Longing for home: harsh winters in a Lebanese refugee camp

Lebanese refugee camp Medina - Action Against Hunger

“We are only trying to protect ourselves from the freezing cold during the winter. We hope to be able to return to our home.”

Winter has returned to Aarsal, Lebanon – a town close to the eastern border with Syria. For many refugees in their ninth year away from home, the biting wind and endless rain have become an everyday reality.

Plastic sheets held in place by screws and tape and supported by rain-soaked wooden beams are what they call home. These tents have housed families for years now. In the narrow walkways between them, bicycles lie on broken blocks of concrete and the occasional plastic water container balanced delicately on piles of broken bricks and mortar.

Families have fled here from Syria to escape the never-ending war.

Eight years on and still not home

Medina sits cross-legged in her makeshift home as she considers where to begin.

“We have been here for eight years, since the war started,” she says. “We are from Homs, a rural area. We used to be farmers; we had gardens we owned and worked in. We had some animals, we produced a little milk… we made it by ourselves, my husband and I.”

Then came the war.

Medina and her family were forced to flee Syria in 2012. “Our home was destroyed by an airstrike. I was still inside when we were hit”, she remembers. “My blood pressure skyrocketed, which caused kidney failure. We had to escape, leave everything and run for our lives.”

Eight years on, not much has changed. It is still too dangerous for Medina and her family to return home. They make the most of what little they have, but life in the camps is hard. There is limited access to medical treatment, and treatment is often inadequate.

“My kidneys is in need of care, but there are no doctors for that, only a nurse and she isn’t really qualified,” she says. “When you get sick there is no one to go to.”

Plastic sheets held in place by screws and tape and supported by rain-soaked wooden beams are what the refugees here call home.

“We are not here to colonize”

The huge influx of over a million refugees has placed major demands on the Lebanese economy.

“We are not here to colonize,” says Medina. “We are only trying to protect ourselves from the freezing cold during the winter. We hope to be able to return to our home. There is nothing like home.”

Things are getting harder in Lebanon because of the unrest. “Prices go up and it is getting increasingly difficult to cash aid cards,” says Medina. “Now we go to Zahle or Beirut, but I have to be the one going, because my husband doesn’t have the papers. Having to deal with the road traffic and crowded banks makes it so much harder.”

Sacrificing expenses for fuel

The most important thing is to make sure the tent is standing strong so that water doesn’t leak inside. “The second priority is to have fuel for heat, otherwise we freeze,” explains Medina.

In previous years, various charity organizations have helped them with providing fuel. This year however, they have been forced to sacrifice part of their expenses to afford fuel for heating.

Medina’s oldest daughter is now married and has a family of her own to look after, but her younger son and daughter, aged 15 and 17, both dropped out of school to work.

“Sometimes they find a job and get paid fairly; other times they get robbed by people who have no respect for human beings,” she deplores. “They are out working, but I don’t have any idea where they might be today. They do everything in their power to help us survive.”

Mounting pressures

Aarsal is located in the northeast of Lebanon, an area heavily affected by the weather, making it much colder than the rest of the country. This winter, harsh weather – especially torrential rain – has made conditions for families living in the camp increasingly difficult.

“We take good care of our tent,” Medina explains. “But that doesn’t mean that we will not get affected if the flooding lasts much longer. The plumbing inside the tent will start to overflow and ruin everything.”

Flooding caused by the heavy rain is contaminating camp water making it extremely unhygienic, putting families at risk of infectious diseases.

“I wished we lived in a different place, especially because my husband and I both have bad medical conditions. I am not in good shape; sometimes I have a hard time walking. If I do go out, I could easily fall, because there are no proper streets to walk in.”

But Medina hasn’t given up hope. “Every time I wake up and see my children, I remember our time back in Syria,” she says. “I see my country in my children. My dream is to go back and help them secure their future.”