“What’s more frozen, refugee camps or humanity?” That is the recurring question you find being asked in the past week on social media under the hashtag of “Arsal Tastagheeth” (Arsal cries out for help).
The Lebanese mountainous border town of Arsal was covered with snow following Storm Norma, leaving Syrian refugee camps in unimaginably horrible conditions.
With temperatures between -4 to -8 degree Celsius, refugees’ tents in the Beqaa area were either flooded with water, or destroyed by snow.
According to the UN refugee agency, 151 sites that are home to some 11,000 Syrians have been heavily affected.
Syrian activist Fatima Alhaji explained to Al Arabiya English that there are two kinds of disasters caused by Storm Norma in the Syrian refugee camps. The first, she says, hit the northern Beqaa area of Arsal, where snow was merciless, and the second hit central and eastern parts of Beqaa where the refugee camps flooded with water.
Fatima estimates the number of families that still haven’t received oil aid for their heaters to be around 2000 families.
Al Arabiya’s correspondent visited one of the rather frozen camps and described the conditions as “unbearable” while broadcasting his coverage right next to a 2-year-old girl standing in slippers on the snow.
‘We’re calling out, but no one listens’
Around eight winters ago, Alaa-eddin Teren, might have complained once or twice about the government rationing water, but he would have never guessed that he would ever complain about having too much water in his house— or tent to be more accurate.
The harshly cold winters in Lebanon’s Syrian refugee camps is not new for Alaa and his neighbors, but when storm Norma hit them it was like being displaced all over again.
The father of four chose not to leave his tent.
“I use wood to keep my family warm. We don’t always have oil, but when we do, we keep it for the coldest nights. Only if I’m almost literally freezing, I light up the heater,” Alaa told Al Arabiya English.
The water was at knee height, but Alaa and his family wouldn’t leave their camp to join others in the very few centers welcoming refugees.
“Other men sent their families to the centers and stayed in the camp to watch their belongings, but thank god our tent’s condition isn’t as bad as theirs. We wouldn’t want to take up space in the centers when there are others who are suffering bigger losses.”
Alaa’s camp is surrounded by farming trenches that are filling up with water and might pour into the camp when its full.
“We’re terrified of the possibility that the very little stability we had built up here would just vanish in a matter of hours. And no one is doing anything to minimize that possibility,” he helplessly said, "we just want them to pump the water from the sewage system in our tents, that is all."
What’s being done about this
Very little. Local NGOs that had already established centers in the area for refugee care turned the little spaces into residencies for the families whose tents were affected by the storm.
Haydar Hammoud, an operation manager at Sawa Organization for Development and Aid, told Al Arabiya English that the seven centers that his organization had in the area could take in 350 people, but they managed to squeeze in 650 families, which means 650 people and 800 children.
“Others went to less damaged camps where their relatives lived, or decided to stay in their freezing tents, not wanting to leave their belongings,” said Haydar, “they would pile things over each other and sit on them so that the water doesn’t reach them.”
The UNHCR and International NGOs coordinated aid between local NGOs to help as many families as they could, but Haydar says that there isn’t much that they could have done without having centers to welcome the refugees in.
According to him, local NGOs were the only ones able to provide tangible help due to their previously established presence in the central Beqaa area.
In addition to relocating the displaced refugees to the centers, volunteers distributed rubber boots, blankets, and winter cloths in the town of Bar Elias.
The Lebanese Minister of Displacement Affairs, Mo’en al-Mere’bi, issued a press release saying that the affected families will be moved to other camps, but Haydar says that unfortunately, they’ve only heard words with no action.