Lebanon News

A cold night with refugees in the Bekaa Valley

A family gathers around a fireplace inside their tent in Zahle, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

ZAHLE, Lebanon: The mist rises with each freezing breath that Sleiman al-Bazazi exhales as he stares at the snow-laden peaks in the distance.

“It will be here today,” says the 11-year-old Syrian, a refugee from Homs, referring to snowstorm “Alexa,” news of which has filled the makeshift tent settlement with foreboding.

Less than an hour later, the gray skies delivered the first snowfall of the winter, which pelted the plastic sheeting covering the Bazazi family tent, as Sleiman played with his stuffed lion, or “assad” in Arabic.

“One young Assad made us flee, and you bring out another assad?” laughs Khaled al-Bazazi, Sleiman’s father, as he pours a cup of sweet tea.

But the laughter belies the fear among the community that they will be abandoned to freeze amid the harsh winter of the Bekaa Valley, where thousands of refugees are staying in ramshackle tents with nothing between them and the biting cold except small stoves and wood blocks whose prices they may no longer be able to afford soon. The Daily Star spent Tuesday night with Khaled’s family as they struggled to stave off cold, boredom and painful memories.

“In winter the situation is extremely wretched,” Khaled says.

The day before, Khaled woke up at 5 a.m. to fetch wood for the heater, his 9-month-old daughter unable to sleep from the cold. He named her Sham, the Arabic word for the Levant, after a homeland he hopes to return to one day.

By Tuesday afternoon, the cold rain has left much of the camp coated in mud. The cold seeps in through the edges of the tent and rain hammers at the nylon roof, making it difficult to sleep.

Nearby refugee settlements were already inundated with water, some families dismantling their tents and carrying their belongings to higher ground as the snow began to descend on their homes.

There is little to do in the camp. Many of the adults cannot work because they fled their homes in Homs without papers and say they face deportation or fines they cannot afford if they are stopped at checkpoints.

But they also cannot afford to keep lighting the fires. A couple of bags of wood costs $10, and they need to keep the heater on for part of the day and the night.

The children go to school during the day while Khaled deals with many visitors asking for help, as refugees in the settlement elected him as their representative to aid agencies.

Lately, refugees from Nabk, an area in the Qalamoun region on the border, have been arriving to seek shelter with the settlers.

“We’ve been here for two days and we have no clothing or blankets, and people are feeding us,” says a 54-year-old Syrian, who chose to remain anonymous, surrounded by his three sons seeking some warmth in Khaled’s tent. “Refugees are feeding refugees. We don’t know what will happen to us. We don’t even have shoes.”

Indeed, it seems to be sheer human emotion that is keeping the warmth from seeping out of the tent. Khaled cradles his baby at night, bouncing her on his knees as his wife Salwa lays out makdous, zaatar and chunks of butter for dinner.

Sleiman, Enas, Chahd and Riham, the couple’s four other children, run out in light clothes and slippers to feed the rabbits and dogs. Sleiman, the eldest at 11, shields his sisters with an umbrella from the rain, which they all fit under.

There was no school Wednesday. The gathering storm seemed a bad omen, one that residents of the camp alternatively joked about and feared.

“Alexa is coming for you,” they joked. “This is what the mini-Alexa [referring to rainfall last week] did to us, what about Alexa herself?”

The children sing and draw since they have to stay inside from the cold to avoid getting sick. But those moments are bittersweet – the songs are of an unrecognizable Syria of warmth and beauty. Enas draws a picture of her family fleeing Syrian helicopters and tanks across a bridge near Homs.

Khaled tells of how they left Homs as he tiptoes through the mud to his uncle’s tent, where they kill time playing tarneeb, a card game. Sleiman and Riham were both wounded by shrapnel on the journey. Dark has descended on the camp by 5 p.m., the cold rain a fitting tribute to a chilling tale.

The men take turns playing cards, news from a pro-rebel TV station echoing in the background. Somehow, the latest denunciations of Assad regime atrocities by foreign diplomats seem as far away as possible from the daily heartbreaks.

They are frustrated by both the regime and the rebels and they ask why the Lebanese government hasn’t built refugee camps.

Almost everyone says that local aid distributors are stealing some of the supplies meant for refugees to sell them on the side for higher prices. Several are no longer receiving assistance from the U.N., part of a move to target the neediest refugees with aid amid a funding crunch for relief efforts.

“There’s a lot of exploitation,” Khaled says, adding that many aid distributors just care for photo opportunities with Syrian refugees. He says donors ought to help refugees directly.

The meandering hours pass slowly amid the sweet tea, straw mats and rare luxury of a firm pillow to rest your elbow on. You win at the card game by staying in the game the longest.

“We have to get our sadness out by playing cards, but our heart is in Syria,” Mohammad al-Bazazi says.

He has videos from Syria loaded on his phone for LL5,000 from a local mobile phone shop. They range from a man pretending to wind up his donkey before riding it and charging into a field and an elaborate dabke dance to a video of a Syrian Army patrol and one of a Nusra Front fighter beheading a “shabih” who was accused of raping local women.

Everybody has a story about the war, of lost family and friends. The memories exude warmth that serves to counter the late evening chill.

Mohammad reckons the vast majority of the tents in the area will collapse in the coming storm.

“We have God, we must help each other,” he says.

But his strength seems to leave him as he sings along with a video of his cousin, who died just a few weeks ago after he returned from the camp to Homs to gather some belongings. Many in the family have set his picture as the wallpaper on their phones, which offer some refuge from the cold and boredom.

The video is a montage of photos, overlaid by a song from a friend in Homs, who breaks down as he sings about their cousin.

“We love him a lot,” he says as he closes his phone.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 12, 2013, on page 4.




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