Syrian refugees in Lebanon bundle up against storm

December 11, 2013 - 1:05 PM
APTOPIX Mideast Lebanon Storm

A Syrian refugee boy stands outside his tent as a heavy snowstorm batters the region, in a camp for Syrians who fled their country’s civil war, in the Bekaa valley, eastern Lebanon, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013. The United Nations refugee agency says it is "extremely concerned" for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees scattered across the region amid a snowstorm with high winds and torrential rains. (AP Photo)

MARJ, Lebanon (AP) — A blustery storm dropped torrential rain and snow on Lebanon and Jordan on Wednesday, forcing aid agencies to scramble to distribute desperately needed winter supplies like blankets and plastic tarps to Syrian refugees who have sought safe haven in the countries.

The storm, dubbed Alexa, pushed temperatures below freezing in northern Lebanon and some areas of the Bekaa Valley, which is dotted with informal refugee settlements. The winter weather heaped another layer of misery on the already grim existence of many of the estimated 1.4 million Syrians in Lebanon who fled the civil war raging in their homeland.

"We are extremely concerned for the refugees this winter that promises to be very harsh," Dana Sleiman of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees told The Associated Press.

Since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011, more than 2 million Syrians — at least half of them children — have fled the violence in their homeland to neighboring countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. Many will spend the winter in flimsy tents with often only a plastic sheet covering the ground.

In Marj, a Lebanese town near the border with Syria, refugees on Wednesday were piling up extra layers of plastic bags and tarps supplied by the UNHCR in an effort to reinforce their tents.

"I don't know if this tent will hold up, it's just a few flimsy pieces of metal holding it up," said Abu Suleiman, eying his tent with worry. Abu Suleiman, who only agreed to give his nickname because of security concerns, has lived in the settlement with about 40 other families since fleeing the Damascus suburb of Jisreen five months ago with little more than the clothes on his back.

Unlike in Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, the Lebanese government is not providing facilities or land to temporarily accommodate refugees despite the continuing influx into the country of 4.5 million. Many Syrians in Lebanon live in appalling conditions, finding shelter in slums, tents and tin shacks strung with laundry lines and wedged between farmland outside towns and cities.

In the capital, Beirut, many Syrians live in underground parking lots, under bridges and on old construction sites with no running water, sanitation, electricity or protection from Lebanon's sizzling summers and its freezing winters. Sleiman said that at least 80,000 Syrians in Lebanon will spend the winter in tents.

With no end to the conflict in sight and dwindling international support to help Syria's neighbors cover the costs and burden of providing for influx, many of the refugees now worry about how they are going to survive the winter.

"We used to be scared of wolves coming inside the tents at night," said Umm Mohammad, a 45-year-old refugee from the contested Damascus suburb of Daraya. "Now there's so much more to worry about. ... How will we survive the winter?"

She spoke on condition that only her nickname be used out of fears of harassment.

In a slum in the Jordanian capital, Ikhlas Halawani held her six-year-old daughter tight as they both watched the pouring rain that is expected to turn into snow later Wednesday.

"We have little food and no heating and I'm frightened for the safety of my children," Halawani said. She fled the central city of Homs in April, weeks after her husband, a rebel fighter with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, was killed in a battle with government forces. She found shelter in an abandoned building in Amman, rank with the stench of overflowing toilets.

"The storm is adding to our troubles," Halawani said. "It's freezing cold. The windows are jammed and don't close and we have nothing to look forward to."

In another makeshift shelter, 14 families were crammed into rooms in a three-story building that once served as a high school.

"We decided to share meals and heating so that the small children can stay alive," said Rabaa Nimr, also from Homs.

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Surk reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, and Lee Keath in Marj, Lebanon, contributed to this report.