'Can't feel my feet anymore': Syrian refugees brave harsh weather

Middle East

Syrian refugees living in camps across Lebanon say they have received little help as rains and flooding have submerged their settlements.

Raeda al-Mohammed has been pushing water out of her family’s plywood and tarpaulin hut since 4am.

The 21-year-old Syrian refugee spent most of Monday morning working barefoot with a large mop at the entrance of her tent. She had to ask her neighbours for help to lay out the thin, soaking rug she recovered from her home in the sprawling refugee camp in Saadnayel town.

The rug, along with some of the family’s other belongings: a pair of slippers, kitchen utensils and a plastic straw mat, had been floating in the water left behind after a new storm, dubbed Storm Miriam, lashed the country on Sunday evening.

“They say rain is a blessing, but we now hate it when it rains,” al-Mohammed, a refugee from Syria’s western city of Homs, told Al Jazeera.

“I can’t feel my feet any more,” she said as the cold water ran over her feet.

She, along with her husband and two children, spent a sleepless night trying to salvage what they could from their small shelter which comprises of two rooms separated by a thin board of plywood.

“We haven’t had a moment of sleep since last night,” she said with her arms crossed, trying to keep herself warm from harsh cold winds.

Al-Mohammed and her husband, Ibrahim al-Furaij, fled the Syrian city of Homs in 2015 and moved to Saadnayel, a small town near Zahle in Lebanon’s northeast.

They are among 25,000 Syrian refugees who live across 80 informal settlement structures in Saadnayel.

The couple and their children have not been able to use a communal bathroom which they share with a family in a neighbouring tent, as it has been flooded with wastewater. Instead, al-Mohammed says she has to walk her children to an open field across the camp as an alternative.

The family says their shelter will take up to two months to completely dry due to the incessant rainfall.

‘No one is thinking about us’

Some 574 settlement structures and more than 22,000 refugees across the country were affected by the time the “ruthless” storm subsided a few days ago, according to figures from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

Lebanon is home to more than one million Syrian refugees, most of whom live in informal settlements made out of tarpaulin tents supported by wooden frames.

A major issue faced in the camps during rainfalls is the overflowing septic tanks, which leads to the seeping of sewage water into the camp’s crammed tents.

Drainage and de-sludging of wastewater are tasks taken on by WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) teams, usually provided by NGOs.

But in the case of the camps in Saadnayel, drainage efforts have been halted for over a year, residents say.

Al-Furaij says that he would require an excavator if he were to attempt to drain the water out of his family’s tent himself.

“If nobody wants to help us, NGOs should at least provide us with something we can dig a ditch with,” he told Al Jazeera. “I’ve been walking around town all morning looking for one, but to no avail”.

As part of the UNHCR’s emergency response plan, a drainage kit is typically distributed to residents, depending on the need.

But number of drainage kits is limited, Hiba Fares, a spokesperson for UNHCR in the Bekaa region, told Al Jazeera.

According to her, even the settlements that received these kits during Storm Norma remain damaged to date because of the recurring floods.

Since last week, more than 850 Syrian refugees were forced to relocate to other areas, either in nearby camps or with other extended family members, she said.

But al-Furaij insisted: “We’ve been freezing, walking and sitting in cold-ice water all day, but no one is even thinking about us”.

‘We only have each other’

His family’s sentiments were shared by others in nearby camps.

“The water is rising from beneath us and falling over us at the same time,” one resident said of the rain and the wastewater that has left mattresses damp.

“We’re sleeping on damp floors, we’re never fully dry,” the 53-year-old said.

Without much assistance from NGOs, Subhia el-Eidi said that residents of the camp had to help each other instead.

“Those with dry rugs and mattresses gave some away to their friends and neighbours,” she said. “We only have each other”.

The camp’s residents resorted to digging trenches themselves to get rid of the flooding last year, but they say the area’s landowner recently blocked these ditches – making the flooding even worse.

From one end of the overcrowded settlement, surrounded by puddles and rubbish – flooding from a main street leading into the area has brought muddy water, and from the other side where the ditch is blocked – wastewater raises from the septic tanks.

‘We want to keep our children warm’

Approximately half of the camp’s 35 tents are still abandoned by their residents, who sought shelter in other areas last week.

Those who remained in the camp, labelled “007” by the UN, have little to keep themselves warm.

Some residents  were walking around on cold, muddy floors wearing only slippers, while others had only thin clothing and had to rely on gas for heat.

“We want heat, we simply want to keep our children warm,” 37-year-old Nader al-Mustafa told Al Jazeera.

The father of one, who fled from Aleppo, says his family has not been receiving heating fuel oil – another winter staple item – which is usually provided by NGOs.

“We’ve had to reuse burned oil over and over to keep the heater working,” he said.

The UNHCR says part of the agency’s emergency response plan is to distribute blankets and mattresses, whereas oil is only provided to refugees based on a certain assessment.

Storm Miriam is expected to bring snowfall and continue until January 17, exacerbating already dire conditions across Lebanon’s Syrian refugee camps.

The poorly equipped sites will not be upgraded despite the worsening weather conditions, as the government will not allow the creation of more permanent structures.

Image: Al Jazeera

Article: Al Jazeera