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Fleeing Violence, Syrian Refugees Weather A Cruel Winter

Oula's sons play in her family's tent at the al-Marj refugee camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. A small gas stove in the center of the tent keeps the family warm and boils water for tea.
Susannah George
Oula's sons play in her family's tent at the al-Marj refugee camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. A small gas stove in the center of the tent keeps the family warm and boils water for tea.

Lebanon has had some of the worst winter weather in decades. First, record rainfalls flooded the low-lying part of the country, then ice and show bent trees and blocked roads. The frigid conditions are making it even harsher for Syrian refugees trying to take shelter from the violence in their home country.

The al-Marj refugee camp sits wedged between snow-covered vineyards, a community center and an unfinished warehouse in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, just a 10-minute drive from the Syrian border.

Puddles of icy water pockmark the dirt road leading up to three rows of tents. A local politician in a black overcoat and slick rain boots stands in the gravelly slush. "Look at what a great job the municipality has done hosting these people," he says.

But once inside the tents, the refugees tell a different story. "Our life is miserable here, full of sorrow," says Ghada, a pseudonym she gives to protect her family still in Syria. She says she fled because she was scared of the shelling, but now wishes she could go back.

She and her husband reinforced the tent walls with flattened cardboard boxes, but that couldn't keep out the rain. The tent flooded. Ghada holds up a blanket her niece is clutching. "Look, everything is still wet," she says.

The tent is no bigger than 10 feet by 10 feet. Ghada shares it with her husband, mother and father. She doesn't have children of her own. "At this time, it's a blessing not to," she says.

Her sister-in-law, Oula — also a pseudonym — is 28 years old and has four children, all between the ages of 1 and 5. Her 3-year-old son coughs steadily at her side. Her 18-month-old daughter sucks on a lemon rind as she toddles around the tent in a diaper and T-shirt. Oula points to her daughter's bare legs. "Before, we were spending money on our children, now we can't even buy medicine or clothing," she says.

Ghada and her family first left Syria in September. They used the money they had saved to rent a small apartment in the al-Marj village, but inflated rents meant the money ran out faster than they had expected. When Oula's family moved in, the landlady threatened to raise the rent further and they were all forced to come to this camp. Rents for a one-room apartment in al-Marj have shot up from $150 a month to $500 or more.

Nearly 200,000 Syrian refugees now call Lebanon home, and the government says they're stretching resources thin. The International Committee of the Red Cross is calling the situation a "staggering humanitarian disaster" and appealing for more international aid.

"Do you think we'll ever be able to go back home?" Ghada asks. "Or will we end up like the Palestinians, a people without a country?" When told that rebels had made progress in the north of Syria, taking a key air base, she shakes her head.

"No matter what they take, you still feel like it's going to take a long time," she says.

Lava Selo contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susannah George
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