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Forced to Flee: Syrian children are dying in Lebanese refugee camps

Thousands of Syrian families in Lebanese refugee camps are struggling to survive this winter

Hana (42) with her children Samer (13), Salma (10) and Roula (8). The family have been living in a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley after they were forced to flee from their home. Photo: Hazar Al Zahr/Trócaire Hana (42) with her children Samer (13), Salma (10) and Roula (8). The family have been living in a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley after they were forced to flee from their home. Photo: Hazar Al Zahr/Trócaire

In the knee-deep snow and biting cold, mothers and their children huddle around gas cylinders to keep warm. As the impact of the world’s fuel crisis echoes through the refugee camp, children are tearing off their clothes to keep the flames burning. The camp is still reeling from memories of last winter, when a two-month-old baby girl died as temperatures dropped to –4C.  

Over the ridge behind them in Bekaa Valley, is the Syrian border, from which many families in this Lebanese refugee camp have fled. More than a decade ago, a peaceful uprising against the president of Syria turned into a full-scale civil war, causing millions of Syrians to flee. Their homes ever since have been small tents, made from whatever material they could find to protect them. 

Heavy snow covers the ground at a refugee camp for Syrians in Lebanon. Photo: Trócaire/SAWA Heavy snow covers the ground at a refugee camp for Syrians in Lebanon. Photo: Trócaire/SAWA

The harsh winter weather creates havoc for the families living in tents which often flood and collapse leaving families without shelter, blankets or food. The camps lack adequate infrastructure, causing wastewater to overflow and seep into tents, increasing risk of diseases and injuries. 

Syrian Yasmine (42), a mother of five children who lives in the camp, knows these dangers too well

   Yasmine (42) with her children Lama (11), Ayman (9), Nour (7) and Hana (3). The family have been living in a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley for the past 11 years. Photo: Hazar Al Zahr/Trócaire Yasmine (42) with her children Lama (11), Ayman (9), Nour (7) and Hana (3). The family have been living in a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley for the past 11 years. Photo: Hazar Al Zahr/Trócaire

Sitting on the cement floor of her makeshift home, which has remnants of the family’s once happy life in Syria, Yasmine recalls how her daughter Lama (11) was seriously injured when heavy snow caused the water tank in their home to collapse and fall on top of her. Lama suffered from a very deep wound to her leg. With emergency cash assistance from Trócaire, Lama received hospital treatment to prevent amputation. 

Now, Yasmine’s biggest worry is how she will get her children Mazen (18), Lama (11), Ayman (9), Nour (7) and Maya (3) through this winter.  

“We had no heat last winter. I couldn’t keep my children warm. My children are suffering. Most of the time they are cold and sick and they all have asthma. All I can think about is how I can protect them this winter,” Yasmine said.  

The family have been living in the refugee camp for 10 years. Yasmine’s husband left the family 18 months ago, and is believed to be travelling to Europe for work. Her four youngest children do not know a life outside of this camp. 

“I was happy and relaxed in Syria. It was a good life, unlike here. My husband worked in agriculture and he sold goats and sheep. I only had one child when we lived in Syria so life was much easier. My eldest daughter Lama (11) was born just before the war broke out and my three youngest children were born here. My son used to go to school, we had everything we needed and we didn’t think about our basic needs. We were safe, secure and happy. But we had no choice but to leave due to the war,” Yasmine said.

Yasmine (42) and her children Lama (11), Ayman (9), Nour (7) and Maya (3) have been living in a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley for the past 11 years. Photo: Hazar Al Zahr/Trócaire Yasmine (42) and her children Lama (11), Ayman (9), Nour (7) and Maya (3) have been living in a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley for the past 11 years. Photo: Hazar Al Zahr/Trócaire

“We have a lot of hardships getting to Lebanon and it wasn’t easy. I wish we stayed in Syria and died instead of coming here. This isn’t a life worth living. We have no dignity. During winter, we need wood or fuel to make fires to stay warm, but we can’t afford it. Now, we can’t get bread due to the bread crisis in Lebanon. I have four small kids, what do I do with them? My children and crying get me through the day. We also pray a lot and ask God to help us.”  

“I have never been outside of this camp,” Lama (11) says. “But I dream of a life outside. I want to see the world around me and explore new places with my parents but I can’t.”

Yasmine and her children are just one of the thousands of families in Lebanese refugee camps who are struggling to survive this winter. More than ten years into the Syria conflict, Lebanon remains at the forefront of one of the worst humanitarian crises. The Government of Lebanon estimates that the country hosts 1.5 million of the 6.6 million Syrians who have fled the conflict since 2011. The Syrian refugee population in Lebanon remains one of the largest concentrations of refugees per capita in the world.  

Syrian children in a refugee camp in Lebanon receiving a winter kit from Trócaire when temperatures dropped to –4C in January 2022. Photo: SAWA/Trócaire Syrian children in a refugee camp in Lebanon receiving a winter kit from Trócaire when temperatures dropped to –4C in January 2022. Photo: SAWA/Trócaire

Adding to the humanitarian context, Lebanon is undergoing a series of overlapping crises on the political, economic, and social front, compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition to this, the capital Beirut and the country are still recovering from the effects of the devastating blast in the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020. 

Trócaire, in partnership with local organisation SAWA, supported 13,000 people in Lebanon in 2021, of which 8,000 were Syrian refugees. This year, Trócaire’s Christmas Gifts of Love collection includes two new gifts – the Gift of Winter Essentials (€25/£20) to support Syrian families forced to flee their homes to refugee camps in neighbouring Lebanon.  

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 Hana (42) with her children Samer (13), Salma (10) and Roula (8). The family have been living in a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon after they were forced to flee from their home Photo: Hazar Al Zahr Hana (42) with her children Samer (13), Salma (10) and Roula (8). The family have been living in a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon after they were forced to flee from their home Photo: Hazar Al Zahr

Hana (42), a mother of five children, has also spent the past six years in a refugee camp in Bekaa Valley after fleeing from Syria, and is receiving support from Trócaire/SAWA. 

“During the winter, it is too cold here and there are many catastrophes where tents fell apart. Last winter was one of the worst winters Lebanon has ever had. I am very worried about how this winter will affect our children. Young children have started therapy in the camps because they were very scared. Some families had to leave the tents and re-build them,” Hana said. 

“Children need warm coats and boots to stay warm. It’s very difficult for them. I wish that every child would have clothes to keep them warm and protect them from winter. The fuel crisis is very bad here, but I hope NGOs like Trócaire will be able to help us to keep warm. We have the gas cylinders, but they are empty. Last year, we had very small amounts of diesel so we had to tear off our clothes to put into the fire to keep it going. We would only use heating at dawn and sunset to keep us warm. Now that fuel prices are extremely high, we need support more than ever.” 

Hana’s young daughters Roula (8) and Salma (10) said they are also very worried about how cold it can get in the winter.  

“In the winter, it is too cold and there is a lot of rain. Sometimes we can’t open the door because there is too much snow. When there is snow, we used to wear our boots and we used to put bags around them to keep them dry and keep out the snow and water. We build snowmen to forget the cold, and we use carrots for his nose and olives for his eyes,” said Roula. 

“We get very cold but we try and cover ourselves. We need winter boots and coats, but we need warm socks and underwear the most,” Salma said. 

Hana, who is the leader of three refugee camps in the area, said that her hopes for her children get her through the day. 

“My dream is for my children to achieve what I couldn’t. I dream for them to be educated and to have their own position in society. I want them to have a career and be happy.” 

“It is my ultimate dream to return to Syria, to be safe there. I will never lose hope that this will be possible so maybe one day we will be able to.” 

She adds that her biggest fear is the “unknown”. 

“Every day there is a new surprise and challenge. We are now hearing that Syrians need to go back to their country. The economic crisis in Lebanon and not having food and fuel to survive is very challenging. Currently, Syrians cannot collect bread from bakeries because there is a bread crisis. I don’t know what’s coming next. It’s always a surprise.” 

Salma (10) and her grandfather Samir. The family have been living in a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley after they were forced to flee from their home. Photo: Hazar Al Zahr/Trócaire Salma (10) and her grandfather Samir. The family have been living in a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley after they were forced to flee from their home. Photo: Hazar Al Zahr/Trócaire

“Thank you to the people of Ireland for supporting the people of this camp. I ensure you that you are putting your money in the right place. Refugees in Lebanon, and around the world, need people like you more than ever. This is the toughest period. I hope the future will be brighter and all Syrians will get back to their land. I know that hosting countries have a burden in assisting refugees and a lot of people in Ukraine and Afghanistan need your support. I hope Syrians can go back to their country safely in order to open opportunities for the people who are facing recent conflicts and need support.” 

Samah Ghamrawi, Trócaire’s Project Manager in Beirut, said that families in Lebanon need Trócaire’s support more than ever this Christmas. 

“Last winter was the worst winter we’ve ever seen in Lebanon and we saw the impact of this in the camps. Children are wearing clothes that are too small for them and aren’t protecting them from the cold. Families can’t get wood or fuel to keep them warm. They have no bread to eat. Trócaire and SAWA are on the ground doing everything we can to support them, but we need your help. Please continue to support us in any way you can this Christmas. Your donations provide families with a little hope that they can make it through the winter,” Samah said.  . 

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