Lebanon: Refugees Burn Plastic To Warm Their Children

Pascale Sawma
Lebanese Journalist
January 18, 2022
The UN and aid organizations did not provide enough support for winter. The little aid that did arrive was distributed arbitrarily and without much coordination. As a result, a lot of aid reached some refugees, while others received nothing.

Published in cooperation with Rozana.

“For God’s sake, help us.” Thus 73-year-old Syrian refugee Attar Harba ended her speech in a video that recently spread on social media. Residing in Lebanon, Attar is one of the many Syrian grandmothers, who raise their grandchildren, as their parents died due to war and the endless journeys of displacement.

All the old lady wanted to do was to make a fire to warm her grandchildren on that desperately cold December night. She brought a tin, filled it with rags and old shoes, and lit it. She ended up burning her tired old hands.

Rozana contacted people close to Attar and found she did not receive any aid. She lives in one of the refugee camps close to Arsal, where winters are cold and the snow storm is intensifying.

Attar raises her grandchildren following the death of their father. She tries to secure a normal life for them, although she suffers from several diseases. Her poor health prevents her from providing the children with what they need. “I am an old woman. What can I do? What should I do?” Attar asked the world.

Really, What Can She Do?

The story of Attar in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley is similar to that of Haifa in a refugee camp in Minieh in the north of Lebanon. Haifa lives with her husband and four children without any income. All the family gets is a little food aid.

“My husband is unemployed,” said Haifa. “My 12-year-old son used to work in a supermarket, but he was fired because a customer was in a bad mood. Now he sits at home. My children are all out of school. What should I do?”

She cried, before pulling herself together. “I bought two tanks of fuel to keep us warm in the beginning of winter,” she said. “And then they forgot about me.”

Like Attar, Haifa collects rags and old shoes for heating in the absence of any aid for either refugees or the Lebanese. In Lebanon everyone is left hanging in the unknown. It is winter. And storm Hiba is threatening to bring even more cold and distress, which is especially hard on the shoulders of the poor, especially when they are refugees.

You see them puffing in search of firewood, haystacks, bags and empty cartons, not to mention old clothes, shoes and plastic, to set alight. Or they cover their bodies and those of their children with blankets. If there are any.

The situation this year is getting worse with the outrageously high prices, and the dollar exchange rate which has reached 34,000 Lebanese pounds. A $150 barrel of diesel has become the distant dream for many poor Lebanese and Syrians. Meanwhile, the scenes of refugee camps drowning in torrents, and children freezing in the storm, have returned.

Where is the Aid?

Rozana found that international (non-governmental) organizations did not provide enough aid for the winter, while the little aid that did arrive was distributed arbitrarily, without much coordination between the different associations.

As a result, a lot of aid reached some, while nothing reached others. Often, this was linked to having the right relations, without any clear regulation of access to aid.

“We are trying to set up a mechanism with the aid associations to regulate things, but we have no authority,” Syrian activist Maher al-Masri told Rozana.

“In Arsal, there are some families that received 80 liters of fuel for heating, while others did not get anything.”

Note that the means of heating in these camps are old and often do not work, especially since the refugees are forced to burn anything in them, including plastic, which damages them, as well as the environment and people’s health.

About a week ago, Syrian refugee Abdullah Seif El-Din in Arsal was trying to ignite a sobia (heater/stove), when the material inside exploded. It caused a big fire in his tent. His wife and infant son were seriously burnt. They still receive treatment in a relative’s home, although the wife’s condition really requires medical treatment in a hospital.

It is winter. And storm Hiba is threatening to bring even more cold and distress, which is especially hard on the shoulders of the poor, especially when they are refugees.

Fortunately for Abdullah, he did get some help in the form of blankets and kitchen utensils, as well as $100.

“At the start of the cold season, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) distributed an amount of 1.8 million Lebanese pounds as winter aid, while the price of a single tank of diesel at the time was about 450,000 pounds,” said Al-Masry. “This means people could only buy four tanks, which is not enough for one month in this cold.”

“Some of the aid that arrived was distributed in Lebanon’s refugee camps in the Bekaa,” said a Syrian activist, who refused to reveal his name for security reasons. “Yet, nearly all has disappeared regarding the camps in the north, which are the ones most in need, especially in Akkar, where the refugees must face the cold without any support.”

In September 2021, the UN expressed grave concerns about the rapid deterioration in the living conditions of Syrian refugees, pointing out that nearly all of them are unable to provide the bare minimum needed to survive.

The preliminary results of the 2021 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon (VASyR) revealed a deplorable situation, as nine out of ten Syrian refugees were, and still are, living in extreme poverty.

According to VASyR, most refugees continue to rely on negative coping strategies to survive, such as begging, borrowing, not sending their kids to school, cutting back on health expenses, and not paying rent. The study shows how 2021 saw an increase in the number of family members who had to accept low-paying or high-risk jobs or do additional work to secure the same income the family had in 2020.

Now, with the heavy rain and snowfall, especially in mountainous and remote areas, refugees find themselves without any real support in cold, fragile tents.

The situation reflects the absence of any sustainable plans for dealing with the refugee crisis, such as providing them with proper infrastructure and housing, which protects them from the extreme weather conditions, while not endangering their lives. Until that day comes, how many grandmothers, fathers, mothers, brothers and children must still burn their hands trying to stay warm?

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