Inside a dank and drafty cinder-block bunker, flooded by back-to-back storms, a Syrian mother and her five children are waiting for the man of the house to return.
It has been six months since Dalal’s husband went back to their village in northern Syria to see with his own eyes if the situation had improved.
It had not.
“He said the country is in a really terrible state,” the 30-year-old told Asia Times. “He said to stay put and wait while he finds a way back.”
Dalal was left to care for her children, including a 10-year-old girl who struggles to control her bladder day and night. She developed the condition in the Aleppo countryside, where the family home was located near an airbase under a deafening, years-long siege. The family fled in 2014, one year before the Abu Dhuhor airbase fell to jihadist factions.
“Even just the door slamming scares her,”the mother said. The past week of stormy nights has been especially challenging.
Floodwaters and tents
It is only mid-January and already Lebanon has experienced two torrential storms, Norma and Miriam. The storms have been a blessing for the mountain ski resorts but a curse for the low-elevation camps in the Bekaa Valley. The latest storms have flooded settlements across the valley, including Dalal’s concrete and plywood cell. On Thursday, Lebanese authorities said at least three refugees had been killed in flooding, including two children.
Today the sun is out, but the refugees’ cheap foam mattresses are still damp.
“If I could go back, I wouldn’t stay here another second,” said Dalal. “But my husband told me there’s nothing for us in Syria. No electricity, no water connection.”
In Lebanon, the family receives a monthly sum of 260,000 Lebanese pounds (just under $175) from the United Nations, 200,000 of which goes to paying the rent and the remainder the mother stretches to split between heating fuel, food, and other necessities. The children are able to walk to a nearby school run by the KayanyFoundation.
There is never enough, but her husband determined that this harsh existence was better than the dire situation in Syria, where he would also risk conscription.
“He said, what if I get drafted? Then you won’t even have me to depend on.”
It is a dilemma felt across Lebanon, where some 1.5 million Syrians have spent years of their lives in limbo, in a country that was already incapable of providing basic services like electricity for its own 4 million populace even before this influx.
Same story, every year
Located between the Mount Lebanon range overlooking the Mediterranean and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains bordering Syria, the Bekaa Valley is an apt physical metaphor for the refugees’ purgatory between their homeland and the shores of Europe.
To get by, they depend on meager aid from the United Nations, as well as a smattering of non-governmental organizations that have sprung up over the course of the conflict.
Near the home of Dalal is the Bar Elias headquarters of Basmeh and Zeitooneh, a relief and development organization that was formed in response to the many communities falling between the cracks, from the Syrian-Palestinians who took refuge in the overwhelmed Shatila refugee camp of Beirut to the destitute families in the Bekaa Valley.
Today, teams are visiting area camps to assess the damage from the storm. A Syrian team member, Hamza, who can point to where his hometown of Zabadani lies across the mountain range, opens his notebook to show his tally of the damage so far.
At this point, he’s counted at least five settlements that are “totally offline,” meaning flooded to the point where their inhabitants have been forced to seek housing in temporary shelters.
The organization last week had scrambled to raise money to rent temporary shelters for hundreds of families whose tents were flooded on night one of hurricane Norma.
Before the water receded, the second storm hit.
“These tents they live in just flood; every single year,” area manager Diana Saleh says in exasperation. “They’re not waterproof, they’re not warm enough, and no one wants to do something about it.”
“These tents they live in just flood; every single year. They’re not waterproof, they’re not warm enough, and no one wants to do something about it”
It has been eight years since the Syrian conflict began and life has only grown harsher for the refugees.
“The only thing that has really changed is more and more regulations from the government that has just made their life harder,” Saleh told Asia Times.
The Lebanese government ordered the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to suspend refugee registration in 2015. While the government agreed to waive the $200 annual residency fees for those who arrived prior to January 1, 2015, the agency assessesthe waiver is not always applied and nearly three-quarters of Syrians are living without a valid residency, leaving them vulnerable to arrest or exploitation.
Nothing has improved infrastructure-wise, according to Saleh.
The refugees are not allowed to build their settlements more than five centimeters above the ground, nor are they allowed to build solid roofs.
“If we were allowed to go [higher] than that, we would build at least 10-15 centimeters to have a more permanent solution. Especially here in Bar Elias because it’s the lowest point in Bekaa,” said Saleh.
“We have some settlements built at the same level as the Litani River.” Basmeh and Zeitooneh are in talks with the authorities to relocate five such settlements. They have been unable to secure permission to raise the level of the structures.
The reason is linked to a previous group of refugees – the some 500,000 Palestinians who ended up in Lebanon after being expelled from their homes or fleeing during the creation of Israel in 1948 and in a second wave during the Six-Day war of 1967. Over decades, their camps became permanent slums that are today no-go zones for the Lebanese security forces.
The Lebanese authorities are opposed to a repeat scenario and have maintained strict regulations on any signs of permanence developing in the Syrian encampments.
This summer, a campaign for Syrian refugee returns began, with Hezbollah acting as a broker in some cases and Syrian middlemen or Russian guarantors in others. The returns have been sporadic at best and concentrated around Damascus, where individual deals have been struck. The number of returnees, hovering in thelow thousands, pales in comparison to the more than one million Syrian refugees in the country.
On this frigid day in settlement No. o270, nicknamed by its residents as the Jammal camp, residents from four clans in Idlib are passing the time without stimulation or warmth. Their home province in Syria’s northwest remains a dangerous contested zone where jihadist factions hold sway.
“I was studying when I left,” said Abdel Wahab, 24, who has now lived nearly a third of his life in Lebanon. He works on the surrounding farmland in the warmer months, and in the winter struggles, like most of the residents, with nothing to do.
“Our lives are slipping away here,” says the young man, who looks a decade older than his age. He is wearing shoes with no socks as temperatures hover around freezing.
Most of the families in this settlement arrived here two years ago, after running out of rent money for apartments in the pricier Mount Lebanon region.
Hasna, 23, a mother of two, said the idea was to find cheaper accommodation in the economically depressed valley.
“We thought it would be cheaper, but in the end, it was worse. There is less work here and more competition for it,” she said.
The families spend most of the money they receive from the UN on renting a parcel of land, about $100 per month, and then build a structure as strong as they are allowed.
In 29-year-old Hwaida’s tent, the concrete floors are still wet and the children are not home. They are still staying at a school converted to a shelter on the first night of the storm.
The mother, from Saraqeb, has been in Lebanon three years. “We left when our home was bombed,” she said, echoing a common last straw.
While most of the families here fled Syria years ago, they were joined four months ago by a new arrival.
Aisha, 26, made an arduous four-day journey from Idlib with her children to this camp after her house was bombed in an airstrike. She came through the official border, while her husband was smuggled across to avoid possible conscription. The war finally pushed the family to leave after eight years, but they still live with its effects.
The young mother has a permanently furrowed brow, while her six-year-old daughter, Ghaida, wearing glasses and a pink knit scarf, has a hearing problem after living through the deafening sounds of war.
Asked if she sees any hope for return, Aisha says, “Honestly, no. I do not see a future in Idlib. We don’t have a house anymore.”
Many of the families in this camp are from agricultural backgrounds and they say that with infrastructure decimated, there is little prospect of earning a livelihood back home. “Even if we managed to bring a generator for the irrigation system, there’s no electricity to run it and no water supply,” said Hasna.
Here in the camp, preparations for a new school are being made. But in the midst of the storms, the tent meant to house it is flooded.
Yasser Hourani, the head of the camp, who acts as a point person with the Lebanese military and security services when issues arise, says the rules for floor height are not always rigid, and he believes they will be allowed to raise the foundation.
On the way out of the camp, Wasil Khodr, from the Aleppo countryside, shows the wretched state of his tent. During the storm, the sewage trenches were inundated with floodwaters, spewing their contents into the family’s living quarters.
“We had to throw half our belongings into the garbage,” he said. The children’s few toys were not spared.
This is his third year in Lebanon. ♦