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Treacherous road conditions, delayed flights and closed schools. Snow and ice cold conditions have caused disruption across the UK leaving many people frustrated. However, the worst winter storm in two decades hit Syria and its neighbouring countries last week bringing destruction and threatening lives in a region already facing a refugee crisis from the country’s civil war.
ShelterBox Response Team (SRT) member Fiona McElroy (UK) is part of an SRT in Lebanon currently assessing the need for emergency shelter:
‘Conditions are incredibly poor. Over the months as people have arrived, they have rented any available property in Lebanon. Standards have grown poorer and prices more expensive. As the conflict has continued, the numbers of people fleeing the war are growing. It is the people who are poorest who are now making their way across the border. Most have come with few possessions and many have just the clothes they stand up in.
‘Once over the mountains from the Mediterranean coast of Beirut to near the Syrian border, the temperature drops considerably in the Bekaa valley and up into the mountains. The air feels like winter, thin and sharp. This week, Lebanon has experienced an extreme storm that has brought snow to areas of Lebanon, which have never seen it before. 50 centimetres of snow fell in some places. Temperatures overnight have been falling down to -6 degrees Celcius.
‘It’s not until you look amongst the communities such as Barelias district that the truth begins to reveal itself. Local families often build their own homes a floor at a time as money allows and in some, refugees live on the unfinished floors. Also beside many, makeshift shelters have been set up by Syrian families who have nowhere else to go. When you really start to look, you can see how many there are. Syrian refugees are the hidden homeless in Lebanon.
Syrian refugees who have fled to northern Iraq are also being affected by the wintery conditions, January 2013. Photo by Barzani Charity Foundation.
‘I have been told that the families have built these structures themselves and have put them up because sometimes they are unable to find anywhere to rent or because they can’t afford to rent. Some landlords let them stay on the land for free but others charge rent. The neighbours will often share their electricity supply but the families have to pay for what they use.
‘The shelters are made from all sorts of material – timber frame with bits of tarpaulin over the top. Others are covered in strips of plastic advertising hoarding weighed down by old car tyres. In trying to insulate them, the families have lined the roof with cardboard but when you look behind it, you can see the mould growing because it is permanently damp. With so many people crammed inside, it is almost impossible to breathe. The children are constantly sick with respiratory infections.
‘There are three families living in each shelter, often with up to ten children in each family. Some of the children go barefoot as they have no shoes. There is a metal stove in the middle of the communal area which does offer some heat, but only for a few hours a day.
‘They can only burn the stove for three or four hours a day because fuel is expensive. Sometimes they have to burn plastic as there is nothing else. That is why the children are coughing.
'Barely enough room'
‘One woman whose husband was killed in Syria lives with her children in a space that is 8x4 feet. There is barely enough room for the three of them to lie down flat on the ground at night to sleep. They have one blanket between them.
‘These people are not here to live. They are only here because of what is happening in their own country. If it was safe tomorrow, they would return home the next day.’