Winter's Tragic Toll on Lebanon's Syrian Refugees

by John Owens


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BEKAA VALLEY, LEBANON —Safe from the violence that blighted his life in Syria, Hussein Hassan now fears his children face a new threat - the icy water that floods their temporary, makeshift home.

Having fled conflict near their village in Deir ez-Zour two months ago, Hassan and his 11-member family are among those who have to endure Lebanon’s winter conditions in tents.

“We are afraid of the cold weather, and afraid our children will get sick,” he said. “Our lives are as nothing. We have nothing but fear. Fear from illness, from the rain, and there is nothing to keep warm with.”

Of the million registered refugees in Lebanon, an estimated 250,000 Syrians live in tent camps across the country.

Many, like Hassan, reside in the Bekaa Valley, where winter temperatures sometimes plunge below zero.

Last week's storm revealed how vulnerable they are to freezing conditions and the amount of money available to help them is dwindling.

Bitter reminder

Rains lashed down on the tent of Hussein and his family, seeping up through the ground, dripping through the ceiling and pouring in between gaps in the tarp that stretch over a wooden frame and suffice as walls.

“The panels on the roof broke, the wood broke, and we were flooded. We had to go to our neighbors',” he explained.

In front of him, a pile of clothes and mattresses lay sodden.

Following a few months of relatively mild weather, the storm came as a bitter reminder of how harsh winters can be in Lebanon's highlands.

And with some Syrians spending their seventh year in camps, it is proving ever-harder to cope with such conditions.

Dwindling savings

Outside Hassan’s home, youngsters ran in sandals through muddy, flooded passages, their lips chattering with the cold.

Nearby, Zahra Hamad, mother of 10 children, wondered how much longer she could keep their tent warm. Her family now sleeps in the one room that doesn’t leak, a communal space at the heart of which sits a diesel-fueled heater.

It has been a lifeline over the four years they have lived here, but she says keeping the heater going costs around $7 a day, an amount she can barely afford.

Over time, savings have dwindled to nothing and at this time of year opportunities for work are nearly non existent. Work for refugees is seasonal, and vastly outstripped by demand at the best of times.

“Sometimes it is better outside than inside, things get so bad,” she explained.

“There used to be aid coming, but now there’s no wood, no tarpaulins - nothing.”


The NGOs and aid agencies that assist refugees like Hamad are also struggling to respond. With the Syrian war grinding on, the hunt for funds has become ever more challenging.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese state’s refusal to allow official camps amid fears that integrating Syrians into Lebanese society could upset its delicate political, social and sectarian balance means settlements continue to exist on an ad-hoc basis, despite their longstanding presence.

The UN refugee agency has received just $143 million of a requested $228 million for its regional winter program. UNHCR Spokesman Scott Craig says the agency faces “very difficult dilemmas” as it had to select who should benefit from extra assistance.

“The nuance between a family that is severely vulnerable and another that is highly vulnerable is very small,” he told VOA.

Tragic toll

It is not just in the camps that winter has bitten. It took its most tragic toll in the mountains that loom over the Bekaa valley.

On January 19, a group of 30 to 35 Syrians attempting to be smuggled from Syria into Lebanon, a mountainous border once open but now closely guarded, were caught in a snowstorm, 16 died.

In a ward on the second floor of Bekaa hospital, Mishaan al Abed scrolled through the images on his phone. He lingered over an old picture of his six-year-old daughter, Hiba. Dressed in a white coat, her wide eyes stare up at the camera.

The next picture was one that he had seen for the first time on social media earlier this month as he waited nervously for news of his family the morning after the storm: four bodies, surrounded by snow, lifeless. Six of the dead were members of Abed’s family, including his wife, mother and one of his two daughters.

Like Hassan, they too left Deir ez-Zour and had tried to flee the fighting. Unlike Hassan they and did not make it.

Except one.

His other daughter, three-year-old Sarah, lay in a bed next to where he sat in the hospital, the dark scars of frostbite etched across her face. Somehow, she had survived.

“My soul was scared about them making the journey, but they had to do it,” said Abed, who was already living in Lebanon and waiting for his family’s arrival to start a new life.

“If we could move somewhere where there aren’t any wars maybe she’ll forget a little, but what she has gone through is very difficult.” “She lost her mother, she lost…” His voice faltered, before continuing.

“God help them.”