ARSAL/BEIRUT: As she stands in a puddle of muddy, melting snow, Aziza Mustafa shivers. The teenager, who recently arrived in the northern Bekaa Valley after fleeing Syria, wears only a pair of flimsy plastic slip-ons, the skin of her exposed ankles blue with cold.“Frankly, I can’t even afford socks,” she says.
In a small settlement near Arsal, another young Syrian girl, whose mouthful of braces hints at a well-off background, sinks into the dirt as she trudges through mud, her sandals offering no protection from the elements.
As the snow begins to melt again in the Bekaa Valley, recently arrived refugees are desperately unprepared for the wet, wintry conditions. Lacking basic necessities, particularly footwear suitable for the snow and the frosty ground, many refugees say they are freezing, even close to death.
But images in the media of children such as Mustafa have prompted one group to take it upon itself to find a partial solution: kids’ rain boots.
Rana, who lives in a warehouse with her six children, sprinted across a snowy field as she saw a rare aid truck approach the nearby camp.
“We need boots, heaters and warm socks!” she wails. “Mahmoud Saleh al-Sayyed, my father-in-law who is in his 90s, died because of the harsh weather conditions and low temperatures,” she adds between sobs.
Trying to maintain a sense of dignity despite everything, most women demand that wet and muddy shoes be taken off before entering the makeshift shelters. Families lucky enough to have stoves in their shelters try to thaw their toes, but still there is no money for gasoline and dry firewood is in short supply.
Over 100 kilometers away, home furnishing designer Hala Habib was watching news coverage of the crisis.
“There was always this one image that stuck in my mind,” she says. “One image of the children in flip-flops in the rain outside their tent.”
Habib decided she wanted to raise money for 2,000 children’s rain boots, and launched a Facebook campaign the night Alexa struck. Within 24 hours she had met her goal.
“The beautiful thing was how people were calling in not saying, ‘I want to donate $150 or $50,’ but, ‘I want to donate 100 boots, I want to donate 50 boots.’ This made it very concrete for people,” she says.
Dwarfed by stacks of cardboard boxes in a Hamra warehouse, Habib looks pleased. A team of volunteers sort 5,000 pairs of fleece-lined rain boots delivered just hours earlier by a Lebanese wholesaler. Habib insisted on new boots for “the dignity of the children.”
Habib can’t exactly pinpoint why the image of shoeless Syrian children affected her so much, but says warm, dry feet are vital: “I believe everything starts from the roots.”
The group, Sawa for Development and Aid, is distributing the boots later this week to camps in the Bekaa Valley.
“I see frozen feet everywhere in the camps,” said Rouba Mhaissen, the groups’ co-founder and CEO. “When people donate clothes they don’t necessarily think about rain boots for kids.”
For mothers like Rana, whose children sniffle in the mountain cold with feet barely covered, the help can’t come fast enough.
“The cold is killing us,” she says.