Samya Kullab Nazih Osseiran
Wooden beams are stacked high, cement blocks are piled in rows and the screech of an electric saw resounds across the field – for Syrian refugees in this informal Zahle settlement preparing for winter is a race against time. Skeletal wooden-frame houses litter the camp, as Arab Abu Hussein, the community representative in this particular camp directs young men shoveling gravel and cutting wood. “We have a lot to do,” he says, exasperated. “The ground has to be leveled first over where we build so that rainwater doesn’t accumulate.”
The refugees were obliged to move after an Army checkpoint was established on the roadside near their original settlement. Now their new homes are nestled between plots of potato fields, where young women from the camp toil from sunrise to sunset earning LL6,000 a day. Meanwhile, the men carry on rebuilding in a feverish pace. In 25 days 88 homes have been re-erected, and only eight more need to be fortified against winter’s snows.
Heavy rains last month caught refugees unawares; tarpaulin sheets still tucked away in storage, their makeshift homes flooded in the wake of seasonal storms. Forecasts of a week of sunny weather offered Abu Hussein some respite. This winter marks his fourth in Lebanon, and with each iteration he has learned how to better protect his family of 11 from the bitter cold.
“I learned that the beds should be built higher so it doesn’t flood,” he says with a smirk.
“I learned to build extra support for the roof so it doesn’t collapse under the weight of snow.”
A butcher by trade in Idlib, from where he hails, Abu Hussein said three consecutive Lebanese winters had forced him to take up carpentry. Rubber tires are placed on the roofs of each makeshift home to keep the tarpaulin in place, as young men drill blocks of wood between beams to make sure they withstand rough winds when the time comes.
He had to borrow LL300,000 to get the materials together for his home from his cousin who’s been here for three years, promising to pay him back when he can. “We will be ready before the next rainfall.”
Two tents collapsed last year due to heavy snowfall in the settlement where Matar Ibrahim lives, also in Zahle. Their home is covered with the tarp given to them by the UNHCR the year before. But Matar is mostly concerned about finding money to pay for expensive fuel to keep his family warm during the cold winter nights.
Unlike Abu Hussein, who qualifies for winterization assistance totaling LL260,000 a month from the UNHCR, Matar’s family of four is left to its own devices to find the money to pay for fuel. “The whole house will cost $150 to equip for winter, plus the heater. It adds up.”
According to Abu Imad, another community leader in the camp where Abu Hussein lives, the UNHCR provided wood, tarp and water storage compartments for each home. But refugees have had to borrow construction tools and any additional materials on their own.
Everyone in his settlement comes from Tal al-Sultan in Idlib; Matar’s next door neighbor from the village Amina Khalaf has settled in makeshift home next door. During winter last year, they exchanged advice on how to better protect themselves from the elements. “We learn together this way,” he says.
He has doubled the tarpaulin to keep rain from leaking inside his tent, and acquired metal sheets for more protection with the little savings he has managed to keep since arriving to Lebanon last year. Though he advised Amina, a single mother of three, to do the same she says she can’t afford it.
“Things are difficult,” she says, pointing to the blankets she’s used to line her ceiling, hoping half-heartedly it will be enough to keep the rain water out. “Last year water was dripping everywhere. We shivered all night.”
Each family in the camp must pay LL300,000 rent per year to their Lebanese landlord who owns the farmland they reside on. Amina scrapes together some of that money by sewing clothes by hand for women in the camp, but she says there’s no way she can save up enough to pay both rent and a drum of fuel to keep warm during the winter.
Refugees complain of cutbacks in food aid that they say have forced them to make difficult budgetary decisions, especially with the approach of winter. Due to chronic financial shortfalls the World Food Program scaled back monthly food assistance for each refugee family from $27 to $13.50, a decision that has put refugees in a quandary.
“I have to decide between fuel and food sometimes,” Amina says.