In Lebanon's storm-hit camps, Syrians help with relief aid

Syrians help with aid distributions for vulnerable refugee living in camps across Bekaa Valley as more rains hit region.

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    Bekaa Valley, Lebanon - Snow-capped mountain peaks gleamed in the distance as tens of people, many shivering and carrying toddlers, huddled around a truck filled with firewood. 

    As the harsh wind whistled around him, a young boy pointed excitedly at one of the blocks being unloaded.

    "Four hours of heat; this means four hours of heat," he said on Tuesday.

    For the vulnerable residents of this remote Syrian refugee camp outside the small northeastern Lebanese town of Bar Elias, the firewood - typically used to generate heat in the absence of fuel oil - is an essential commodity.

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    Like thousands of other refugees sheltering in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, families here have been struggling to deal with the aftermath of two almost consecutive storms in the space of fewer than two weeks.

    The first one, Storm Norma, affected more than 22,000 Syrian refugees living in some 574 settlement structures across Lebanon, according to United Nations figures, before subsiding a few days ago.

    But on Sunday evening, a second storm dubbed Miriam started bringing again incessant rain, harsh winds and snowfall in the Bekaa Valley. It is expected to last until January 17.

    Usama Hammoud: 'We're working as fast as we can' [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

    'Act fast'

    Just as SAWA for Development and Aid, an aid organisation run by volunteers who fled the long-running war in neighbouring Syria, delivered the firewood at the informal camp outside Bar Elias, residents complained that they have not received much assistance from humanitarian groups, including the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

    It's a view held many other refugees across Bekaa Valley.

    Firewood distribution at the camp [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

    Lebanon, which is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, has blocked efforts to upgrade the camps' plywood and tarpaulin tents out of fear they may become permanent structures.

    In nearby camps, tens of flimsy tents housing refugee families either collapsed or flooded with rain and wastewater, damaging mattresses, clothing items and rugs used as protection from fertile grounds that quickly turn muddy with rainfall.

    Many of those who lost their tents were moved to centres belonging to SAWA, whose objective is to enable Syrians to organise and advocate for self-sustainability.

    "We expected one or two tents to flood, which is what happens every year," Mishaal Hamoud, SAWA's operations manager who is from the suburbs of the Syrian capital, Damascus, told Al Jazeera.

    "But when the storm hit and thousands were affected, we immediately evacuated our centres to accommodate people as part of an emergency response plan," he said, putting the figure of tents floods in the central Bekaa region as a result of the first storm to 2,000.

    "This was especially important because we know that international organisations do not usually offer their offices and centres as shelters in such circumstances," Hammoud added.

    "So we needed to act fast."

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    The shelters housed around 600 families, most of whom chose to remain put until Storm Miriam subsides. Others have found refuge in incomplete housing units and garages.

    To date, 11 other local organisations have joined SAWA's efforts, which include cooking and distributing daily meals to those who have lost their temporary homes.

    The meals, made in the main centre in Bar Elias, are prepared by Syrian female volunteers who cook traditional dishes favoured by the community.

    Huddled around four large metal pots, the women stirred bulgur wheat and boiled chicken while a dozen other volunteers prepared bread and dairy packages.

    The organisations also deliver donations - mostly mattresses, clothes, and fuel oil for heat.

    Syrian female volunteers cook traditional dishes that are familiar to the community [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

    'I wanted to help my people'

    Usama Hammoud, a local volunteer, said there were camps still flooded with water but have been left without assistance.

    "We're working as fast as we can, but there's only so much we can do," the 26-year-old told Al Jazeera.

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    "We'd arrive at some camps and find a family helplessly sitting inside their flooded tent," he said.

    "They would just be waiting, hoping someone would stop by and help them evacuate."

    For the past two days, volunteers have been assisting families with rebuilding their tents a few centimetres higher to avoid being hit by another round of floods.

    Hamoud said some volunteers are working around the clock to accommodate refugee needs across the area.

    "I wanted to help my people because I knew no one else would," Miro, an 18-year-old volunteer, told Al Jazeera, stressing that it was important to him to help other Syrians around him.

    "My camp flooded and I couldn't just stand still; I had to do something to help everyone else who shared my family's suffering."

    Always 'freezing cold'

    There are more than one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, whose economic woes have been exacerbated with the absence of a functional government.

    While the country is in political deadlock, Lebanese leaders have urged Syrian refugees to return to their country.

    Though several thousand have voluntarily returned to their homes over the past few months, rights groups say it is still not safe to go back. Refugees have been calling for a UN-committee to oversee and accompany those who wish to return and ensure their safety.

    In the meantime, they continue to brave harsh winter months in camps across the country - and, in particular, the colder Bekaa Valley, home to more than 340,000 Syrian refugees.

    "We're never warm, it's always freezing cold," an elderly woman in her 60s said as she sat bent at the entrance of her tent outside Bar Elias.

    "Every night, I pray to God that when I open my eyes next, it's finally morning."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News