Winter in a tent: Syrian refugees face cold and snow

By Coco McCabe
Layla (not her real name) fled from Syria with her husband and two children after their house was bombed. She now lives in a tent in a refugee settlement in northern Lebanon. Photo: Sam Tarling/Oxfam

For the 2.2 million people who have fled the bloodshed in Syria, the months ahead will be grim.

The smell of home is what Aysha Al Husseini  misses—the olives and grapes that grew outside her house. The apples. The rich earth. These are the smells of Syria, the smells she longs for most since becoming a refugee.

Eight months pregnant in October and facing the possibility of a caesarean section for which she had no money to pay, Al Husseini  was one of countless refugees in tents and abandoned buildings in Jordan and Lebanon wondering how they would manage as winter approached.

That winter has come.

For the 2.2 million people who have fled the bloodshed in Syria, the months ahead will be grim. In North Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, where many refugees have sought safety, their shelters offer only a hint of protection against dampness and bitterly cold temperatures. In early December, the first winter storm hit the valley, shrouding the informal camps—there are more than 200 there now—in a blanket of wet snow and hinting at what’s to come.

“I don’t have a heater or anything,” a woman called Layla told Oxfam in October. She did not want to give her real name. She had been living with her husband and two children in a settlement in northern Lebanon for 10 months and had already weathered one miserable winter on the move inside Syria after their home was burned to the ground.

“Fear and horror is what we felt. We felt things that I’m not sure I want to recount,” said Layla. In October, with another winter looming, a new set of fears simmered.

“We’re going to set up a barrier in front of the door to stop water and rain from coming in and we’ll try to get a new plastic cover to place over our tent—maybe that will help us survive the winter,” said Layla. But how she would pay for it she didn’t know.

“Most likely we will have leaks this winter,” she said.

Figuring out how to stay warm was also on the mind of said Em Mohammed Juwayer,  who, for more than a year, has been living with his young son in a settlement of tents near the town of Qualamoun in northern Lebanon and knows well what lies ahead.

“A heating stove that uses wood is the most important thing. I don’t have one,” he said.  “We cover the shelter in plastic sheeting and try to close it up in the winter, but you can see how open it is. Gusts of wind come through.”

Juwayer’s son sounded worried.

“In the winter it’s going to be very cold and it will snow,” he said. “Water will flood the houses and the valley here will also flood. Our slippers will be washed away…Last year, water kept flooding the house and we didn’t sleep.”

To help some of the most vulnerable families in Lebanon survive the harsh months ahead, Oxfam is distributing cash and vouchers to 11,900 of them to help buy plastic sheeting, heating stoves, fuel, blankets, and warm clothing. The support will benefit about 59,500 people.

In Jordan, Oxfam will also be distributing winter kits that include blankets, gas heaters, and four months of fuel for families living in apartments. For those camped out in tents, the kits will include blankets and plastic sheeting.

Oxfam has already helped more than 500,000 people in the nearly three-year-old conflict, including 250,000 inside Syria, and it aims to reach 150,000 more by the end of March. Providing people with access to clean water and sanitation has been a key part of Oxfam’s response. Support has also included cash assistance—sometimes through ATM cards—so families can buy basics like food and hygiene products and pay their rent.

“It (Oxfam’s work) might not solve all my problems,” said Tahseen Al Khateeb, a refugee in Jordan who received cash support in October to help with rent and other basics, “but sometimes a little piece of gravel can hold up a whole house.”