Snow falls on tent canvuses near northeastern Lebanon's Arsal on January 8. Photo courtesy of Ahmad al-Quseir.

AMMAN: Up one of the steep hillsides that line Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, Soheir al-Kanoun hasn’t left the house in days.

A Palestinian refugee originally from Syria’s Yarmouk camp, who now lives in a hillside town overlooking the valley below, al-Kanoun’s family have been living off bread and tahini since Storm Norma began—groceries bought hastily last week in preparation for rain, wind and snow.

And while the elevation has protected al-Kanoun and her elderly mother from flooding, hillside snow and ice has hemmed them inside since the weekend. 

“I can’t go out in this weather,” she said. “We live up in the hills. People rarely go outside.”

Not everyone has the luxury of a rooftop. On the valley floor, informal tent settlements housing Syrian refugees have been badly flooded and destroyed by the recent inclement weather.

When the rains started, the stones holding down Abu Muhammad’s tent lining held out for a while. Eventually, water started seeping inside.

“When it rained again, the tent filled with water. Drains stopped working,” he remembers.

Water filling up the tent wrecked the family’s belongings—gathered during five years living in Bar Elias, in one of the many informal settlements in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley—since fleeing the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus in 2013.

The family were evacuated to a temporary shelter in a nearby school, where they are still residing.

Storm Norma ‘catastrophic’ in Arsal

A winter storm currently sweeping across the region has hit Lebanon hard, leaving tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in the country without proper assistance and shelter. While flooding has inundated and destroyed informal tent settlements dotting the fields and countryside of the Beqaa Valley—a mostly flat, agricultural lowland with Lebanese mountains to the west and the Syrian-Lebanese border to the east—conditions have been particularly poor in northeastern Lebanon’s Arsal region.

“We have property and family in Syria, and nothing here,” said Muhammad al-Mutawa, a refugee in Arsal originally from Homs, describing the situation as “catastrophic.”

“The snow here is now a meter and a half high. The tents are about to come down on top of our heads.”

According to local activists, an infant child in Arsal died as a result of exposure to freezing weather conditions, while camp residents have shared countless images of tents under feet of heavy snow and children bracing harsh winter winds.

A flooded informal tent settlement for Syrian refugees in Bar Elias, in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. Photo courtesy of Manal Shakhashirou.

Arsal is a restricted area home to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, known as one of the most isolated and vulnerable refugee communities in Lebanon.

In August 2017, the Lebanese army—with backing from Lebanese Hezbollah—attacked and cleared remaining pockets of hardline Islamist fighters from Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) and the Islamic State (IS). Since then, scattered groups of refugees have returned back to Syria from Arsal and dozens of refugee camps around the town.

Despite harsh living conditions only exacerbated by recent inclement weather, al-Mutawa says he’s unwilling to consider returning to Syria without promises of safety.

“We want to return,” he says, “but only with international guarantees.”

At least 2,000 Syrians are estimated to have returned from Lebanon since April last year, although the Lebanese government claims as many as 55,000 refugees have gone back to Syria as part of individual or state-facilitated returns.

However, late last year, Lebanese authorities announced at least 20 returnees had been killed since crossing the border back into Syria.

Funding shortfalls

Across the country, recent storms have left volunteers and NGOs on the ground scrambling to help refugees by opening schools and local centers to take in families fleeing flooded-out tent settlements across northern Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley.

Refugees have been displaced from areas of Akkar in northern Lebanon, as well as the Beqaa Valley, as a result of inclement weather.

“The situation isn’t easy for them,” says George Kattaneh, secretary-general at the Lebanese Red Cross in Beirut. “There’s a lot of water that’s flooding—especially in Akkar, where we evacuated more than 700 people to schools.”

Lebanese NGO Sawa for Development and Aid also issued a statement Tuesday announcing that it was “opening its centers for those affected” in the Beqaa Valley, and urged “other organizations to do so.”

Teams of volunteers have also launched independent fundraising initiatives and collection drives to help refugees in storm-affected areas.

According to George Ghali, executive director of the Lebanese NGO ALEF that works on refugee protection advocacy, “most of the assistance that has been done through the storm has been of a voluntary nature,” at a time when UNHCR’s regional response plan for Syrian refugees has been repeatedly underfunded year after year.

“There are no sectors that have been fully covered. If you look at the scope of the crisis, from 2012 to 2017, the gap is increasing constantly.”

However, he says, donor fatigue and funding shortfalls are just one aspect of a crisis now in its eighth year—and the storm has also revealed a lack of adequate disaster management infrastructure among Lebanese authorities, impacting both Lebanese host communities and Syrian refugees, as well as an “absence of proper shelter” for refugees.

“We know of cases of refugees burning old shoes in order to keep themselves warm, and this is a recurrent problem that we face every year,” Ghali said. “Maybe the harshness of [this year’s] storm has revealed some of these problems more.”

‘Where am I supposed to go back to?’

UNHCR, meanwhile, maintains that it is prioritizing vulnerable refugees.

According to UNHCR spokesperson Lisa Abu Khaled, the UN agency for refugees already has a winter assistance program in place for distributing supplies for the inclement weather—including blankets, shelter kits and other emergency supplies—on top of existing monthly cash assistance packages.

However, she added, funding shortfalls mean some of the most vulnerable refugees in Lebanon are left wanting.

“Because of funding limitations, we are not able to reach all refugees who live under the extreme poverty line with this monthly cash assistance program,” Abu Khaled told Syria Direct, but adding that the UN agency prioritizes “life saving” assistance.

However, refugees are encountering much more than just funding shortages.

According to ALEF’s Ghali, “there’s [been] a general donor fatigue, but you can also speak about a fatigue not just related to donors, but to refugees themselves and host communities as well.”

“A lot of the [Syrian] crisis depended on refugees’ ability to sustain and self-help themselves, as well as host communities’ support systems,” he added. 

Abu Muhammad, originally from the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, sleeps in a temporary shelter with his wife and children. His permanent home in Syria has been destroyed, and now inclement weather has taken their tented home of five years from them as well.

He’s unsure what to do next.

“We don't have work, and our financial situation is bad. My house in Ghouta is gone–it was destroyed in the bombardment [earlier this year].”

“Where am I supposed to go back to?”