Saturday, December 14, 2013

Refugees battling fatal snow storm

[Originally posted at NOW]

“Alexa,” which has already claimed two lives, intensified Friday, adding to the hardships faced by Lebanon’s Syrian refugee population.

Puddles left by rain and snow in the Nahiriyeh camp's mud (NOW/Alex Rowell)
BAR ELIAS, Lebanon – The “Alexa” rain and snow storm, which has already claimed two lives and shut down schools nationwide since it first struck Lebanon Tuesday afternoon, grew yet more intense on Friday, forcing the closure of the arterial Beirut-Damascus highway and covering everything more than 400 meters above sea level in fresh layers of snow.

For the residents of Nahiriyeh, one of an estimated 280 unofficial Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, this means an increasingly desperate battle against the elements over the coming days with few tools at their disposal.

Small snowflakes were already falling when NOW visited the sodden camp Friday morning, trudging through inches of muddy puddles as a stiff and icy wind swept through the agricultural plains. Shivering refugees, some wearing just sandals and a single layer of clothing, came out to greet us before ushering us into their makeshift tents.

“Seriously cold,” replied Muhammad, a 27-year-old father of two from Homs, when NOW asked how the past few days had gone. Muhammad and his wife, who finally fled Syria in April after months of internal displacement, are among the luckier of Nahiriyeh’s residents: below the carpet and thin mattresses that furnish the main room is a solid concrete surface, laid by Muhammad himself using materials supplied by an NGO. Other tents NOW saw in the camp, by contrast, often had floors of gravel or bare mud.

And Muhammad’s tent also houses a metal portable fireplace, complete with piping leading up to the ceiling in lieu of a chimney. Despite the freezing temperatures outside, the heat emitted from the fire makes it possible to remove at least one layer of clothing indoors. “We only put it on when we absolutely have to, otherwise the fuel would soon run out,” he told NOW as he added a thin square of cheap wood to the flames. Though most Nahiriyeh residents have forked out the $50 necessary to buy one of these, they complain that they rarely last long before breaking apart. The fuel, at least, can be sourced free from monthly vouchers distributed by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

In preparation for what they long knew would be a harsh winter, most Nahiriyeh residents have by now installed enough layers of roofing and walls – using everything from scrap canvas fabric to former billboard advertisements to insulating sheets supplied by the Danish Refugee Council – to keep out the vast majority of the snow and rain. “Some water leaked into our kitchen, but nothing so far has come in the main room,” said Muhammad. Nevertheless, a tear in the fabric of one tent NOW saw – pictured above – had let in a thick patch of gritty snow.

And the rain has created a serious problem, indeed a health hazard, outside the tents themselves. The hole in the ground, surrounded by a telephone booth-sized wooden shed, that serves as the sole toilet for the camp’s thirty families has now flooded, leaving a large pool of raw waste congealing just meters from a row of tents. “This is definitely the biggest problem we face today,” said Ahmad, another resident. “We asked the UN a month ago to help us make proper drainage. They said they’d be back soon, but they never came.” UNHCR was not immediately available for comment.

As a consequence, Muhammad said jaundice has become widespread in the camp, and sure enough, NOW saw more than one resident with yellow-tinged eyes. Because many are without valid identity documents, their access to medical care is limited to the sporadic offerings of generally underfunded and overstretched NGOs.

Yet despite these hardships, Nahiriyeh’s residents see little point attempting to relocate.

“Where would we go?” asked Muhammad rhetorically. “If we go back to Syria, the regime will take us. And besides, our neighborhood – Khalidiyeh – like all neighborhoods in Homs, is now completely destroyed.”

Luna Safwan contributed reporting.

*Some of the above names have been changed at the interviewees’ requests.

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