Per­fect storm hits strug­gling refugees

Harsher weather than usual, ris­ing poverty, dwin­dling aid funds have dras­tic im­pact

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LEBANON - By Abby Sewell

BARR ELIAS, Le­banon: As tor­ren­tial rains hit the Bekaa Val­ley, stormwa­ter rushed into the tent Anoud Hussein shares with her five chil­dren, drench­ing their sleep­ing pads, blan­kets and cloth­ing.

“Where could we go? Our neigh­bors were in the same sit­u­a­tion,” Hussein said. “We put some con­crete blocks on top of each other and raised the chil­dren up, and I stayed in the wa­ter.”

Her 6-year-old son grew sick and fever­ish. By the time NGO work­ers ar­rived at the camp in the Al-Rawda area the next day to evac­u­ate them to tem­po­rary shel­ter in a school near Barr Elias, Hussein said, she was des­per­ate, ter­ri­fied that her son’s con­di­tion would be­come crit­i­cal or that the fam­ily would be elec­tro­cuted by cur­rents car­ried in the ris­ing wa­ter.

“We saw death com­ing for us, my chil­dren and I, but death didn’t take us,” she told The Daily Star Wednesday evening, af­ter re­turn­ing to the camp to see if the tent had dried enough for the fam­ily to re­turn. But the flood­wa­ters re­mained an­kle-deep.

Hussein’s neigh­bor, Ra­haf Is­mail, had stayed in her tent along with her hus­band and four chil­dren de­spite the wa­ter, which had in­un­dated the kitchen.

“Ev­ery­thing in the camp flooded, even the bath­rooms,” she said. “I won’t let my chil­dren en­ter them.”

In an­other camp in nearby Al-Marj, as a team of vol­un­teers from the NGO Syr­ian Eyes walked through to sur­vey the dam­age, a woman pointed to her still-damp floor. “This morn­ing the wa­ter was up to here,” she said, plac­ing her hand at knee height. “We threw it out with buck­ets.”

Refugee set­tle­ments in the Bekaa and north­ern Le­banon strug­gle with win­ter storms ev­ery year, but this year, refugees and aid work­ers said, harsher than usual weather, in­creas­ing poverty and shrink­ing aid bud­gets have come to­gether in a dan­ger­ous nexus.

The storm that hit Le­banon be­gin­ning Sun­day was un­usu­ally strong, clos­ing roads and da­m­ag­ing in­fra­struc­ture through­out the coun­try.

At least 361 camps and 11,300 refugees had been af­fected by the storm as of Wednesday, ac­cord­ing to a UNHCR as­sess­ment.

An 8-year-old Syr­ian girl drowned af­ter be­ing swept away by flood­wa­ters in north­ern Le­banon’s Minyeh, and two Syr­ian fam­i­lies were found on the brink of death by the Civil De­fense Tuesday evening.

Heavy snow cov­ered set­tle­ments in Ar­sal, and on lower ground in the Bekaa Val­ley, camps were in­un­dated by rain.

Hun­dreds of fam­i­lies fled to tem­po­rary shel­ter in schools, mosques, NGO cen­ters and homes opened up by rel­a­tives and Le­banese fam­i­lies.

Oth­ers re­fused to move, fear­ing that if they left their camps, they would be pre­vented from re­turn­ing.

Aid work­ers scram­bled to dis­trib­ute mat­tresses, blan­kets and heat­ing fuel, to move fam­i­lies to shel­ter and to pump wa­ter out of the most heav­ily in­un­dated camps.

Storm Norma ar­rived at a time when an in­creas­ing num­ber of refugees are mov­ing from houses and apart­ments to camps or other sub­stan­dard hous­ing.

A re­cently re­leased U.N. re­port as­sess­ing the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of Syr­ian refugees in Le­banon found that the pro­por­tion of refugees liv­ing in “non­res­i­den­tial or non­per­ma­nent struc­tures,” in­clud­ing tents, garages and build­ings un­der con­struc­tion, had in­creased from 26 per­cent in 2017 to 34 per­cent in 2018.

“For many, this will be the eighth con­sec­u­tive win­ter in dis­place­ment,” UNHCR spokes­woman Lisa Abou Khaled said. “Af­ter all this time, fam­i­lies have al­ready spent most, if not all, of their sav­ings. Even if some of them man­age to find work, it’s usu­ally in agri­cul­ture or con­struc­tion, which are sea­sonal and cease over the win­ter months. Thus, in ad­di­tion to fac­ing harsher liv­ing con­di­tions, they have fewer re­sources and in­cur more ex­penses in or­der to keep warm.”

Like many oth­ers, Hussein said her sit­u­a­tion had gone from bad to worse. Her fam­ily fled from the Da­m­as­cus coun­try­side at the start of the war and has moved from one camp to an­other in Bekaa since then.

Three years ago, her hus­band died. Since then, Hussein said she has strug­gled to pro­vide for their chil­dren, par­tic­u­larly af­ter a por­tion of the U.N. as­sis­tance they used to re­ceive was cut. The lim­ited bud­get, she said, also meant she had been un­able to pre­pare for the win­ter storms by buy­ing plas­tic sheets or other sup­plies to re­in­force the tent. “This year, I’m so tired,” Hussein said.

Is­mail agreed: “Last year, the win­ter wasn’t bad, but this year it’s ter­ri­ble. The weather, the poverty, ev­ery­thing is get­ting worse.”

NGOs also said do­na­tions for re­lief work had dwin­dled in re­cent years. “As the fi­nan­cial sup­port de­creases for shel­ter ac­tiv­i­ties, hu­man­i­tar­ian agen­cies are not able to pro­vide the same level of as­sis­tance, which leaves a big­ger im­pact on the most vulnerable,” Nick Har­court, shel­ter spe­cial­ist at the Nor­we­gian Refugee Coun­cil in Le­banon, said.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of sev­eral small NGOs work­ing in the Bekaa, many of them run by dis­placed Syr­i­ans, gath­ered Thursday at the of­fice of Sawa for Devel­op­ment and Aid, which was also serv­ing as a tem­po­rary shel­ter, to dis­cuss where they should fo­cus their re­sources in the re­sponse effort. Should they spend their lim­ited funds on more mat­tresses and blan­kets that would likely be soaked in the next storm? Or should they in­vest in more costly but longer-term so­lu­tions like rais­ing the floors of the tents? Would the tem­po­rary shel­ters avail­able be suf­fi­cient for the du­ra­tion of the cri­sis and for the new storm ex­pected to come the fol­low­ing week?

Omar Ab­dul­lah, liveli­hood co­or­di­na­tor with Sawa, said the win­ter sit­u­a­tion had been fur­ther ex­ac­er­bated be­cause of the evic­tion of thou­sands of refugees from the area sur­round­ing the Riyaq air base last year.

The new set­tle­ments es­tab­lished by the ousted refugees, he said, were in many cases built hastily and not on high ground, mak­ing them par­tic­u­larly vulnerable to the el­e­ments.

Ab­dul­lah said he wor­ried that “we’re ar­riv­ing at a stage where peo­ple are go­ing to places they don’t want to go. They might re­turn to Syria, to ar­eas that are un­der bomb­ing and not se­cure be­cause of the very dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances.”

Hussein said she wouldn’t con­sider re­turn­ing to Syria; her old­est son is of con­scrip­tion age. But she doesn’t know where she will go.

“I can’t re­turn to here,” she said, ges­tur­ing at the wa­ter pooled around her tent. “What can I do?”

Syr­ian refugees stand in rain­wa­ter and mud in a set­tle­ment in Barr Elias.

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