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UNHCR and partners in operation to help refugees amid winter storm

Press Releases, 11 December 2013

Across Lebanon, more than 838,000 refugees including 120,000 living in flimsy tents are suddenly facing the onslaught of cold weather, rains and snowfall at higher altitudes as a massive storm system meteorologists named "Alexa" has moved over the Middle East region, affecting Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Jordan.

With the support of the Lebanese Armed Forces, on Tuesday, UNHCR and NGO partners were able to speed up the distribution of additional emergency shelter kits including plastic sheets, timber and tools to thousands of refugees living in tents in the Bekaa, eastern Lebanon, so far the region most affected by the storm. Emergency teams continued on Wednesday despite blocked roads from the weather conditions. Alternative shelters are also being prepared for refugees whose tents may be affected by the snow, rain and flooding.

Some 125,000 refugees living in the Bekaa have already received winter kits and 55,000 more will be reached in the coming days. Humanitarian agencies working throughout Lebanon have already distributed 255,000 blankets and over 6,000 stoves in the past months. Some 45,000ATM cards with US$150 each have also been distributed to vulnerable families to buy additional stoves and fuel.

Storm Alexa struck Lebanon on Tuesday night bringing snow to higher areas and rain elsewhere, accompanied by high winds. According to forecasts, conditions are expected to remain difficult for several days, with further snow expected tonight. Reports from Syria and parts of Turkey spoke of similarly grim conditions there.

UNHCR is particularly concerned for the many refugees in Lebanon living in makeshift accommodation, as their homes are fragile and substandard. The number of refugees in Lebanon has increased five-fold over the last year.

"For the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Lebanon, as well as those in neighbouring countries and the displaced in Syria, a storm like this creates immense additional hardship and suffering," said Amin Awad, Director of UNHCR's Middle East and North Africa Bureau. "With Lebanon's help we're doing everything we can to get rapid additional help to people who most need it. This is on top of the winter preparations already done over the past months."

A host of other humanitarian agencies are working on the winter response in Lebanon, including the World Food Programme, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the International Organisation for Migration, Oxfam, Medair, Save the Children, World Vision, Humedica, GVC, Mercy Corps, IOCC, PU, Caritas, Concern, Acted, Danish Refugee Council (DRC), Handicap International and UNICEF.

The UN refugee agency began distributing thermal blankets and other items beginning in November. Across the Middle East UNHCR has distributed some 70,000 plastic tarpaulins to help refugees better prepare their tents and shelters for winter while some have received electric or kerosene heaters. Other refugees are receiving cash grants to purchase heaters.

WFP and its partners are meeting the food needs of newly arrived Syrian refugees in areas affected by the storm in Lebanon with food stocks enough to feed 150,000 people. Elsewhere in the country, the UN food agency is providing food assistance to over 600,000 Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR using electronic food vouchers.

Lebanon is at present the largest Syrian refugee-hosting country in the region, with 838,189 Syrians either registered as refugees or awaiting registration. Unlike other countries neighbouring Syria there are no established refugee camps. Instead people are living in the community in nearly 1,600 different areas.

Lebanon has responded generously to the influx, and earlier this week authorized the use of the Lebanese Armed Forces to help UNHCR in speeding the delivery of winter aid. As of Wednesday, efforts were focused on getting help to some of the worst affected sites in the Bekaa. In Turkey, UNHCR field teams were blocked from visiting camps around Kilis today due to snow blocking roads in that region.

With almost 2.3 million Syrian refugees around the region (a more than five-fold increase since this time in 2012) and millions more people displaced internally in Syria, winter conditions are a major worry across the humanitarian community.

Winter preparation work, involving improvements to shelters, heating, blankets and clothing, has been underway for months. The first cross-border airlift from Iraq into northeast Syria, bringing additional humanitarian winter materials to displaced populations there, is expected to launch later this week weather permitting.


UNHCR MEDIA CONTACTS:

- Roberta Russo, Beirut, Lebanon: mob. +961-71-910-320

- Dana Sleiman, Beirut, Lebanon: mob. +961-3-827-323

- Lisa Abou Khaled, Bekaa, Lebanon: mob. + 961-71-880-070

- Bathoul Ahmed, Tripoli, Lebanon: mob. +961 70 100 740

- Peter Kessler, Amman, Jordan: mob. +962 79 631 7901

- Dan McNorton, Geneva: mob. +41 79 217 3011


WFP MEDIA CONTACTS:

- Peter Smerdon, Rome Tel: +39 06 6513 2150 / Mobile: +39 342 878 4107 peter.smerdon@wfp.org

- Abeer Etefa, Cairo Tel: +20 2 2528 1730 / Mobile: +2 010 666 34352 Abeer.Etefa@wfp.org

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Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

A Teenager in Exile

Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

Jihan's Story

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