four years ago. The country already faces critical shortages of fuel and medicine, power supply, shelter, clothing and food.

The massive snowstorm, named Huda in Jordan and Zina in Lebanon, dumped rain and hail on Lebanon’s coast and heavy snows in the mountains and central Bekaa Valley. Petrol stations, schools, banks and shops were shut and power was cut throughout the country. There was also heavy snowfall in Jordan with government ministries closed. Heavy rain and strong winds soaked and uprooted refugee tents in the north-east Lebanon town of Arsal, that hosts thousands of Syrian refugees.

In Jordan’s Zaatari camp, the vast majority of the 95,000 refugees live in caravans. But 20 tents were flooded and families were moved to safe shelters. Another 47 families out of 1,800 living in tents were being relocated to two other camps, said Brigadier General Waddah Hmoud, head of the department dealing with the Syrian refugee camps.

“Twenty families were relocated to emergency accommodations,” said Andrew Harper, UN refugee agency UNHCR’s top official in Jordan. “There were problems with tents, people have relocated with their relatives, friends or mosques or emergency shelters, we got a whole range of shelters and we will open them as needed. Everything is under control.”

Mohammad Al Deek, 23, who fled Deraa 18 months ago, was one of the refugees whose tent was flooded.

“It was either five or six in the morning when the tent got soaked and fell on us,” he said. “My wife is due [to give birth] this month and we could have suffocated. My brother’s tent also fell. We all left for a kindergarten shelter.”

The UNHCR and aid agencies worked around the clock to prepare for the storm in Jordan, distributing blankets, heaters and gas cylinders as well as food supplies in the two main camps of Zaatari and Azraq.

The Azraq camp opened in April last year and houses 12,000 refugees. Medical centres at the camps are also working 24 hours, and an emergency hotline has been set up.

“We are on high alert,” said Mr Harper. “Hundreds of thousands of refugees will be cold and miserable.”

Abu Ali, who lives in a caravan in the Zaatari camp with his wife and five children, said: “Thank God we have a heater and we are better off than people living in tents. I have wrapped the children in blankets to keep them warm, but it is still very cold.”

Jordan’s Meteorological Department forecast a drop in temperatures on Wednesday. Rain will be accompanied by thunder and hail as well as snowfall on mountains over 600 metres high, according to the news agency Petra.

Outside the camps, where the vast majority of the 640,000 refugees in Jordan live, the UNHCR is providing cash assistance. But with limited funding, only 21,000 families are receiving US$120 (Dh440) each per month.

“We need more cash to provide to refugees [outside the camps], where the vast majority of families are headed by women,” Mr Harper said. “We’ve got 9,000 families that we want to provide cash assistance to but we don’t have the money to do that.

“We need cash to give refugees so that they can pay the rent, fix the windows so that they can be warm in winter.”

Unicef and the World Food Programme on Wednesday launched a one-time cash assistance programme to provide 41,000 vulnerable Syrian refugee children under the age of 14 in the Zaatari and Azraq camps with $20 each to enable their families to get them winter clothes.

But outside the camps, where the majority of the refugees live, living conditions are harsh. The refugees struggle to find work and feed their families without assistance.

More than 100,000 blankets were flown into Jordan in the early morning on Wednesday, as part of an emergency airlift of aid from the UAE to help people in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, as well as the Palestinian territories, cope with the severe weather.

Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip declared a state of emergency over the storm, while snow also accumulated in northern Israel and the Golan Heights. Schools in Jerusalem were closed ahead of a forecast warning of 25 centimetres of snowfall.