Poor Lebanese, Syrians Struggle to Survive Unforgiving Winter

Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan are sheltering in poorly heated tents relying mostly on layers of blankets to keep warm

Afrin, north of Aleppo, Syria, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022
Afrin, north of Aleppo, Syria, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022.Credit: Ghaith Alsayed /AP

A snowstorm in the Middle East has left many Lebanese and Syrians scrambling to find ways to survive, burning old clothes, plastic and sheep manure to keep warm as temperatures plummet amid already soaring poverty.

The storm, dubbed “Hiba” in Lebanon, began Tuesday night and is expected to peak on Thursday. The small Mediterranean country’s massive economic collapse and currency crash has meant an increasing number of Lebanese families are not able to afford basic needs like fuel to heat their homes.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan are sheltering in poorly heated tents relying mostly on layers of blankets to keep warm.

“The situation is very, very difficult,” said social activist Baseem Atrash, speaking from the snowcapped northeastern Lebanese town of Arsal near the Syrian border. Arsal is home to one of the largest Syrian refugee concentrations in Lebanon, with some 50,000 people, most of them living in flimsy tents.

Atrash said Syrian refugees, as well as some Lebanese who have fallen into poverty since the country's financial meltdown began in October 2019, lack diesel for heaters, while constant power cuts make electric heaters useless.

“They are burning anything to keep their heaters on from plastic to old clothes,” Atrash said. Earlier this month, a Syrian mother and her three children died in their sleep after inhaling toxic fumes from burning coal to heat their room in a village in southern Lebanon.

A displaced Syrian family warms themselves around a fire at a refugee camp in the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022.Credit: Mohammad Zaatari /AP

Lebanon, a country of 6 million people, is home to 1.5 million Syrians who fled the now decade-old civil war in their country. The United Nations estimates that 90% of Syrian refugee households live in extreme poverty. But as Lebanon grapples with an unprecedented economic crisis, the poverty has deepened for both Lebanese and Syrians.

Skyrocketing fuel prices coupled with a currency collapse has meant many essential commodities are now out of reach for the average Lebanese.

Nadim Attieh, a Lebanese residing at 750 meters above sea level, decided to donate some of his firewood to needy families after he heard of how cold it will get. Attieh used Twitter to spread the word of his in-kind donation: a ton of wood. It is enough for five or six families that would last them through the coldest three days ahead.

“I have stocked up on wood during summer and I have a good quantity. So why not share with people who are underprivileged?” Attieh asked, himself looking for a job after being let go from his job in the Gulf a few years ago.

A displaced Syrian warms up next to a fire at the al-Balea camp near the city of Jisr al-Shughur in Syria, January 17, 2022.Credit: ABDULAZIZ KETAZ - AFP

The cost of a ton of wood is now equivalent to five times the minimum wage, selling for 3 million Lebanese pounds ($120) while some 20 liters of diesel now goes for about 300,000 — nearly ten times what it cost three years ago.

In Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, where many of the 3 million residents are internally displaced persons, Yassin al-Yassin was fortifying his tent with extra tarps and supports as the weather worsened.

Al-Yassin, who lives in the tent with his wife, two daughters and son, couldn’t afford wood or diesel for heating, so he'll be burning dried sheep manure that's been piled up since summer.

“All we have to protect us is tarp and blankets,” he said by telephone from the tent, surrounded by mountains near the Turkish border. He said only those receiving hard currency from relatives abroad can afford to buy diesel and wood for heating.

International aid group CARE said temperatures are expected to drop in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria to well below freezing, endangering the lives of millions already living in precarious circumstances.

“People can see their own breath when lying on their thin mattresses, you will see children walk around in flip-flops and ripped shirts. Families are afraid that they will freeze to death,” said Jolien Veldwijk, CARE Syria Country Director.

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