Doctors Without Borders
A brutal stretch of winter has just passed, but Syrian refugees living in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley are still struggling amid the deplorable living conditions they’ve endured for years now. The season is almost irrelevant at this point. If it’s winter, they must contend with glacial nights and heavy snowfall that often collapses their fragile tents. In summer, they’re exposed to extreme, arid heat. Rain at any time brings floods and mud. Regardless of the month, refugees have little access to the sort of health care so many of them urgently need.
Staff at the four clinics Doctors Without Borders (MSF) runs in the Bekaa Valley regularly see patient numbers rise when the weather conditions get particularly harsh.
Regrettably, four years into the Syrian crisis, the circumstances are as dire as they were predictable.
“Families are living in despicable conditions in informal tented settlements spread all over the country,” notes Thierry Coppens, MSF head of mission in Lebanon.
Oftentimes, these settlements are hastily set up in vacant lots, abandoned buildings, garages and sheds on farmlands.
“Support and assistance to this vulnerable population should remain constant,” Coppens adds. “This crisis cannot be forgotten.”
Of particular concern is the lack of access to free, high-quality health care. The needs are evident. In December 2014, MSF teams in the Bekaa Valley provided some 5,000 consultations; the count for January will easily surpass that number.
MSF doctors observed a rise in respiratory infections among Syrian refugees at this time of the year.
“It’s a direct consequence of the harsh winter combined with extremely poor living conditions,” Dr. Bilal Kassem, an MSF doctor in Baalbek points out. “People living in these settings suffer from very limited access to water and hygiene, so the risks of communicable diseases are very high as well. That’s not even mentioning the struggle they face to find food, which also leads to health complications.”
MSF staff not only receive patients in their clinics but also roam the settlements in search of those who need assistance. One MSF social worker, Khaled Osman, recently visited the village of Majdaloun, where eight Syrian families are huddled together in one of the smallest and most isolated settlements in the Bekaa Valley.
“Have you seen how it snowed last week?” asked an 8-year-old refugee, Asma. “Now the snow is melting and we are living in the mud. I feel cold.”
Sitting as close as they could to a burning stove that will keep them warm for no more than an hour, Asma shared a blanket with her cousin Sara.
“The worst is at night,” Asma confided. “Sometimes I do not feel my feet and I am scared. Blankets are humid and we do not have wood to light a fire.”
Both Sara and Asma, who were struggling with respiratory issues and recurrent fevers, were treated at MSF’s clinic in Baalbek. Even as temperatures rise in the Bekaa Valley, however, the cousins will still be vulnerable to the illnesses so many refugees regularly contract, not to mention the risk of burns from having stoves in such cramped quarters.
“I wonder how they cope with this level of misery,” Khaled told his colleagues at MSF later. Khaled travels the country looking for the most vulnerable families to report on their needs and refer patients to the MSF clinics. He tells stories of refugees boiling snow to make drinking water, and with no wood or proper fuel readily available, many pick cardboard and plastic from the trash to keep warm.
It is often freezing inside their tents and there are never enough blankets for the whole family. Khaled speaks of unbearable situations and cites the children and the elderly as the most vulnerable.
In a bid to limit their sufferings, MSF teams this week distributed urgently needed winter essentials to Syrian refugees in northern district of Akkar, where few aid groups operate and the fear of being deported back to Syria is widespread. The distributions focused on villages up in the mountainous areas where the winter temperatures have been particularly cold. Around 900 families – 4,700 people in all – have received stoves, fuel and blankets.
In Lebanon, MSF is assisting refugees including Palestinians, Syrians and vulnerable host communities including Lebanese returnees from Syria through primary health care such as treatment of acute and chronic diseases, immunization, reproductive and mental health care, as well as distributing relief items. In 2014, MSF teams provided more than 260,000 primary health care consultations to Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian patients.