For most kids, that means a surprise day off from tests, lectures, and homework to go sledding with friends or build snowmen on the front lawn. For grownups, it’s usually a less lucky affair of shoveling sidewalks, cleaning off cars, and, for those unfortunate enough to have to make the commute into work, a long, slow drive along treacherous roads or waiting for trains delayed by icy tracks.
For a Syrian refugee living in the cold, mountainous regions of Lebanon, a snow day means more of the same in frigid temperatures that cannot be abated by going inside a warm home for a hot drink — because more of the same means living in a tent or in the dank interior of a garage. It means families crammed together in a small space with few belongings and limited funds to buy food or fuel for heat or to pay the rent for their makeshift shelter.
After almost four years of civil war, 1.2 million Syrians have now sought refuge in Lebanon and have scrambled to find places to live and the money to afford them. They represent a quarter of Lebanon’s pre-Syrian war population, part of an influx of people that has so greatly strained the country’s infrastructure that it is now curtailing the arrival of more refugees by requiring entry visas.
In Akkar, Lebanon’s poorest province located in the northernmost region of the country, many thousands of Syrian refugees have created makeshift communities in the form of what have come to be termed informal tented settlements. Not official refugee camps, these areas are endless expanses of hanging plastic sheeting with few sanitation and clean water facilities or other resources. They are called home by countless thousands who once led solid working or middle class lives with careers, homes, amenities, and infrastructure comparable to those in the West.
Living in what amount to tent villages, then, is a vastly different and difficult experience for these refugees, who arrived with little and who now face daunting employment challenges. Their living conditions add to these adversities. Spring is dry and summer arid and hot. In the winter, it is often rainy and cold. Some days, it snows.
On January 6, 2015, winter storm Zina moved into Akkar, bringing snow, freezing rain, wind, and low temperatures into the region for three days. While most of Lebanon struggled in these conditions, for refugees, 55 percent of whom live in sub-standard housing such as tents, half-constructed buildings, and garages, coping with the extreme weather was particularly difficult as the winds damaged shelters and the rain and snow seeped through leaking tarps and windows, soaking mattresses and blankets and causing families to struggle to find warmth and avoid illness.
Seven-year-old Ziad Moustafa and his three-year-old sister, Jamila, are two of the many refugees who survived the storm in Akkar. When we met them, Jamila was clinging to her brother, crying, as he protectively wrapped his coat around her shivering shoulders. It was 48°F / 9°C outside and the howling winds cut through her thin shirt and pants, the only clothes she owned. To catch up to Ziad as he ventured outside, she had trekked barefoot through a field with mud up to her ankles, remnants of storm Zina.
The children braved the cold, wind, and mud for a reason as special as an ice cream truck in summer. But instead of candy and popsicles, the truck that arrived at their community that day came to deliver winter clothes. In response to the overwhelming need of refugees in Akkar after the storm, Concern Worldwide, in partnership with UNICEF, distributed sets of winter clothing, including boots, coats, hats, gloves, scarves, and socks, to all of the children living in their community. For many children like Jamila and Ziad, who have spent the last few months wearing sandals, going barefoot, and sharing what few coats they have among each other, the delivery was a godsend.
Ziad, Jamila, and their siblings — their older brother, Fahed, and little sister, Aziza — live with their uncle, Nader; his wife, Garam; and their great-aunt, Turkyeh, in a small, one-room tent on a muddy plot of land. Ziad and Jamila’s father was killed in the war that continues to rage on in their homeland. When his brother was killed in the fighting, Nader took charge of the four young children and fled to Lebanon, where they have been living ever since. While Nader believes moving was the right choice for the safety and security of the family, life in Lebanon hasn’t been easy. “Before the war, we were all okay in Syria,” he explained as he helped little Aziza put on her new boots, “but now you can see, with your own eyes, we have no clothes and no fuel.” Garam nodded in agreement. “When I was in Syria, the prices were low,” she said. “Here, it’s expensive. We only live with assistance.” Despite their difficult situation, she tried to keep a positive attitude. “Everything is okay. I just wish the children weren’t so cold.”
The struggles that families like Ziad and Jamila’s face to feed and clothe themselves year-round are compounded by harsh weather like snowstorms, putting their basic survival at risk and their lives in peril. The suffering brought about by Zina caused several deaths in Akkar, including a newborn baby. Although their new boots and winter clothes will go a long way to help to keep them warm, for Jamila, Ziad, their siblings, and the nearly 21,000 other Syrian children living in Akkar, one set of winter clothes is not enough. It is critical that they have continued access to blankets, dry mattresses, and fuel for their stoves to help get them through the frigid months ahead. In addition to keeping them warm, these essentials will help them ward off sicknesses like colds and pneumonia, which are often experienced by children who are exposed to the unforgiving winter elements.
Jamila and Ziad have already braved several cold Lebanese winters, and, with no end in sight to fighting in their homeland, it is crucial that they receive assistance not only to survive this winter but also the ones that stretch before them. Winter storm Zina is over, but there will be others to come.
To learn more about Concern’s work with the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon, watch the video below and click here to read more.