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Another winter for Syrian refugees in Lebanon | The World Weekly

On a recent sunny day in the al-Jaharriyeh refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley, winter might have seemed far away, but for the 250 Syrian families living here in tents less than 20km from the Syrian border, it is coming come what may.

Camp leader Ali was unequivocal when asked whether its inhabitants were ready for the upcoming winter: “No, nothing has changed from the last year and we are not prepared,” he tells The World Weekly. Last year, several people, including children, died during the winter months. Even a superficial look at the tents, rebuilt after a devastating fire hit the camp in June, reveals they won’t provide much shelter when temperatures drop.

During The World Weekly’s visit, Salam LADC, a Lebanese organisation working with refugee and host communities predominantly in areas close to the Syrian border, was partnering up with students from the Lebanese-Armenian Haigazian University to distribute winter hats in the camp as part of efforts to prepare for the upcoming cold months.  

As people lined up with sheets of paper in their hands noting how many family members they have, members of the university’s Desert Stream Club played games with the children, punctuated by chanting and groups of kids playing football. As a tour around the camp, located on the side of a road, indicated, there is not much to do here for children.

Members of Haigazian’s University’s Desert Stream Club hand out winter hats in al-Jaharriyeh camp

While the increasing flow of refugees to Europe has dominated international headlines over the last year, it is Middle Eastern countries like Lebanon that are bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis caused by the brutal war in neighbouring Syria.

A small country located at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, Lebanon hosts at least 1 million Syrians according to official numbers by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). However, the actual number is estimated to be significantly higher (with estimates as high as 1.8 million people) and the UNHCR in May suspended the registration of new refugees as per the instruction of the Lebanese government.

Jaharriyeh camp

Most of the people living in al-Jaharriyeh camp are from Homs, Oussama Ibrahim, Salam’s regional coordinator for the Bekaa valley explains. The camp, which was established in 2012 near the town of El Marj, houses about 1,000-1,300 people in 180 tents; around 400 of them are children.  

Camp leader Ali says he has been living here for two and a half years. “At the beginning it started with 10 tents. Then my relatives came and some other people joined us. Now there are 250 families and 1,300 refugees in the camp.”

The camp’s residents live in tents, meaning that another winter will prove a tough challenge

Jaharriyeh camp is only one of countless informal settlements across Lebanon, often erected just at the side of streets next to small communities.

As is the case in other communities, the influx of Syrians around El Marj has put an increasing strain on resources, creating some tensions. But problems for example with the electricity supply and rubbish collection existed before, Salam’s director Joseph Matta says, explaining that shortages are often falsely blamed on the arrival of the Syrians.

“There is more need than capacity” despite support for the refugees from the municipality, Matta adds.

While this was not the case in El Marj, a mostly Sunni village supporting the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, tensions between Syrian refugees and Shia communities are frequently intensified due to different stances on the conflict in Syria, the director of Salam, which was set up in southern Lebanon in 2009, points out.

Dr. Imad Salamey, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, tells The World Weekly that the Syrian Civil War has led to an increasing polarisation and deepened sectarian divisions in Lebanon between Shias and Sunnis.

Back at al-Jaharriyeh, Ali explains the camp has grown bigger and bigger, even after June’s devastating fire, as the rent for each tent ($40; and $20 for electricity) is a lot cheaper than renting a room or apartment in the nearby communities. Despite the lower rents, to buy a tent costs about $1000, Ali says.

In order to help the camp to be more prepared for future potential emergencies, Salam is training an emergency team that can handle smaller crises like another fire or collapsing tents, Ibrahim says. Fifteen people are trained to be part of this team.

Despite these efforts, yet another winter without proper housing will be a tough challenge for those who have fled the war in Syria.

A lack of coordination

While overall at least three local organisations are coordinating their activities in the camp visited by The World Weekly, such coordination is rather rare, Sami, a former aid worker who did not want to give his full name due to the sensitivity of the matter, says.

While local NGOs on average establish a more direct and responsive relationship with the refugees than international NGOs, there is often a lack of coordination between them, Sami says during our meeting in Beirut. There are no formal mechanisms in place for local NGOs to coordinate, which has in the past led to a duplication of assistance in some cases and a lack of assistance in others; for example, handing out too many blankets to a family which is in need of heating material, Sami says.

Around 400 children live in the al-Jaharriyeh camp

“It’s not an exaggeration when someone says coordination saves lives, because it honestly does. And coordination has been lacking, especially with local NGOs,” Sami says. Looking at the roots of this gap, he points not only at competitiveness between local organisations to gain a better reputation, for example regarding who responds to a larger number of people, but also sensitivities between people leading NGOs.

“Coordination happens sometimes, but it is on an ad-hoc basis, so there is no structure. There is no inter-agency coordination group or committee,” according to Sami, who witnessed the lack of coordination in northern Lebanon in the winter of 2013 first-hand.

Other NGO workers The World Weekly spoke to confirmed off the record that relations between local NGOs can be quite personalised and lack a formal structure.

Reflecting on the overall response to the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon, however, Professor Salamey offers a different perspective: “In a country of 4 million people, receiving 1.5 million refugees and given this country’s sectarian divisions and government failures in many areas, to be capable to five years after host such a number of refugees without totally breaking down is a miracle.”

While noting various problems, including human rights violations, attacks against refugees, children begging in the street on top of a lack of an official refugee policy, Professor Salamey says: “Given what we’re encountering and how we’re coping with the situation, I think it’s not bad the response overall”.

“I give huge credit to Lebanon and its people for being able to respond and not totally collapse.”

The question nevertheless remains: How much longer can this ‘miracle’ be upheld? 

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