Thousands brave freezing conditions to escape fighting in Syria and reach Lebanon

News Stories, 19 November 2013

© UNHCR/M.Hofer
Syrian refugees queue to be registered on the outskirts of the Lebanese town of Arsal.

ARSAL, Lebanon, November 19 (UNHCR) Mohammed, a construction worker from the western Syria city of Homs, had been forced to flee his home six times since the Syria crisis erupted in March 2011. Until now, he had managed to stay inside his own country.

But a fresh round of violence starting last week levelled his latest home and drove him and what was left of his extended family to cross 40 kilometres over the mountains into Lebanon. "We lost our homeland, we lost everything," he said at a wedding hall in the town of Arsal, where he had taken shelter with some 60 other Syrian families. "There is no security in Syria."

Mohammed is part of the latest surge of refugees to flee Syria's war; above 1,200 families, or 6,000 people, arrived in Arsal in the Bekaa Valley over the past week, adding to the more than 800,000 who have crossed to Lebanon to escape the conflict. The families are escaping the region around Qalamoun, home to an estimated 200,000 people. As violence there continues, residents fear more refugees will arrive in coming days.

UNHCR and its partners are providing temporary shelter, blankets, stoves and other materials to help the families survive. The weather has been harsh; freezing rain fell yesterday and forecasts are for one of the harshest winters in years. Across Lebanon, finding suitable shelter for those desperately in need is becoming increasingly urgent.

"We are urgently dealing with the needs that exist here in Arsal," said Maeve Murphy, senior field coordinator for UNHCR, which is responding to the crisis. "We are working with … partners to see how they can [support] people who have moved into buildings such as basements and garages that are not suitable for the weather, which as you can see is raining and cold." On Tuesday, UNHCR began erecting tents at a small transit site "for those who are most vulnerable … until we find a better location for them," she said.

Arsal, where the new refugees are arriving, is overwhelmed . Even before the latest influx began, more than 30 months of war have swollen a peacetime population of 40,000 to 60,000, an increase of 50 per cent.

Like Mohammed and his relatives, many families have been displaced before. Some 80 per cent are originally from Homs. "God knows where this war will take us next," sighed one Syrian mother who had escaped two other towns with her five children before being caught up in the fighting in the town of Qarah, in the Qalamoun area.

Many of the new arrivals have lost family members. Mohammed has with him two children who lost their parents in the war as well as a young girl whose father is missing. He says he cannot find his own uncle and grandmother. "We started looking for them and we couldn't find them. People cannot find each other in this place," he said.

The refugees are sheltering in cramped conditions in four collective shelters, including a hall used for wedding celebrations and a local mosque. UNHCR and its partners are providing food parcels, kitchen sets and hygiene kits to help with washing and cooking. Work is also under way on local buildings to insulate them against the wet and the cold.

War-wounded and expectant mothers are getting assistance first. Aisha, 24, is eight months pregnant and wanted desperately to give birth in Syria, holding out in Qara until the last possible moment, with shells landing around her home. She had prepared a room for the newborn, bought baby clothes and a crib. But several days ago she had to leave it all behind. She accepts that her child will now be born a refugee. But she fears for her family's future. "I'm not sure where I'll be living tomorrow," she says.

By Zahra Mackaoui, Lisa Abou Khaled and Dana Sleiman in Arsal, Lebanon