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Syrian Refugees Brace for Harsh Lebanese Winter

  • Heather Murdock

As winter approaches, analysts say the Lebanese-Syrian border region is at risk, with Islamic State and al-Nusra fighters camped in the mountains.

Most of Lebanon’s more than one-million Syrian refugees live in the Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border, crowding into shantytowns on farmlands or in empty lots.

For them, more frightening than another onslaught of Islamist militants trying to expand their so-called caliphate is the coming cold.

Last weekend in Tripoli, militants battled Lebanese troops in the worst fighting since August, when the Lebanese border town of Arsal briefly feel to al-Nusra and Islamic State fighters.

But at this camp for displaced persons in Zahle, some 90 miles southwest of Tripoli, concerns about adequate building supplies trump worries about more border clashes.

As aid workers distribute construction materials to help families fortify their homes, Mohammad al-Sheik says the new boards and tarps may not be enough to protect his eight children.

Last year there was roughly a half meter of snow in the area, he said, and he worries the roofs of the flimsy houses, mostly of which they built themselves, will collapse.

Aid workers say they are trying to supply as many people as possible, but as fighting in Syria worsens, refugees cross the border in ever-greater numbers, straining already limited resources.

“The number of refugees is huge and increases day by day in Lebanon," said Hiba Fares of Medair, one of many international organizations trying to mitigate what U.N. officials have deemed the era's largest humanitarian emergency.

"So we are always are in need for more donations," she said. "As you noticed, we try to distribute to as many families with the kits we have, but there is always a bit of shortage because suddenly we bump into newcomers.”

Families say their biggest fear this winter is not being able to afford medicine if the children get sick.

Basha Hassein, al-Sheik’s wife, says most families here don’t have heaters, and those that do often can't afford to fuel them.

As men, women and children haul wood planks to their homes and children climb on roofs to lay more plastic sheeting, some women say the humiliation of living in tents in the dirt is worse than enduring harsh weather or scarce food.

And while security concerns are always present, children in this camp say their main fear is that aid workers won’t bring enough blankets before the snow begins to fall.