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Syria’s Refugees Brave Another Winter in Exile

As winter descends upon the Middle East, neighboring countries bearing the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis, such as Lebanon, are scrambling to put pre-emptive measures in place to ensure refugees survive freezing temperatures, despite fuel shortages and inadequate housing.

Written by Manuel Langendorf Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

On a sunny day in the Jaharriyeh refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, winter might seem far away. But for the 250 Syrian families living here in tents less than 12 miles from the Syrian border, it is coming nonetheless.

Camp leader Ali is unequivocal when asked whether its inhabitants are ready for winter. “No, nothing has changed from the last year and we are not prepared,” he tells me. In 2014, several people, including children, died during the winter months. Even a superficial look at the tents, rebuilt after a devastating fire hit the camp last June, reveals they won’t provide much shelter when temperatures drop.

In November, Salam LADC, a Lebanese organization working with refugees and their host communities predominantly in areas close to the Syrian border, partnered with students from the Lebanese-Armenian Haigazian University to distribute winter hats in the camp as part of efforts to prepare for the forthcoming winter.

As camp residents lined up with sheets of paper in their hands denoting how many family members they had, Haigazian students played games with the children. As a tour around the camp showed, there is not much for children to do there.

While the increasing flow of refugees to Europe has dominated international headlines over the last year, it is Middle Eastern countries like Lebanon that are bearing the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis.

A small country located at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, Lebanon hosts at least 1 million Syrians according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). However, the actual number is believed to be significantly greater, with estimates as high as 1.8 million. In May 2015, the UNHCR suspended the registration of new refugees as per the instruction of the Lebanese government.

Inside the Jaharriyeh Camp

Most of people living in the Jaharriyeh camp are from Homs, according to Oussama Ibrahim, the regional coordinator at Salam LADC in the Bekaa Valley. The camp, which was established in 2012 near the town of El Marj, houses up to 1,300 people in 180 tents – around 400 of them children.

Ali has been living here for two and a half years. “At the beginning, it started with 10 tents,” he says. “Then my relatives came and some other people joined us. Now, there are 250 families and 1,300 refugees in the camp.”

Jaharriyeh camp is only one of countless informal settlements across Lebanon, often erected at the side of the road near small communities.

As is the case in other communities, the influx of Syrians around El Marj has put an increasing strain on resources, creating tensions with the locals. But as Joseph Matta, director of Salam LADC, says, problems with the electricity supply and rubbish collection existed before they came. He goes on to explain that shortages are often incorrectly blamed on the arrival of Syrians. But, despite support for the refugees from the municipality, “there is more need than capacity,” he says.

While it isn’t the case in El Marj, a predominantly Sunni village supporting the uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, tensions between Syrian refugees and Shia communities have frequently intensified due to differing stances on the conflict, says Matta.

Imad Salamey, an associate professor at the Lebanese American University, tells me that the Syrian civil war has led to increased polarization and deepened sectarian divisions in Lebanon.

Back at Jaharriyeh, Ali explains that the camp has increased in size, even after June’s devastating fire, as the $40 rent for each tent (and $20 for electricity) is far cheaper than renting a room or apartment in nearby communities. Despite lower rents, it costs about $1,000 to buy a tent, says Ali.

In order to help the camp be prepared for potential emergencies, Salam LADC is training an emergency team to handle smaller crises such as another fire incident or dealing with collapsed tents, Ibrahim says. Fifteen people have trained to be part of the team.

Despite these efforts, yet another winter without proper housing will be a tough challenge for those who have fled the war in Syria.

A Lack of Coordination

While at least three local organizations are coordinating their activities in the refugee camp, such organization is rare, says Sami, a former aid worker who preferred not to give his full name.

During our meeting in Beirut, Sami says that while local NGOs establish a more direct and responsive relationship with the refugees than international NGOs, there is often a lack of meaningful communication between them. There are no formal mechanisms in place for local NGOs to coordinate, leading to possible duplication of assistance in some cases or lack of assistance in others: for example, handing out too many blankets to a family that is in need of fuel for heating, says Sami.

“It’s not an exaggeration when someone says coordination saves lives, because it honestly does. And coordination has been lacking, especially with local NGOs,” says Sami. Competitiveness between local organizations attempting to furnish their reputations – e.g, seeing who can respond to the largest number of people – is one factor in this breakdown of communication, according to Sami, as are personal differences between those leading their respective NGOs.

“Coordination happens sometimes, but it is on an ad hoc basis, so there is no structure. There is no inter-agency coordination group or committee,” adds Sami, drawing on his experience in northern Lebanon in 2013.

Reflecting on the overall response to the refugee crisis in Lebanon, however, Professor Salamey offers a different perspective: “In a country of 4 million people, receiving 1.5 million refugees and, given this country’s sectarian divisions and government failures in many areas, to be capable … [of hosting] such a number of refugees without totally breaking down is a miracle.”

While noting various problems, including human rights violations, attacks against refugees and the issue of children begging in the street, in addition to a lack of an official refugee policy, Salamey says: “Given what we’re encountering and how we’re coping with the situation, I think it’s not bad, the response overall.”

“I give huge credit to Lebanon and its people for being able to respond and not totally collapse.”

The question nevertheless remains: how much longer can this “miracle” be upheld?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

This article was originally published by the Fair Observer and is reprinted here with permission.

Top image: A Syrian refugee woman fetches water at a refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013. Tens of thousands of impoverished Syrian refugees living in tents, shacks and unfinished buildings throughout Lebanon face a miserable winter as aid organizations scramble to meet their needs, constantly overwhelmed by more Syrians fleeing their country’s war. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

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