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Lebanese citizens struggle to bring Syrians in from the cold

As snowstorms batter Lebanon's refugees, civil society distributes aid to combat the international community's perceived failings
Many of the youngest refugees have never known life in Syria. Bekaa, Lebanon (MEE/Joseph Ataman)

"Don't do that, the donors won't like it!" The aid worker’s appeals for calm fell on deaf ears as the crowd of Syrian men – shouting and shoving – pushed towards the truck where bags of clothes were being tossed from the back of the vehicle. In the commotion, a pillow flew up and over the outreached hands of the refugees. Trudging across the snow, an elderly man bent over and retrieved the wet bedding from a puddle.

Lebanon's Bekaa valley is no stranger to aid convoys; every week lines of trucks roll up the valley from the capital Beirut to help feed and clothe the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have found shelter here from their country’s three-year civil war. In October, Lebanon, which has the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world at one in four residents, said it was cutting back sharply on the number of Syrians allowed onto their soil. Resentment against Syrians has grown with many complaining that refugees are taking jobs, driving down wages, overloading schools and hospitals and even worsening an electricity shortage which pre-dates the war in Syria.

Most of the relief for Syrians in the Bekaa valley comes from foreign charities and governments in Europe and the oil-rich Gulf. This convoy, however, was different. This was Lebanese aid. Organised, collected and delivered to the Hamdanieh refugee camp in the snow-covered town of al Marj by a group of young volunteers from Beirut, it appeared evidence of lasting Lebanese good will towards their Syrian neighbours.

But the scene at al Marj told the story of two very different Lebanons, or rather, two different experiences with Syrian refugees. The humanitarian from Beirut, trussed up in a fur-lined parka and designer glasses throwing blankets from a tailgate, and the farmer, sovereign over the makeshift camp of white tents, looking on from the balcony of his brick farmhouse. Relations between Syrians and the rural Lebanese are fraught. Every day these refugees live under the watchful eyes of such farmhouses, a stark reminder that they are merely guests here – often unwanted guests.

In a society highly concerned with image, the NGO worker's concerns were understandable. Alongside him were Lebanese donors to the charity watching their aid being distributed. Quilted duvets trodden into the snowy turf, young women volunteers from Beirut struggling to control the crowd of anxious Syrian fathers, boxes of second-hand shoes sailing through the air; it was hardly the poster for Lebanon’s response to Syria's plight that they had hoped for.

The men of the camp scramble for the best blankets for their families, Lebanon (MEE/Joseph Ataman)

Cold kills

A week earlier a blizzard had swept through Lebanon, blocking roads and cutting off villages with several feet of snow. For the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees living in barns, fields and tented settlements, life became unbearable.

Unlike in Jordan and Turkey, Syrians in Lebanon do not have access to permanent camps or organised facilities. Instead they live in wooden huts wrapped in plastic sheeting, little protection from snow and driving rain.

Hamdanieh camp sits at the foot of the low mountains overlooking the main road back to Beirut. The landowner’s house, three-storeys tall with balconies adorned with satellite dishes, lords over the field of rickety white huts and a row of concrete garages, some occupied by refugees, at the back of the farmers' house.

In Al-Marj, landlords demand $200 rent monthly for a concrete garage that typically sleeps 13 or more. Bekaa, Lebanon (MEE/Joseph Ataman)

The field is home to a few hundred refugees. Many have been there for close to four years. For some of the children running through the snowy alleys between the tents it is the only life they have known. 

To the east, across jagged, snowy peaks, lies Damascus, the seat of President Bashar al-Assad’s power and the former home of most of the settlement's residents. Less than two hour's drive away, few, if any, would attempt the journey back. Forced conscription, prison and war wait for them in Syria. Here in Lebanon they live a life of hunger, cold and waiting.

Lebanon strikes back

Nader Al Nakib, a middle-aged Lebanese environmental consultant, is more used to the corporate environment of the Gulf than aid work. But when he saw images of Syrian children wrapped in burial shrouds, victims of the cold, he felt he had to act.

"People are dying in Lebanon, I can't accept that. This was a humanitarian crisis. We couldn’t stand idle," he said.

In the winter of 2013 as a biting cold set in, Al-Nakib and a group of Beiruti activists and journalists went from door to door collecting clothes for refugees in the war-ravaged north-eastern town of Arsal.

This year, as snow fell upon the Bekaa valley al-Nakib’s charity, Lebanese4Refugees jumped to action again. A call for donations on Facebook saw thousands of Lebanese, all keen to help, drop off what they could at the charity's temporary collection centres.

Standing in a Beirut car park on a frosty January afternoon, Carol Malouf, a journalist by trade and another of the group’s founders, watches as a chain of volunteers ferry bags of clothes, shoes, toys and bedding from smart SUVs to a line of trucks. Once the clothes have been bagged and loaded the trucks start up their engines. A cheer goes up as the vehicles pull away, bound for Akkar in the North and informal settlements in the Bekaa and Arsal.

Malouf says the grass-roots movement was born out frustration with international organisations, which she says have failed to protect refugees. Dwindling international funding, government bureaucracy over access to the most unstable areas and aid agencies' perceived financial inefficiencies are all responsible for this.

"I think our work puts them to shame,” said Malouf. “It shows that, you know, if there's a will, there's a way and if you want to do it, it doesn't take a lot," she said.

Watching the final trucks roll out of the car park, Malouf emphasised that the support for Syrian refugees in Lebanon was by no means universal, in fact solidarity with the displaced in increasingly rare. "The Lebanese are divided over the crisis and this has also affected the government; politics in Lebanon affects the humanitarian issues", she said, highlighting the tensions rooted in concerns over security against extremist groups and the strain on local resources. Adding what was to be the message on all the volunteers' lips, she said bluntly, "the government could do more".

A Baptism of Fire

Four days later, 13 January, a minibus full of the volunteers from Beirut pulled up at the rusty gates of Al-Marj settlement. A hush fell over the group. Few had ever stepped foot inside a refugee camp.

The NGO staff, keen for the volunteers from Beirut to get some hands-on experience, decided that the van would be emptied by hand but as soon as the doors were open a frantic tussle for goods ensued.

“The volunteers need experience,” shouted Mona Ayoub, one of the trip's coordinators, over the commotion as a tangle of arms clamoured for clothes from the van. “The refugees should know that these gifts are from the Lebanese people," she said. Moments later the doors were slammed shut. The goods, it was decided, would be distributed house-by-house.

Walking along the icy tracks of the settlement the volunteers found refugees eager to talk.

Mowady Dham, sporting a muddy gilet and a heavily-gelled quiff popular among Syrian teens, was 14 when his family fled Damascus in 2011. Sitting on a wall near the truck, Dham laughed as the older men squabbled over blankets and toys. When asked if he had work he chuckled: "The Lebanese don't have jobs, how could I?"

The volunteers from Beirut clad in branded ski gear and draped with the latest SLR cameras took selfies with smiling refugees and handed sweets out to curious children, many of whom ran through icy puddles in open sandals and pyjamas. Few Syrians seemed to care that it was Lebanese aid they were being handed.

Among the residents, stories of harassment and even attempted rape at the hands of their Lebanese landlords were common; affection for their Lebanese neighbours was in short supply. “If I had 1,000 Lira [roughly 40p], they would take it. If I had one billion dollars, the Lebanese would take one billion and one,” Hassan Aboud, a 62-year old grandfather of six, lamented. "We live under another Assad here in Lebanon."

The Lebanese truck was the first aid the settlement had received for several weeks, bar a Saudi fuel donation earlier that same day. The camp's residents were quick to praise only two countries: Saudi Arabia and Turkey. "They're the only two countries not to abandon us, they care, no one else does," shouted Aboud, "I want Erdoğan to be President of Syria." Lebanese4Refugees had wanted to show Lebanese solidarity with the Syrian people's plight. They received little affection in return.

A Dark Future

The opinions of Al-Marj's Syrian residents betray a worrying deterioration of relations between Lebanese locals and the refugee population. "Lebanon's refugees live in a climate of fear," Nadim Houry, director of Human Rights Watch's Beirut office explained to Middle East Eye. "They can't turn to the government for fear of attack."

Houry made it clear that while statistics are scarce, intercommunal tensions have been increasing for some time. Human Rights Watch documented dozens of attacks in just two months last year. "Three years into the conflict local communities are feeling the burden," he added, "There's a complete lack of a refugee protection framework in Lebanon today."

The feeling that refugees are increasingly ill supported by the international community motivated the work of groups like Lebanese4Refugees. Many others feel that such dwindling assistance - refugee welfare payments were cut by nearly half in December - leaves Syrians as a burden on local communities. "It's very difficult to counteract such perceptions," according to UNHCR representative in Lebanon, Ninette Kelley, "there isn't a refugee situation in the world that is able to address 100% percent of all needs, certainly not with funding that ended last year at 41 percent [of the total required]."

The war in Syria shows no sign of abating and, among volunteers and refugees alike, there is little hope of this being the last Lebanese winter they must endure.

The Lebanese people's own aid efforts may not have been the perfect solution but they were a display of human compassion rarely seen from the Syrian crisis. Talking of their work, Gino Raidy, one of the NGO's volunteers, gave the best conclusion: "Is it sustainable, is it the solution? Of course not. But will it save people from dying, will it save them from freezing? Yes. That is why we must continue."