Now in its ninth year, the Syrian conflict has resulted in the largest refugee crisis since World War II.
For Syrian families who fled to neighbouring Lebanon, every day is a living nightmare. Now, there's a new danger on the way - winter.
Over 5.5 million people have been forced to flee for their lives to neighbouring countries since the conflict in Syria began. Of these, 1.5 million people travelled to Lebanon. A country about the size of Munster with a population of six million, Lebanon has the highest per capita population of refugees in the world.
When they reach Lebanon, Syrian refugee families scramble to find shelter wherever they can – in dark, damp garages, in the dilapidated ruins of abandoned buildings or makeshift tents.
These conditions are unimaginably basic but the worst is yet to come.
Lebanon's brutal winter
Sub-zero temperatures, freezing winds and torrential rains will soon hit Lebanon – and these makeshift shelters will offer little protection, making living conditions unbearable.
This is the reality for 60-year-old Fada* and her frail, bedridden, 82-year-old mother, Esma*.
Having fled after conflict reached their region in Syria, Fada and Esma now live behind the peeling yellow doors of a rundown garage. It looks barely habitable but Fada reveals she and her mother have stayed in far worse makeshift shelters and tents since making the long, dangerous journey to Lebanon.
Many refugees have to do this, often settling in the first available structure they find – places like animal huts and unfinished buildings. Yet even now, they have little to no protection from wind, snow and the brutal cold of winter.
Neither woman could have imagined living this way in their advancing years.
82-year-old Esma's face crumples in anguish as she lies motionless on a mattress, wearing multiple layers of clothing under a dressing gown to try to keep warm,.
Bereft and inconsolable, she is clearly unwell and Fada regularly has to pause our conversation to move her mother into a more comfortable position.
“She is trying to get warm but she cannot handle the weight of any more blankets. They are too heavy on her body."
During their arduous journey, Fada's sister was shot dead and she and her family could not even find water to drink.
"Our house was still standing when I left but we have since heard that it has been destroyed. We were so afraid of the bombing that we had to leave. It was really scary. We heard bombs all the time, I couldn’t handle it anymore. I will never be able to go back.”
However, their arrival in Lebanon did not bring relief from their suffering as the country’s brutal winters and their poor living conditions have taken their toll and caused both her and her mother’s health to deteriorate.
“I was comfortable in my old home and my health was so much better. Here, I am always tired. Before we moved into this garage, we lived in a house with a tin roof and it was very difficult for us.”
It is not uncommon for Syrian refugees to live in either informal tented settlements (ITS), in structures made from tarpaulin and plywood, or non-residential housing such as garages, unfinished buildings, goat houses and run-down houses.
Without money to improve their dwellings, the shelters are often unfurnished, uninsulated and completely unsuitable for the low temperatures and heavy rains that can be common during Lebanon’s winter months.
“Some of our neighbours give us things like milk and bread since we can’t afford them. When I need to get something, I have to leave my mother here for two or three hours but when I come back, she is always crying and afraid.”
This suffering is also familiar to 57-year-old Ayda*, who lives in a cramped two-room structure made of plywood, cardboard and tarpaulin with her 25-year-old daughter Jinane* and her seven grandchildren.
As she huddles in front of a gas camping stove in the tent she has called home for the past five years, the grandmother looks considerably older than her years.
The tent is freezing cold and the window, a hole in the wall covered only by wire mesh, offers no protection from the elements.
Draped in several layers of clothing to protect her from the bitter chill that moves through her home, she looks hopeless and stricken as she tells us about how the ongoing conflict in Syria ripped her life apart.
It is only when she casts her mind back to happier days with her husband and family in her home village that a spark returns to her eyes and you can see a glimpse of the person she used to be before she faced an unimaginable tragedy.
Ayda and her husband had a family of six daughters and three sons. Even as they grew up, got married and had children of their own, they would come together every Friday and she would cook their favourite foods. She says that these dinners are her happiest memory of her life before the war.
Life continued as normal until one day, tragedy struck.
As she recounts one of the worst days of her life, Ayda breaks down in tears.
“My son used to work in a bakery. He was going to the mosque with my husband to pray. He stopped at the house and asked what I was preparing for lunch, I said that it was beans with rice. It seems like he didn’t like it because he made a face! I asked him if he wanted something to eat and he said he was ok. We had a sofa near the house outside so he went to sit on that."
“I started helping my daughter with the food but within ten minutes, they started bombing our house and everything was destroyed. I heard my son’s screams and I knew instantly that he had been killed. I went outside and saw that he had been hit in his head. I screamed his name so loudly that you could hear it through the neighbourhood. He was 35.”
While Ayda’s loss is every mother’s worst nightmare, it was only the beginning of the heartbreaking ordeal that was to come.
Just nine days after her son was killed, Ayda’s husband died in another strike on the village.
Since her husband’s death, Ayda has lost another son to a bombing at the age of 28 and her youngest boy has been missing for several years. He was 18 when she last saw him.
Utterly grief-stricken and traumatised, Ayda was left with no choice but to flee for her life.
“We were very happy in Syria. Our life was a great life but here it is a misery. Everything I loved in Syria is now gone. My kids and husband are dead. All of my relatives have been killed in the war. I lost everything – my kids, my husband, my family. I am still hopeful that my missing son is still alive. He visits me in my dreams.”
A living nightmare
Tears stream from her eyes as she recounts her personal loss but life continues around her – the tent is filled with the sounds of nearby families who live in similar unstable shelters and the cries of her young grandchildren who are cold and hungry.
Left without toys or anything to entertain them, they wander barefoot around the tent clinging to the hems of their mother and grandmother.
Every day, Ayda’s back aches, her head throbs, and her body can’t get warm. As her health continues to worsen, she dreams of having a solid wall in her home to lean against for rest.
“I am very sick and am never comfortable in this house. I cannot be comfortable sleeping on the floor. There is so many children. I always have a headache from the noise."
Can you help families like Ayda's this Christmas?
Jinane, Ayda’s eldest daughter, explains that until recently, rain used to flood the whole house during the winter season and the lack of furniture meant that she and her family were forced to sleep on the floor at night, huddled together for warmth.
“It was very difficult to find somewhere to live when we arrived. The landlord just gave us some timber, a nylon sheet and some cardboard. We built the tent from this. We didn’t have anything else or any money to buy more. We lined the floor with cardboard to try to keep dry. We went to the nearby market and asked if they had any spare boxes to give them to us for our tent.”
“The water from the road flows into our tents when the weather gets bad and there was even some leaking from the roof. It’s difficult, especially during the storm. You feel as if it will collapse all over your head.”
“I once found a snake in our bread bag and rats and mice come into the tent. I am worried about the safety of my children."
*Names have been changed for security purposes
What is Concern doing to help?
We became operational in Lebanon in 2013 following a massive influx of refugees from Syria. Our teams have been on the ground ever since, working hard to address the increasing humanitarian needs of the estimated 1.5 million refugees and the overstretched local host communities in the Akkar and North governates of northern Lebanon.
Concern works in the areas of shelter, water, and sanitation, livelihoods, education and protection activities in Lebanon. In 2018, we supported over 3,000 people with basic shelter and water infrastructure, while an additional 1,000 people were provided with rent-free accommodation in housing units.
Thankfully, Ayda’s is one of the families that are now receiving help from Concern. She and her grandchildren now have thermal blankets and sleeping mattresses to keep them warm and dry, and their makeshift tent has also been repaired with new tarpaulin, insulation sheets and wood, making it secure and weatherproof before the worst of the harsh winter comes.
However, there are so many more Syrian families that urgently need help.