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In the Bekaa, Coping with a Deluge of Refugees

On the outskirts of Ghazeh, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, tucked between apple orchards and cabbage farms, over 2,000 Syrian refugees have made three plots of farmland their home.

Written by Susannah George Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

The Lebanese government forbids the construction of formal camps to house fleeing Syrians, so these clusters of dwellings are called “informal settlements.” The Ghazeh settlement is made up of about 400 homemade tents.

When the aid workers drive into the settlement, they’re immediately surrounded by a crowd. People ask about registration delays, aid packages and supplies for winter.

“Every day they say, Tomorrow,” Abeer Nawaf Sleiman says. She fled Syria for good seven months ago. Now she’s patiently holding out her ID card, waiting to plead her case to the visiting aid workers. She says she needs blankets: it’s cold at night. The aid workers tell her she’ll have to wait till next month.

Arriving with nothing, many of the families were forced to improvise, using old billboards, coffee sacks and cardboard to build their shelters. Colorful advertisements for Samsung, Burberry and a local supermarket chain peak out of the plastic tarp patchwork.

More than 280,000 Syrian refugees fleeing violence are now living in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, a flat strip of fertile land between two mountain ranges. Over the mountains to the west lies the Lebanese coast and the Mediterranean sea, and to the east lies Syria.

Aid groups are already overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Now they say preparing them for winter is a race against time. They say they lack capacity to provide everyone with materials at the same time, so they’re distributing them in shifts.

A dozen or so people line up as trucks unload weatherproofing kits: bundles of plastic sheeting, wooden beams, nails and washers. Another group of people stand on the sidelines; they’ll get their materials in the coming days or weeks.

The families waiting their turn are nervous that supplies, or time, will run out. The delivery of building materials to one tent puts their neighbors on edge.

“They don’t understand the scope of it, they don’t realize how many refugees are only in Bekaa.” Lisa Abou Khaled works in the Bekaa with the U.N. Refugee Agency. She takes down the names and numbers of the people who approach her in a binder.

“I understand the confusion,” she says as she reassures people that assistance is on its way, but she admits, “Everyone is overwhelmed, not just UNHCR.

“See the red dots, and the blue? That means we’ve been there to assess,” Andrew Howe, with the Swiss NGO Medair, points to spray-painted dots above the door of a tent. Medair is working with the U.N. to help refugees prepare for winter. First, Howe says his group completes an assessment to gauge how much the family needs. Then, they distribute accordingly.

Howe points to a tent: “If that tent already has good vinyl, we may give them a lighter bit of plastic sheeting to fill gaps and build partitions.”

“We’re dying of the cold at night,” Adla Armala pleads to a passing aid worker. She fled Syria five months ago with her seven children. Though the days are still warm in the Bekaa, once the sun goes down, the temperature drops. In a few months there will be heavy rains and snow.

Syrian pop music plays from just inside Armala’s tent. Her family’s already received some weatherproofing materials, but she says its not enough. Even though tight plastic sheeting covers the roof, the tent’s walls are thin, uninsulated and drafty. The floor is nothing more than woven plastic mats atop packed earth.

As great as the need is, it’s also ever changing. New refugees are arriving every day, some families expand and others move on.

Lisa Abou Khaled with the UNHCR says they are constantly doing assessments to keep their data up to date. “By the time we reach all the tents, we go back to the beginning.” She says the assessment teams find “many aren’t there anymore, some are bigger, smaller. It’s very complex.”

Inside Syria, aid workers face similar obstacles. Just as the number of refugees grow larger every day, so do the number of people who are newly homeless within Syria.

“The longer the conflict goes on, the more people you will have who are affected by the conflict, fleeing their homes where the battles are taking place,” says Samer el-Kadi with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Lebanon. El-Kadi says the sheer numbers of people in need, both inside and outside Syria, are overwhelming, but within Syria, aid groups face the additional challenge of access.

“Its not easy,” said el-Kadi, “because of insecurity, the ongoing fighting, fluctuating front lines and the large number of actors on the field.” When asked if the ICRC would be able to reach everyone in need, el-Kadi replied, “It’s a continuing challenge.”

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