Life for Syrian refugees in Arsal, Lebanon: -10 and a mountain of snow -- in a tent.
Go to Maggie's Blog
The worst fears of hundreds of thousands of refugees facing their sixth winter in totally inadequate housing were realised last week when Lebanon was hit by Storm Norma. Barely reported in the western media, it has caused major havoc, even for locals living in ordinary homes, with many roads flooding or being washed away.
But for impoverished refugees living in temporary structures it can be catastrophic. As attempts are made to clear floodwater and snow, supply families with food and fuel, and shelter those who have lost their flimsy homes, night time temperatures remain below zero. And now the UNHCR is texting all Syrians in Lebanon warning them to prepare for another storm in the coming week.
The Bekaa Valley runs the length of Lebanon between steep mountain ranges and houses half a million refugees. The Litani river has overflowed Drains have failed, and tents have filled with water and there is nowhere to pump it. At least 600 families have been evacuated to temporary shelter in schools and mosques. It is a similar story in the northern region of Akkar, which already suffered floods last month, and where refugees are particularly poor, with many children relying on begging or selling in the streets. And in the remote mountain town of Arsal, 600 metres above the Bekaa, where EDA has concentrated its relief efforts over the past four years, 50,000 refugees endured a 2 day snowstorm, with the snow drifting in the strong winds, water tanks freezing, electricity failing, and roofs collapsing under the weight of snow. Night time temperatures here fall to minus 10 degrees.

Maggie Tookey, EDA 's international projects Director, is flying out on Monday 14th and will be there when Storm Norma's second strike hits, predicted for Wednesday 16th. She will coordinate our efforts with those of other agencies and ensure that all our local staff and resources are deployed to best effect in this emergency.
Working together with other agencies we will supply supplementary fuel for tent stoves, clothing, blankets, and medicines as needed. Most important, is that we will make the safe and enclosed spaces of our Training Centre, Workshop and gym, and our "Future Syria School" available as temporary acciomodation to any who need it as a result of flooding, snow-collapse or other storm damage.

To make a donation to increase the resources we can call on, click here

Maggie Tookey writes

Thursday 16th Jan

Yesterday was a very bad day for refugees here in Arsal and also for the Lebanese residents I imagine. However, being in a building was far more preferable than being in a tent - particularly if that tent happened to be in one of the highest and most remote camps above the town.
The morning started quite sunny but cold and there was really no sign of what was to come. The online forecasts that I saw gave a real false sense of security and they turned out to be entirely misleading. I will never ever trust them again.
On this sunny morning we visited some camps not far from the centre to get an idea of how people were managing after last week's storm - some of the snow had cleared from the main paths through the camps but a muddy quagmire of filthy slush had to be negotiated by all those wanting to bring in food supplies. We heard the same story over and over again - the fear of running out of heating oil was an ever present threat - mostly it was necessary to keep the stoves going all night - the temperature inside the tents during those storm nights was very dangerous for babies and infants, despite the insulation. Sitting inside one of the tents it felt very cold even with the stove going. A tiny baby was swaddled on the cushion next to me. I wanted to be swaddled too especially as the snow had begun to fall albeit lightly.
And so the storm began - gently at first, even rain for a short time and we thought we might escape the worst. It was not to be. By midday the snow was heavier and the wind rising. Back in our Centre we talked about what best to do and it was decided that the most urgent need, possibly life saving, was to buy and deliver heating oil to 3 more remote and high camps way above the town in Wadi Arnab. These camps are small - we don't have the resources to deal with the big camps. It's because they are small and inaccessible in bad weather that they often get overlooked by bigger NGO's.
40 litres per tent was the amount decided upon - enough to last 3/4 days - enough to get through this rising storm and certainly more than many camps had received. By the time we'd got the oil truck ready to set off behind our wreck of a 4 wheel drive truck that Nabil had borrowed - it had wheels but little else - the snow was thicker and the wind increasing - we had a tricky journey ahead.
The climb up to Wadi Arnab was quite interesting for all the wrong reasons. It was steep and slippery and the snow made visibilty difficult. It was around 1 30pm but already quite dark and very difficult to see the road. I thought that if I stared really hard at where the road should be everything would be OK. We just hoped the oil truck was still with us but we couldn't stop - getting going again might well have been impossible. Quite suddenly out of the gloom we saw people emerging from a small camp in a sort of snow filled hollow. It was difficult to tell where the tents were - they seemed like just a series of snow drifts. I shivered just looking at them and imagining what it must be like to actually live in them in these conditions. (Our vehicle had no working heater so I was already frozen to start with.) These figures coming through the snow were all clutching 20 litre plastic cans for the precious liquid about to be poured into them as long as the fuel truck made it. And make it it did, grinding and skidding its way up the hill. The job was completed quickly and each person went off with 40 litres to keep their life saving stoves burning for another few days. They were very happy so we were very happy too. We made another oil drop at a forgotten camp on the way back down and made some more people happy and relieved. However the day wasn't over. After some much needed hot food back in town, we had bread deliveries to make. The body also needs fuel and it was difficult to come by for many of this more scattered camps in these conditions. At 5 30pm and now fully dark and a raging blizzard in full swing, we jumped into a newer higher quality truck plus skilled driver to carry 400 family packs of bread up to 3 other remote and stranded camps. By now we were probably on the edge of being foolhardy but not quite. I couldn't see any road but the driver appeared to be cruising along an empty motorway humming happily to himself unaware that his 3 passengers crammed in beside him were in fact white and silent, even Nabil.
We climbed for ever and finally arrived at a series of snowmen who turned out to be the unfortunate chosen camp members detailed to meet us. We unloaded our sacks of bread as fast as humanly possible and they were dragged off into the blizzard. We fought our way back to the truck which unfortunately was white so more by feel than anything! Back down the hill a little way we went then slewed off down a side track to the next collection of tents to repeat the same process. This time our driver seemed to underestimate the slope and we got stuck. There's no gentle way to get a truck out of this - the poor vehicle was subjected to repeated screaming revving and much abuse until it finally inched its way back to the main track. By now it was 8 30pm and there was no let up in the storm. We made the final bread drop to a ragged looking set of what looked more like igloos than tents and then back to base - a warm stove and a cup of tea. 9 pm and a bit jaded. But we were the lucky ones.

Thursday Update

Oh my goodness what an aftermath. The wind howled all night but at some point it stopped snowing and everyone woke up to blue sky. The news told us that although the storm hadn't lasted as long, the severity was greater than that of the previous week. As much snow fell through those 15 hours as had fallen in the last storm in 3 days. Nothing really moved until around 10 30 am when the sun began to thaw the snow on roads and roofs. We headed for Safaa's camp to collect her and it was a scene of abject misery. The slush was a foot deep in the walkways between the tents. Cars were buried. People emerged from tents to share their storm stories. In the town roads had become rivers and walking anywhere required an absence of caring about being constantly soaked by passing vehicles.
After a quick meeting in our centre where we received news of more remote camps needing help, we set off to investigate their plight and see what we could do. We were back in our rather dubious, unheated truck this morning but at least we had the sun and the happy knowledge that this journey wouldn't be too challenging. This high remote camp of 33 families had gone through a bad night. Some tents had become prisons - their entrances had been completely blocked by snow and some had had to tunnel their way out. The pressure of heavy snow on the flimsy walls had all but collapsed some of them and a few families had sought shelter in other more sturdy tents. They had repeatedly tried to clear the snow from the walls during the night but it had been a losing battle. In the end they'd just hunkered down and hoped for the best. Their fuel supplies were very low so we ordered in the fuel truck from town and deliverd 40 litres for each family. No one had got through to this camp so we received an avalanche of thanks from just about everyone. Without this oil life in this camp is almost impossible. We did another 2 deliveries of oil to 2 more nearby camps then back to town to pick up bread but by 2pm the temperature was plumetting. We quickly returned to the same camps with fresh bread for each family and then straight back to the centre to get warm.
We sat by the stove for too long. By the time we set off to make the 10 minute trip back to home all of Arsal had become an ice rink. However our 4 wheel drive truck inspired me with great confidence and total complacency. Big mistake. Unfortunately Arsal is far from flat and even more unfortunately our route home involves a few steep hills. We managed the first 2 but my confidence took a hit when we slithered a little on the second hill. However all feelings of 4 wheel drive superiority abandoned me when suddeny on the steepest hill we were forced to slow behind a struggling car and Ahmed our driver lost control completely it seeemed. We slid at some pace backwards into a stone wall which had the unfortunate effect of turning us broadside across the hill. The sensation of sliding down steeply and sideways wasn't very nice and I didn't much like it. Ahmed then rammed the front end as gently as possible into a pylon which set us straight again, a very neat move, and then we just slid backwards which didn't seem so bad. Finally he managed to turn it after several more bashes and we found a different less challenging route. All roads were mayhem tonight and there will be many who won't complete their journeys. I just hope everyone will be OK - there will be plenty of work for car repairers. It 's forcast to be minus 10 locally and there's no sign of any rise in temperature. The next few days could be interesting.

Friday 18th - Friday 25th January

The sun is shining down and the sky is almost unbroken blue. For a few minutes it's difficult to recall just how different things were 6 days ago here in Arsal as a major snow storm tore through the town and through the refugee camps dotted around the hills surrounding it - except actually I remember vividly every minute of the frightening journeys we made that evening to deliver heating oil and bread to the highest camps when the storm was at its most fierce. I think that if we hadn't had the services of our half crazy, kamikaze driver, Rashid, at the wheel we wouldn't have made those camps with our precious loads. But now things are different. Under the relatively warm sun everything looks calm and rosy throughout the town and the camps. Except it isn't. The thick drifts of snow are melting fast during the day although freezing again at night - such melting brings big problems to the camps and flimsy shelters which refugees have called home for the last few years. Such was the weight of snow which fell over that period of 15 hours that it became impossible to clear it from the flat tarpaulin roofs of most tents - they tried but the storm was too strong and hypothermia was a real threat for many undernourished and poorly clothed people if they stayed outside for too long. The result was at best, a seepage of freezing water as the snow began to melt on the tents with thinner and older tarpauline sheets, and complete collapse at worst.
We have so many coming to us for help - they all need help but each case must be investigated before a committment made to spend our precious resources. We're not in a position to dish out new wooden supports and fresh tarpaulins without first inspecting the problem. We do this as fast as we can, dashing from one small camp to another - an isolated tent here - a small group tucked away there. These are the people that get overlooked - the big camps seem to get blanketed with new supplies by big UN funded agencies even though sometimes not every family needs those materials. They are all accepted and can always be sold on to others who do need them - I don't blame them - I'd do the same in their position. It's also true that even some families in the big camps also get missed - we've encountered that too and tried to deal with it.

If a small camp has not been 'coded' i.e. a code that applies to the camp which can then be checked by one of the UN funded NGO's before materials are given out, that camp can't be ticked off against the code lists at UNHCR and materials are not given. We've been trying unsucessfully to get one of the highest camps in Wadi Arnab coded so they can get help - we need to go through Dar al Fatwa but their Arsal office is so busy on major blanket, clothes and food distributions that we haven't had any chance to do it - but we will.

Many of these small camps and individual tents chose to move to more isolated places to escape the dangers posed by I. State and Al Nusra in the last three years - those militant groups were embedded in some of the big camps and living could be a bit precarious. This is why they either get missed or can't get coded to access materials unless organisations like EDA turn up and don't need to be shown a code in order to dispense help. We will try to find out just how many families this problem affects.

So these days are spent checking on camps, individual tents, dispensing help where needed including a group of 14 poor Lebanese families each with disabled members, one couple with 6 disabled children. Our help comes in different forms - 15kg of potatoes and 10kg of rice for some, heating oil for others or both depending on their situation - wood and new tarpaulins for others - a large school which can't function because it has no heating oil for its classroom stoves. We fill their tank. All these cases are very needy and we must respond. Such action ensures that basic necessities are met and life can continue on a basic level. Then its my time to leave Arsal - always difficult and always so much more to do. I'm pleased with EDA's response - we had relatively little money but it's gone a long way and helped a lot of people and we've spent well - absolutely no wastage - that's always what we hope for. That's great news too for all the EDA team back home who work hard to raise these funds. I reckon that's a harder job than mine! I hate leaving although I could do with a hot shower. We've worked as a close team here in this emergency period and I'll miss that. Until the next time.
// adjust insertions for folder depth !!!! // will need changing if file not in main folder