I have just come back from Lebanon and have seen first-hand how Syrian refugees there are struggling.
More than a million Syrians refugees now live in Lebanon. You may have seen in the news that harsh winter weather has hit them hard.
Vulnerable families are picking up the pieces after a storm drenched the tents in which many Syrians now live. Heavy snow and floodwaters and have damaged hundreds of makeshift camps.
Our team in Aarsal, Bekaa district, has finally managed to open the roads properly. Families residing in these tents will be receiving new mattresses and blankets in a few❄️ #Norma #Lebanon pic.twitter.com/uius4V0NXb
— ICRC Lebanon (@ICRC_lb) 10 January 2019
Aarsal in Lebanon: a bleak place to live
I visited one camp last month, in the wind-swept town of Aarsal in Lebanon’s mountainous east.
Since it is close to the Syrian border, Aarsal has been the first stop for Syrians fleeing the conflict in their homeland.
Many Syrians have been living here for five long years. They shelter in makeshift tents, often seven or eight to a room, around stoves that provide their only source of heat.
The town is 1,550m above sea level – 200m higher than Ben Nevis, the UK’s tallest peak.
The height means that conditions here are difficult at the best of times. In winter, sub-zero temperatures and standing water make this an incredibly bleak place to live.
— ICRC Lebanon (@ICRC_lb) 10 January 2019
There were just 4 million people in Lebanon before the Syrian conflict began in 2011. Since then the country has struggled to accommodate more than a million registered Syrian refugees.
Many refugees get help from the Lebanese Red Cross as well as other agencies. But the support only goes so far towards covering their basic needs.
Syrians have only limited rights to work or access health care. Forced evictions from the many makeshift refugee camps in the country are also on the rise.
For the immediate future, there seems little appetite among the people I met to make the journey home to Syria.
But the patience of Lebanon’s government and citizens is running out.
Cash grants pay for essentials
One major problem is a lack of work. Recent reports state that three out of every four Syrians are out of work in the area.
The Lebanese Red Cross is providing ATM cards to people who need extra help in the Aarsal area.
The cards are topped up with $175 every month. This allows the most vulnerable people to buy essential winter items and food, pay their rent and meet basic household needs.
Three remarkable women
One recipient of an ATM card is Aya. Inside her tent, her mother and disabled grandmother sit huddled around a stove – their only source of light as well as heat.
These remarkable women are three generations of a family who have had to flee their home city of Homs in Syria several times. Too scared to return soon, they instead plan to remain in Aarsal for another winter.
As well as the ATM card, Aya tells me that her grandmother also received special assistance from the Lebanese Red Cross. She finds it nearly impossible to use the traditional, low toilets that are commonplace here, so the Red Cross gave her a higher toilet.
“My nerves are not good in the cold”
Outside the camp, in the nearby town itself, I met another woman with a Lebanese Red Cross ATM card.
Even though she is not a Syrian refugee, the Lebanese Red Cross supports 51-year-old Khadija because her disability makes her especially vulnerable.
Sitting by a central beam in the middle of her extraordinary living room, Khadija told me:
“In this village it is very cold. I live alone. I had a brother who died last year.
“I had a fever when I was a child. My parents back then didn’t take me to the hospital. I have been like this since then. I have nerve paralysis. My nerves are not good during the cold.
“The Lebanese Red Cross has helped me with food items – whatever I want from the store I get it on the card.
I use it [the ATM card] all the time. My life would be,” she said trailing off in thought, “without it I wouldn’t have money and I couldn’t get anything.”
Two rays of sunshine
— Lebanese Red Cross (@RedCrossLebanon) 7 January 2019
Days after the storm, the remarkably resilient people of Aarsal are already beginning to rebuild their makeshift shelters.
Yet, perched on the hillside in this remote corner of Lebanon, life in these windswept tented slums will continue to be harsh for the foreseeable future.
The Red Cross is doing all it can for these families. Immediately after the storm, more than 300 Lebanese Red Cross volunteers and staff worked round the clock to protect people from the rain and snow.
Among the near-600 rescue missions they performed were two rays of sunshine – two beautiful, healthy babies delivered inside the Lebanese Red Cross ambulances.
I can’t help but wonder, what will the future hold for these two new-born babies?
The Red Cross will continue to do all it can for the most vulnerable families through this winter and beyond.
You can help by donating to our Syria Crisis Appeal.