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Refugees Struggle in Bekaa Valley

25 Feb 2015 – By Brooke Anderson

BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon (CNS) — Many Lebanese have spent as much time as possible indoors this winter, protecting themselves from this year’s unusually brutal cold season.

But for the approximately half a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, their makeshift housing — often flimsy tents or abandoned unfinished buildings — has hardly given them sufficient shelter from the continuous storms that have been pounding the mountains since last fall.

“The hardest part is being cold and not being able to leave the tent. Where would I go?” asked Safia Hassan Hussein, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo who shares a tent with seven family members in the town of Bar Elias. Their informal tented settlement, called Moussa Jassem, is one of about 600 in the Bekaa Valley. These settlements often have 200 tents, each housing anywhere from five to 15 people.

The Hussein family insisted on serving hot tea, which they drink all day long to keep warm, showing the occasional visitor that they have not lost their sense of hospitality.

Lebanon’s heavy wind and rain began in October with only a few days of respite between almost back-to-back storms. Since then, Lebanon has seen around four times as much precipitation as the same period last year. This comes amid aid funding shortfalls for the refugees of the four-year-old conflict. The weather, along with the substandard living conditions, has exposed the refugees to illness, such as pneumonia.

Surviving the elements has become a full-time job for the refugees, whether they’re keeping warm by huddling in front of a small gas heater, fetching drinking water, cleaning clothes or gathering food. They are forced to choose between staying inside the tent and enduring the stench of gas and burning garbage or stepping outside into the cold air and onto a muddy path of open sewage.

This past winter, the temperatures in the Bekaa have ranged from just below to just above freezing. At times the wind has been at 60 miles per hour, in many cases damaging property, with tents and dilapidated houses particularly vulnerable.

On the outskirts of Zahle, Shiraz Mutanos Makhoul was fairing a bit better than her fellow refugees in tents. Ten months ago, she, her husband and newborn fled from Homs, Syria, with little more than the clothes on their backs. Now the family lives in an old abandoned house, but the home’s humidity and smoky heating system prevent her daughter from recovering from her runny nose.

“This is my first winter in Lebanon. It’s much colder than in Syria,” she said. She held her baby close to the heater to keep warm, then pulled her away when she started coughing from the smell. “She’s had a runny rose for a week, and I can’t take her to the doctor.”

Makhoul was an engineer in Syria; now she spends her days at home taking care of her baby while her husband, who owned a shop in Homs, goes out and looks for any work he can find, a task made all the more difficult with the severe winter hindering the agricultural sector, the area’s main employer.

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Tags: Syria Lebanon Refugees