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As the nights draw in and temperatures plummet, the race is on to protect Syrian refugee families living in Lebanon from another grim winter.
While many have been in the country for almost a decade, some still lack the basics to keep dry and warm. Their living conditions remain woefully inadequate against the winter elements - when temperatures often dip well below 0⁰C and snow falls regularly.
Most of the estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon entered the country with next to nothing. All they had was what they could carry – a suitcase full of clothes or a bag of belongings. They are ill-prepared to withstand the cold and damp conditions that winter brings.
Limited shelter options
Around a third of Syrian refugees live in cities and villages across the country in non-permanent or non-residential structures. Such places often fail to meet basic living standards.
Informal tented settlements – temporary structures made from concrete blocks a few feet high, wooden supports and plastic sheeting – are home to around 11 per cent of the Syrian refugee population. These flimsy shelters scarcely resist strong winds, heavy snowfall or flash floods, and provide little comfort against sub-zero temperatures.
Rain often infiltrates the tents, particularly those situated at the bottom of slopes. After a heavy downpour, it is not uncommon for people to have to place plastic bags over their footwear to wade through claggy mud. Sometimes it is mixed with effluent from overflowing makeshift latrines, greatly increasing the risk of waterborne diseases, such as hepatitis A and cholera.
A further 20 per cent of Syrian refugees live in buildings that were never intended as family dwellings – factories, garages, workshops, farm outhouses for livestock, shops, warehouses and schools. Few are properly insulated and some even lack windows or doors. They might be more permanent than tents, but can be as bitterly cold and prone to mould and dampness, leaving people at high risk of respiratory illnesses.
Facing harsh weather
The Akkar region in the far north of Lebanon, where Concern is working, can experience harsh weather conditions. With an average altitude of 700m, winter temperatures can drop as low as -10⁰C, and heavy rain and snow are frequent.
Because of its proximity to Syria, over 100,000 refugees have temporarily settled in Akkar, which is made up of largely rural communities. But a high refugee population means limited choice - forcing many into accepting cheap, inadequate and poor shelter. Over 40 per cent of the refugee population in Akkar live in temporary or non-residential accommodation – well above the national average.
‘It is much better now’
Despite having a chronic health condition, fifty-six-year-old Sania* and her husband Wahid*, 66, inhabit one such place in the Akkar region - a petrol station storeroom that was once filled with car tyres and containers of engine oil. The couple were forced to move into the single basic room with an adjoining toilet after falling into rent arrears.
“We came to Lebanon on our own about four years ago,” said Wahid. “We fled Syria after our home was destroyed. We left with nothing.
“We moved into this accommodation because we couldn’t pay the rent in the last place - it was too expensive. It is cheaper here.”
But a more affordable rent, often means having to lower expectations. A worsening economic situation in Lebanon means that more and more people like Sania and Wahid have little choice but to live in unfinished, uninhabitable and uninsulated buildings.
“If we hadn’t been forced to move, we wouldn’t have come here,” admitted Wahid. “The bathroom wasn’t good at all. There was no toilet, just a squat latrine, which was difficult for us with our arthritis. We didn’t have a water heater, so it wasn’t good.”
A few months later, Concern stepped in to help make vital improvements to the couple’s home and lives. Broken windows were repaired, and a new toilet and electric water heater were installed, as well as a rent freeze negotiated for 12 months. They now have a stove to heat the room and tell us that they wrap up well with blankets and wear layers to keep warm.
“It is much better and more comfortable now,” said Wahid. “The changes have helped a lot.”
Reaching more families at risk
As winter approaches, Concern’s work continues apace to protect more at-risk families like Sania and Wahid from harsh months of cold, illness and misery.
We are rehabilitating and repairing hundreds of non-residential buildings to improve living conditions for the most vulnerable. The work includes installing electricity, doors and windows, and making sure that roofs are rainproof. We also negotiate with landlords to secure a rent-free occupancy agreement for at least a year in exchange for carrying out the work.
As part of our winterisation programme, we are distributing shelter weatherproofing kits to 6,000 families in informal tented settlements. The kits include repair boxes made up of tarpaulins, plywood and tools.
We are also installing insulated emergency flooring in 100 temporary shelters to keep out the cold. And along with our partners, we are building storm water drainage channels to protect against winter flooding in 70 informal settlements in the Akkar region.
On top of that, we are providing 2,000 families with winter cash grants to enable them to buy the essentials to keep warm in the coming difficult months.
The hope is that more Syrian refugee families, like Sania and Wahid, will be better prepared to stay safe and warm, and survive another unforgiving winter in northern Lebanon.
* Names have been changed to protect identities.