For Syrian Refugees Short of Food and Clean Water, Snow Is an Added Challenge


For Syrian Refugees Short of Food and Clean Water, Snow Is an Added Challenge

Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A camp in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon on Friday; more than 100,000 children live in temporary shelters in Lebanon.

By 
Published: December 13, 22013
FAYADA, Lebanon — In a cold so biting that exposed fingers quickly start to ache, Syrian children in plastic sandals trudge through mud and chunks of ice, their tiny feet red from exposure.

Alia Haju/Reuters

At least nine children have died of cold in Syria in recent days, according to activist groups and videos posted online.

Young girls pick their way across hillocks of garbage to dip up cloudy water from a shallow well and collect some of the trash to burn for heat. The luckier ones wear rubber boots and wool sweaters; many shiver in cotton sweatshirts and thin leggings. At night, parents sleep entwined with their children, fending off the fate of several infants just across the border in Syria who, in the snowstorms of recent days, froze to death.

This is just one of the hundreds of informal, scattered camps that house most of the several hundred thousand Syrians who have fled to Lebanon. Already suffering from shortages of food aid, schooling, clean water, sanitation and employment, Syrians displaced inside the country and throughout the region — about nine million people — now must contend with bitter weather that, according to Unicef, threatens more than 100,000 children living in temporary and often flimsy shelters in Lebanon alone.

The stormy cold has descended over much of the Middle East. While snow is common in Lebanon and parts of Syria, some Cairenes saw snow for the first time in their lives and Jerusalem this week recorded the heaviest December snowfall since the 1950s.

Here, among farm fields now spotted with snow, scores of Syrians, mostly farming families from the northeastern province of Raqqa, have been living for several months in and around a roofless, ruined building that was once an onion processing plant. They left their village, Sweida, they said, after masked rebels entered the town and government airstrikes began.

Families huddle in shacks that they built themselves, stitching together burlap sacks or hoisting bright plastic tarps advertising goods they cannot afford. Some of the shelters have flooded, their dirt floors covered with soggy cloth, and their occupants fear that as more snow piles on, they will collapse.

The wind drove stinging, sand-like snowflakes across the old factory grounds on Friday afternoon as Abdullah Arat teetered across slippery mud, wearing a light blazer over a cotton gown and sandals, a red kaffiyeh wrapped around his head. In the distance, new snow had covered the mountains leading to the Syrian border.

“We are dying from this cold,” Mr. Arat said, lifting the flap of a damp shack that still awaits a heater promised by aid groups. His children are coughing and suffering from diarrhea, he said; he married off two daughters, 15 and 16 years old, hoping they would be better off.

A flock of small boys trotted by. “Bring us clothes!” one shouted. “We are cold!” called another.

To stay warm, families sleep piled together. One neighbor said wryly, “The single people have no one to cuddle them.” Abu Ayham said if he had the money, he would rather return to Raqqa, despite the bombs and the extremists who now control it. Mr. Arat scoffed: “It’s not safe.”

Nearby, a 2-year-old girl played barefoot, an infected sore on her instep from a stove burn. Other children had cold sores blotching their faces, but shouted and laughed as they chased each other between laundry lines.

The closest school cannot fit all the children. Those who go must walk half a mile along a highway; one boy was recently killed by a car on his way. United Nations workers are training camp residents to run their own school.

For now, Mariam, a petite 10-year-old with daisy-shaped earrings and a composed and intelligent gaze, has appointed herself teacher. She gathers the smaller children for lessons in a chilly factory outbuilding, channeling a favorite teacher she misses from back home.

“Every night she takes out a notebook and a pen,” said her mother, Nadia Karbo, 26. “In Syria, they never missed a day of school, even when they were sick.”

The cold is only the latest worry for Ms. Karbo, who said, “Our children are missing their future.”

“I want to see a sign that says ‘Doctor’ with my son’s name on it,” she added, framing a rectangle in the air with her hands and gazing intently, as if she could see it.

She led the way to a cinder block shelter she and her husband borrowed $500 to build. The path, which she takes many times a day to get water from the well, wound through mountains of garbage that the refugees removed from the factory ruins to build their shelters: soggy diapers, car doors, shards of plastic.

Along the way was one of several new outhouses built by aid groups. But they are not enough, the refugees say, and human waste litters the ground. Gray plastic water tanks cost $10 to fill, a fortune, so they supplement from the dirty well.

Outside Ms. Karbo’s shelter, Mariam brought a steaming bucket of water and poured it over her mother’s feet, bare in plastic slippers and coated with mud. Then she bounced her smallest brother on her hip. The others began flinging snowballs — a new experience.

“Enough!” Ms. Karbo said. But she spoke with a smile, and they ignored her. Inside their room, a stove gave off frail heat. They were burning bits of cloth and plastic; there was no money for fuel.

But around the corner, where 17 of their relatives share two rooms, there was diesel. They piled in, visibly relaxing as they entered a sanctuary of heat.

Yet those relatives have their own problems. They have received no food aid for two months, apparently having been deemed not needy enough under new United Nations policies.

Asleep in a cocoon of blankets was a 3-month-old girl, Binaan. “Rats ate her teddy bear,” her mother said. “At least they didn’t eat the baby.”

Things are worse at higher altitudes. As dusk fell on Friday, gusting winds and blizzards closed the mountain roads to Beirut. There, some refugees live under bridges and in doorways, or in unheated apartments, where children huddle under blankets.

At least nine children have died of cold in Syria in recent days, according to activist groups and videos posted online. One showed a 1-year-old boy from Rastan, in Homs province, his chubby arms fixed in midair. Another showed a swaddled infant, Mariam Ali, from Homs City. Off camera, a voice called her “one of heaven’s birds, killed by the pretty cold.”

On both videos, voices intoned an Islamic testament commonly heard now in Syria. “God is sufficient for me,” they said, “and how fine a trustee he is.”

<img src=”http://meter-svc.nytimes.com/meter.gif”/>

Hwaida Saad and Mohammad Ghannam contributed reporting.

Source: New York Times

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