When Mohammed fled heavy fighting in the Syrian city of Raqaa that killed the sheep that supported his family and came to this frozen muddy patch of borrowed land in Lebanon, he expected to return home “in six months maximum.”
“The Free Syrian Army was winning,” he said. “They were winning in (Aleppo), winning in Deraa and starting to fight in Damascus. I didn’t think it would be much longer before the regime fell.”
That was 18 months ago. On Friday, as the worst winter storm in nearly 100 years battered Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Mohammed stood in the maelstrom, without socks.
“I’m just happy to have shoes,” he grimly joked before listing everything that his family – and the 40 others who’ve taken shelter in plastic-lined tents in this rural area – don’t have
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“No fuel oil for the heaters, no good food for the children, no money, nothing,” he said. “My wife went to a store and borrowed a single loaf of bread this morning so the children could eat something.”
Nearly a million Syrians have fled their homeland for Lebanon since civil war broke out more than two years ago, so the few dozens of folks who’ve settled here, alongside the greenhouses where local farmers are growing a crop of winter spinach, are just a blip in a massive migration that has boosted Lebanon’s population by 25 percent.
How soon they might go home is a question no one is able to answer,
Originally supportive of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad, Mohammed lost faith when al Qaida-affiliated militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria took over Raqaa and with it much of northern Syria. Now he feels stranded in Lebanon with his wife, five children and half a dozen kids orphaned by fighting whose care has become a community responsibility undertaken by adults who are barely surviving themselves.
“There’s nobody left to win in Syria,” he said. “The regime or al Qaida? They’re both the same. The revolution was a mistake and everyone here, whether they supported it at first or not, agrees. We just want to go home. But we can’t. They’re both too bad.”
The roughly 400 refugees who’ve settled here, mostly from Raqaa province, have endured a tough road even before the current winter storm dropped temperatures to well below freezing at night and dumped inches of snow and rain, turning their patch into sticky, shin-deep mud that freezes and melts each day.
The first Syrian refugees were relatively easy for Lebanon to absorb. Many had family and friends in Lebanon, and the financial resources to rent an apartment or a house. But as hundreds grew to tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands, newer refugees have been forced into increasingly miserable conditions in a country that clearly does not want to help.
“There’s no help from Lebanon, from the U.N. or from anyone,” said Ahmed, also from Raqaa. Both men asked that their family name not be used – they’re cousins – in criticizing the Lebanese, the Syrian regime or the militants that control their hometown, for fear of reprisals.
“Once the U.N. came and gave us some papers to fill out,” Mohammed interjected. “That was maybe one year ago.”
Until last month, Ahmed and his family lived a few miles away, in a similar tent on a similar patch of farmland. But then the owners of that land, a Shiite Muslim family, burned their tents and possessions after alleging that a refugee had raped a local disabled man. Most people in Lebanon dismiss the rape claim, but not that Lebanese are growing tired of refugees from Syria.
“They would harass us every time someone from Hezbollah died in Syria (fighting rebels),” Ahmed said, referring to the Shiite movement that has sent fighters to supplement Assad’s army. “Each time it became worse until they burned everything and told us they’d kill us if we didn’t leave.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Office has tried to register each of the Syrian refugees for the extremely unlikely event they’re allowed to resettle in the West. But other than distributing some emergency plastic sheeting and other supplies, there’s little in the way of funds from either Lebanon or the international community to help.
With the winter storm now buffeting the region, the U.N. refugee agency put out a new call for help Friday. “A storm like this creates immense additional hardship and suffering,” Amin Awad, the U.N. agency’s Middle East and North Africa bureau director, told CNN. “With Lebanon’s help, we’re doing everything we can to get rapid additional help to people who most need it.”
But having seen the influx of Palestinian refugees in 1948 deeply aggravate Lebanon’s already stark sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, as well as with its sizable Christian population, the arrival of a million predominantly Sunni Muslims from yet another Middle East conflict zone is deeply worrying to the Lebanese.
“They need to leave,” said George Mounayer, a Christian who commanded a militia in Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. “There are already 1 million Syrians. Most Sunni. They will first fight with the Shiites and then the Christians. If we help them, they will stay.”
He spoke in a darkened hallway of an apartment building in Beirut amid an hours-long power cut Friday that left most of the city without electricity, as the acting cabinet ministers argued over who was responsible for the failure to pay Lebanon’s December fuel bill for its electric plants.
“We can’t even keep our own heaters on,” Mounayer said.