Rising water and falling snow: A tented settlement’s annual battle against the elements

Rising water and falling snow: A tented settlement’s annual battle against the elements

Camp residents sort through shoes purchased to burn for heating. (Credit: Abby Sewell/L'Orient Today)

AL-FAOUR, Bekaa Valley — Raghda al-Khalaf has been displaced for more than a month, since one of the winter’s brutal storms in the Bekaa Valley finally mowed down the wood and tarp shack that had been her family’s home for the past seven years after they fled Syria’s Raqqa.

Each winter, when snow fell, Khalaf’s husband would climb up on the roof and sweep it off to prevent the tent from buckling under the weight. When water seeped in from the rain, they would bail it out with buckets.

After this year’s first major storm, when a volunteer team of Syrian university students came to the camp to offer assistance with repairs, Khalaf helped them to assess the damage to her neighbors’ tents, counting the number of wood planks that had cracked under the weight of the snow and the tarps torn beyond repair.

When the next storm came, it was her family’s turn. Water rushed into the tent — a mixture of rain and sewage from the camp latrine, rising 30 or 40 centimeters high.

“We’ve been in the camp for seven years, and we never had the tent collapse before,” Khalaf said. “It’s gotten flooded, and when the water went down we would come back and sort ourselves out.”

But this time, under a barrage of “rain and snow and wind, all together,” the wood holding up the roof buckled and caved in.

While it was the first time for Khalaf, the scenario is one that plays out every year in hundreds of refugee camps in Lebanon. Despite the cyclical nature of the crisis, refugees and advocates said, there have been few efforts by official actors to prevent it recurring — and when, inevitably, it does, the response is often slow and inadequate.

Part of the problem, said Omar Abdallah, who works with Sawa for Development and Aid, a small NGO operating in the Bekaa Valley, is that “the Lebanese state is always dealing with the presence of the refugees as an emergency situation,” not as the protracted crisis that it is.

The Lebanese government does not officially recognize the Syrians as refugees, referring to them rather as “displaced.” The camps where they live are not run by the United Nations or any official agency but are generally set up on private agricultural land where the refugees rent space from the landowner. (In Khalaf’s case, since the landowner had originally provided the family with the materials used to build the tent that collapsed, they have had to pay him LL2.5 million for the right to build a new one in the same spot, on top of which they would have to secure the materials to rebuild.)

To prevent the Syrian camps from becoming a permanent fixture, the Lebanese government forbids building with concrete or other durable materials. In 2019, the army ordered residents of informal settlements in the mountain town of Arsal to demolish the concrete walls they had built to protect against the harsh winters and replace them with wood and plastic sheets.

As a result, Abdallah said,“It’s well known that in the winter, in the camps, this same scenario will be repeated [every year] if there isn’t a permanent solution.”

Along with the government’s approach, he faulted the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) for failing to coordinate with camp residents and local NGOs to make a plan before the storms hit and for being slow to react afterward.

“In the end, they are the biggest organization, and they have the financial resources to be able to cover all the camps,” Abdallah said. “... They have the materials, but the response is slow.”

He acknowledged that there have been some improvements in communication — this year, for instance, for the first time, he said, local NGO representatives have a joint WhatsApp group with staff from UNHCR and the Ministry of Social Affairs to coordinate their emergency response. However, he noted that the first coordination meeting between all parties to discuss the storm response happened after the first gale had struck.

For its part, UNHCR’s Beirut office said in a statement that the refugee agency had moved to mitigate the storm impacts through “preemptive distribution of winter cash assistance, shelter kits, and thermal blankets … coupled with site improvements in areas that were previously affected by flooding in order to curb the impact of future storms.” In total, the agency said it had assisted “approximately 3,000 refugee families in informal tented settlements by providing shelter assistance throughout the months of December, January, and February.”

The statement added, “Obstacles in responding to the dire winter needs have included access to specific areas at times when the weather conditions have not allowed immediate access. Teams have however accessed areas as soon as possible, and in many cases on the same day, for assessments and subsequent response.”

Orwa Mohamed Yassine, who also lives in a camp in the al-Faour area and whose tent collapsed in one of this winter’s storms, disagreed.

“No one comes before the storms,” he said. “When a storm comes and your tent falls down, they don’t come unless you call them, and then they come after three or four days, if they come.”

After their tent caved in, Yassine’s household — he and his wife, seven children, Yassine’s mother and one of his cousins — crowded into another cousin’s tent, which already held a family of 10, until the storm stopped and he was able to make a hasty repair job. Some of the wood holding up his roof is cracked now; he said an NGO had promised to bring new boards.

Frustrated at the slow post-storm response, some of the camp residents staged a protest in front of UNHCR’s Bekaa headquarters.

“After that, two people came,” said Yassine’s neighbor, Shams al-Ali, a young woman who worked as a teacher in Syria and now runs informal reading and writing classes for children in the camp who are not able to enroll in public schools. “They said, ‘We don’t have enough [materials] to cover your camp, your camp is big.’”

Yassine acknowledged that his family had received an additional payment of LL930,000 from the UN this winter to help offset the costs of heating fuel, along with the LL2.6 million (about $125) they receive monthly for food and basic needs, which is their sole income when there is no agricultural work to be found.

With the price of fuel having skyrocketed, they put the aid funds toward a more cost-effective heating solution: trash.

On an afternoon in late February, Yassine’s mother and younger children were sitting outside the tent sorting through piles of old discarded clothes and shoes that they would burn in their “sobia” heater in the place of the usual diesel or firewood. As often happens in Lebanon, some entrepreneurial spirits had seen a chance to turn a profit on the demand for waste — stores in the area were selling bags of trash to be used as heating fuel. Yassine said he had paid LL500,000 for the heap of old shoes, which he estimated would last the family two or three days.

His young son’s chest has been hurting from the toxic smoke emitted by the burning plastic and rubber, he said, but the family had no alternative if they wanted to avoid freezing. With fuel prices continuing to rise, 20 liters of diesel now costs LL460,000.

Khalaf said for her part, she had called the UN after her tent collapsed, but got no response. Her family crowded into a neighbor’s tent until someone from Association of University Students in Lebanon, the Syrian student group she had volunteered with in the camp after the previous storm, managed to find a place for them at an emergency shelter run by the NGO House of Peace.

Since then, she said they have been navigating the bureaucracy required to rebuild their makeshift home; they paid the LL2.5 million to the landowner for the right to re-erect it; got permission to rebuild from Army Intelligence, which must sign off on any construction in Lebanon’s informal refugee camps; and collected building materials with the help of local NGOs.

“It’s called a tent, but even a tent doesn’t go up in a day,” she said.

The new tent is now finished, but the family has not yet moved back home as they have been trying to replace the sleeping pads and other household items destroyed by the storm.

A permanent solution?

Some believe the way to stop the vicious cycle from repeating every winter is to move the camp residents into more permanent housing.

Among the proponents of this approach is Fadi al-Halabi, a Syrian neurosurgeon and general director of the NGO Multi Aid Programs, which runs education and health centers serving refugees in the Bekaa.

“In a protracted crisis, humanitarian work many times does harm more than it benefits,” Halabi said, likening ongoing relief work to keeping a patient on life support with no prospect for a cure.

“We can, as an NGO, do a humanitarian response for winterization, for example, … by distributing fuel or wood or some plastic sheets, and we can count thousands of beneficiaries, but at the end of the project you won’t change their lives. Our strategy is that if you rescue maybe one family or two, or maybe 10, or 20, it's better than just to distribute fuel for thousands.”

Apart from humanitarian concerns, Halabi said he worries that refugees are getting used to living in substandard conditions without personal privacy, and that will negatively affect Syrian society when they eventually return. To that end, his NGO has launched a project to move some families out of the camps and into apartments, where he said it aims to pay their rent for up to five years. So far, they have set up eight families in houses, initially focusing on widows with children, and are preparing to move 20 more.

However, it has not been easy to implement, he acknowledged: landlords are reluctant to sign long-term leases under the current economic conditions, and the families themselves are often reluctant to leave the camps — both because they have become accustomed to the community and out of fear that they would be unable to afford the rent themselves if the NGO’s aid stopped.

Ola Boutros, general supervisor of the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan at the Ministry of Social Affairs, acknowledged that hundreds of thousands of people living in tents in areas prone to snow and flooding is “not a durable solution.”

“After 10 years, we feel a struggle because we cannot every year deliver to them new [tent] kits or new waterproofing [material],” she said. However, she was unconvinced that moving them to apartments is the solution.

“If you want to, for example, disperse cash for rent, here we face a problem with the Lebanese who are not able to pay for their rent” and might resent the aid being given to Syrians, she said, while landlords might also try to exploit the aid. “For example, maybe they will tell us, ‘We are not able to take any more Lebanese pounds, we need to be paid in dollars.’”

For Boutros, the ultimate goal is “a political solution to the Syrian crisis” that would allow the refugees to return home. It’s a desire that is echoed by many of the refugees themselves, but that seems as far out of reach now as in 2011.

“If the situation of Raqqa went back to the way it was before [the war] … I would go back to Syria,” Khalaf said. “In Syria, I don’t have a house, but I would go. I would rent a house in Syria and stay in our country.”

AL-FAOUR, Bekaa Valley — Raghda al-Khalaf has been displaced for more than a month, since one of the winter’s brutal storms in the Bekaa Valley finally mowed down the wood and tarp shack that had been her family’s home for the past seven years after they fled Syria’s Raqqa. Each winter, when snow fell, Khalaf’s husband would climb up on the roof and sweep it off to prevent the tent from...