The couple sit beside each other on a well-worn mat, expressionless. Their only belongings — a handful of pots, dishes, pillows, and blankets — are stacked neatly in plastic crates atop concrete blocks to keep them dry as water trickles into their tent.
His 80 years etched into the deep contours of his face and his sky-blue eyes dimmed with sadness, Abdul raises his voice to be heard over the clatter of rain and says, “Last night, we were wet and cold. All we have is blankets, nothing else, to stay warm.”
The bitter-cold rain which fell for two days flooded streets and knocked out power in Akkar, the poorest and northernmost district in Lebanon. For Syrian refugees living here, the rain reduced their homes to wet rags and the grounds they sit on to swamps.
The weather was a taste of what lies ahead this winter, which some scientists have predicted to be the harshest Lebanon has seen in nearly 100 years. None will be more vulnerable to the cold than the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who fled with little more than the clothes on their backs and settled in the concrete shells of former car garages or beneath scraps of cloth, cardboard, and wood in open fields. With few items to stay warm and work intermittent at best, Syrian refugees like Abdul and Nasra are dangerously exposed to the cold, rain, and snow.
Just across the road in another informal tented settlement, Yara, whose husband died six years ago, left Syria with her four children after her home was destroyed. She now lives beside about 30 other Syrian families on a patch of dirt beside a road.
With four children to care for on her own, Yara takes work whenever she can find it, which most often involves backbreaking physical labour like moving and crushing rocks.
When the rain started, she and her neighbours dug a small trench around her home and tried to brace the walls with rocks, but it still did not keep the water out.
“All night, we huddled together because it was so cold and the only clothes we have are cotton,” Yara says, her voice cracking as she chokes back tears. “The rain came in from the floor.”
Yara, Abdul, Nasra, and their neighbours represent what hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees are facing in Lebanon. Having fled war with little more than the clothes on their backs, they left behind homes, loved ones, and lives they had carefully built over the years to start over as refugees in a land that is not their own.
Most are renting whatever space they can afford. For those living in informal tented settlements, the small patches of ground cost the equivalent of about €22 a month, an expense that many find extremely difficult to afford, with jobs few and far between. This leaves little, if any, financial cushion to properly waterproof and insulate their homes, buy winter clothes, and make sure they have heating stoves and fuel.
As the winter nears, they will be reliant on organisations like Concern Worldwide to get them what they need to stay warm and dry. Following the recent rainfall, tarpaulins provided by UNHCR were distributed to families who do not have plastic sheeting or any means to stay dry as the wet winter months settle in. But they will need a lot more than tarpaulins to survive the winter.
In the coming weeks, blankets, heating stoves, and fuel vouchers as well as warm clothes and footwear for children will be distributed to hundreds of Syrian refugees. Informal tented settlements will also be fortified against flooding and strong winds and families like Yara, Abdul, and Nasra given basic tools such as shovels and sandbags so that they can take basic measures to protect themselves and their assets from the wet weather ahead. But even with blankets and heating stoves, shovels and sandbags, the unavoidable reality is that winter is going to deepen the suffering of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, who have little hope of returning home anytime soon, if ever.
Meanwhile, Syrian refugees in Akkar are drying out and preparing as best they can for the next bout of wet weather. Children trudge through mud with plastic bags on their feet as women line blankets and clothes out to dry and men set out to repair what was broken in the storm.
Yara asks her neighbour to fix her window, which was damaged in the winds the night before. He gets to work, hammering together a new wooden window frame. Yara throws her worn, calloused hands to the stormy sky and says, “Every day is like a year here. We were living. Now we have nothing. We need God. And you.”
* Crystal A Wells is communications officer with Concern Worldwide, Lebanon