Perfect storm hits struggling refugees
Harsher weather than usual, rising poverty, dwindling aid funds have drastic impact
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.