Eight-year-old girl dies as devastating storm piles misery on Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Storm Norma has wreaked havoc across country 

Richard Hall
Akkar, Lebanon
Wednesday 09 January 2019 19:16
Snow blankets Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon

Khaled Alawi has lived through six Lebanese winters since fleeing the war in his home country of Syria. But those years of experience did little to help him when a devastating storm swept through the country this week.

“We thought we were prepared, but this was the worst one yet,” he says, surveying the damage left behind. “It was like a horror movie.”

Mr Alawi is one of thousands of Syrian refugees whose makeshift shelters have been battered by high winds, lashing rain, snow and freezing temperatures over the past few days. After years in exile, Storm Norma has served as a painful reminder of their precarious existence in the country.

More than 160,000 Syrians live in small informal settlements much like this one across Lebanon. The shelters that make up the camps are typically made with plastic sheets, corrugated iron and wood, and are unsuited to the drastic changes in climate that the seasons bring.

The United Nations’ refugee agency says at least 11,000 people have been severely affected by the weather, and more than 15 camps have completely flooded. One settlement in the border town of Arsal has been buried in snow, forcing its inhabitants to burn clothes to keep warm. In the northern town of Minyeh, an eight-year-old Syrian girl was found dead after falling into a river during the storm, AP reported.

These tents aren’t good enough for a chicken 

Khaled Alawi, Syrian refugee 

The camp where Mr Alawi lives, in the northern region of Akkar, sits on a raised patch of industrial land with an olive grove on one side and an open field on the other. When the rains fell hardest on Tuesday, the fields flooded and spilled over into the camp, leaking into the tents and soaking all their clothes and bedding.

“I sat with the children here and watched the water come in under the tent,” he says. “We had to move all of our stuff outside. No one slept.”

Not far from the camp, across a road that has been transformed into a flowing river, Jose Ahmad al-Jessi has found refuge in a shop’s warehouse. The mother of eight, in her fifties, was forced to abandon her shelter in the camp when it flooded, and was carried through the flood on the back of a pickup truck with her children.

Khaled Alawi stands with his daughters in front of his home in an informal settlement for Syrian refugees in Akkar, northern Lebanon

“We didn’t know what to do. We were all wet, our clothes were wet, our tent was flooded. We brought everything we could carry to here, but half of it was destroyed,” she says. “I brought the kids here and put them straight in front of the fire.”

She was not the only one. Two hundred refugees had to be evacuated from their camp on Lebanon’s northern border with Syria, just 20 miles up the road, after a river burst its banks, the Lebanese Red Cross said Wednesday. They were being sheltered in local schools and mosques.

The storm has sent aid agencies scrambling to help those who bore the brunt of the bad weather. There are no official refugee camps in Lebanon – instead, there are hundreds of small settlements built on private land across the country, which makes crises like this difficult to deal with.

Allison Zelkowitz, Save the Children’s country director in Lebanon said: “At a time when we all appreciate the warmth of our homes, it is crucial that we also think of the thousands of refugee families suffering in the freezing temperatures and struggling to survive.

“The thin roofs over their heads are waiting to collapse under the heavy rainfall. The corners of their tents have been flooded. I don’t think anyone would contemplate staying in such conditions for even a short time.”

But this year marks the eighth winter many have spent living in shelters in the bitter cold. There are an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, making it one of the highest refugee populations per capita in the world. The pressure of sustaining such large numbers has taken its toll.

As the war in Syria has slowed over the last year, with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces recapturing most of the territory once held by rebels, there have been increasing calls in Lebanon for refugees to return home.

Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, reiterated that call on Wednesday, saying Syrians should return so that they could live “with dignity”.

“The small size of our country and its infrastructure in addition to its limited resources do not allow us to sustain any increase in population number,” he said. “The refugee crisis still weighs on us economically and socially, and on security.”

The Lebanese government says tens of thousands of Syrians returned to their country in 2018. It has taken an active role in facilitating the returns, with the support of President Assad’s ally, Russia. The UN estimates that some 250,000 Syrians could return home from across the region this year. Western countries, meanwhile, have held back support for the move before a broader diplomatic solution to the conflict.

But even in the depths of winter, many Syrians would rather stay in Lebanon than face the danger of going back.

“If I go back, I would be conscripted or arrested,” says 25-year-old Sleiman Ahmad. “I have a small daughter. What would happen to her?”

Others in the camp claim to know relatives or friends that have returned, only to be arrested upon their arrival. Some have even taken to the sea, trying to make it to Cyprus to claim asylum.

The Lebanese government’s latest push is the culmination of a policy that has meant keeping refugees in a state of discomfort. Many in Lebanon fear Syrians will settle here indefinitely – as Palestinians did in successive waves in 1948 and 1967, when tens of thousands were forced from their homes and others fled in the Arab-Israeli wars. Their presence was one of the sparks of Lebanon’s own 1975-1990 civil war.

In an effort to prevent similar tensions reoccurring, the government has refused to set up any official refugee camps, and imposes tight restrictions on the materials refugees are allowed to use for their shelters. Because of these restrictions, the structures are not fit for purpose – they hold the stifling heat of summer and cannot withstand the rough winters.

“These tents aren’t good enough for a chicken,” says Mr Alawi. “We have asked the UN for help but all they do is come here and take notes and leave.”

The result is an annual, predictable crisis for the tens of thousands living in these shelters. For some, it can feel like Groundhog Day.

“Two years ago the same thing happened,” says Ms al-Jessi, the woman who was forced to evacuate her camp. Despite the prospect of doing it all again next year, she will not go back to Syria.

“All of my things there were destroyed. I have nothing there,” she says. “All we want is safety. That is all we want.”

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