AL-MARJ, Lebanon: As the minibus pulled inside Hamdanieh refugee camp in the snow covered Bekaa Valley town of Al-Marj, the passengers fell silent. One woman whispered under her breath, “So this is how they live.” Most had never seen a refugee camp before, let alone one in the aftermath of a brutal winter storm. The passengers were part of a group of volunteers – some expats and the rest locals – gathered by Lebanese4Refugees, a civil campaign set up by journalist and activist Carol Maalouf in December 2013.
Although the ostensible aim of the trip was to allow volunteers to see the camps and aid distribution process firsthand, there was also a clear desire to show solidarity with the refugees amid anti-Syrian sentiment that has snowballed as the humanitarian crisis nears its fifth year.
“Most Lebanese people are caring, and they feel compassion about this issue,” said Mona Ayoub, social media coordinator for the Lebanese4Refugees. “These people are not like those who say that we don’t want refugees in Lebanon.”
She pointed to the success of the winter items collection drive, which was held Saturday in Hamra, as an example of how much most people wanted to help.
“We are trying to melt the ice between Lebanese and refugees and I think we have succeeded, because the amount of donations we have got is huge,” she said as she stamped her feet on the snowy ground to keep warm. “We had to extend the collections campaign by two days, which we didn’t expect.”
Inside Hamdanieh, boxes made of concrete, tarpaulin and corrugated iron serve as homes for around 750 people, of which some 400 are aged under 15. The pipes of the water pumps are frozen, and a thick layer of snow has coated everything, but the refugees here at least have proper walls to lend some protection from the cold, unlike many of the 1.5 million Syrians estimated to be in Lebanon now.
They pay for it too – one 2-meter-square room costs $200 a month, payable to the private Lebanese land owner who leases the plots.
The volunteers quickly busied themselves with handing out donations from the back of a van. The first attempt led to chaos: people scrambling over each other to snatch what they could, kids being knocked to the ground in the scrum and items being tossed around by the gathered crowd.
The second attempt was calmer and saw volunteers go from house to house to hand out much-needed thick blankets, baby clothes and so on. “It’s a learning experience,” Ayoub commented later that day. “This is how it works in the field.”
Meanwhile, children – relishing the attention of strangers – posed for photos, engaged in riotous snowball fights and stomped through icy puddles in nothing but sandals, seemingly oblivious of the biting cold. Beckoning from the doors of their homes, the older women invited people in for a coffee and a chat.
“Winter has been very hard this year, much harder than last year,” said Nour, a mother of four from Eastern Ghouta, as she cradled her 1-month-old baby in a green wrap.
“The worst thing has been is that we can’t afford to pay the rent money since three months because my husband is in Syria. I am taking responsibility for everything now.”
For those volunteering, the experience was a humbling and reaffirming one.
“It was my first time seeing a refugee camp,” said Iman Shatila, a middle-aged secretary at a court that handles divorces. “This amazing crush of people in tents, they have nothing to eat, nothing to keep warm. It was a surprise.”
When asked why she wanted to help with this distribution, Shatila replied: “It’s human to want to help. I wish all the people could see what we saw there, maybe their hearts would be touched too and they would understand and want to help too.”
For some, however, the experience was a difficult one, a reminder of how much there was to do to affect real change for those who have lost everything in fleeing the brutal Syrian civil war.
“I wanted to see,” said Jessica Karam, who had recently returned from traveling in South America. “We live in such a bubble ... And when you arrive, there are all these houses made of plastic, of nothing, and then you look up and there’s this huge villa meters away. It’s so depressing; the inequality.”
“I feel more engaged by seeing it face to face,” she mused, before shaking her head and adding, “but it’s such a little thing. Little things are useful, but that’s not what’s going to change stuff. I would like to go deeper to the root than just distributing clothes.”
But her friend, aid worker Sima al-Najjar, disagreed.
“One person is small but they can do a lot of things. Even if it’s a tiny point, it’s something,” she said, tugging at her coat as the sun began to set. “What’s happening in Syria and here because of that crisis, it hurts me a lot, it means a lot to me.”
“I like to help people. I can’t see people living like that and ignore it,” she said. “During the storm I thought if I am shivering in my bed and listening to the rain, what about the refugees? It’s a satisfaction at the end, a satisfaction with what we are doing for those in our country: Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, whoever.”