ZAHLE, Lebanon: The frail tents are held up by light wooden planks, the plastic sheets fastened in place against gusts of wind with concrete blocks that seem to signal just how transient these homes are.
There are five of these “informal tented settlements” in Dalhamieh, a suburb of Zahle. This main settlement is home to 182 families who fled the violence in Syria, most of them from the neighborhood of Baba Amr in Homs.
And the refugees are not looking forward to winter.
“Cold, fear, everything,” Sabira Mahfouz said. “We are deprived of everything, our children and us.”
Mahfouz has three boys and two girls, aged 7 to 18. She chuckles as she points to her youngest daughter. “I can only warm her up in the corner, and cover her with a blanket,” she said.
Like the other refugees, Mahfouz says the main thing they need for winter is a way to keep warm in their ramshackle shelters – heating fuel, new plastic sheets for the tents, and food.
Bedoor Bazzaz, another refugee, said the cold forces the families into their homes for much of the day. Snow piles up on the tents and around them several inches high. “We really hate the mud,” she added. “It’s very cold, we stay in our homes all the time.”
But the families of the tent settlements face other problems. Khaled Bazzazi, a refugee who acts as a liaison between the local UNHCR representatives and the settlement, says the landowner has raised the rent from LL5 million a year, to LL30 million. The lease is due for renewal in November, just as winter begins.
The UNHCR negotiates such grievances with landowners, and will relocate refugees if needed. “Greed has killed us,” Khaled said. “I hope they just bear with us in the winter.”
There are 54 latrines, 60 water filters and 50 water tanks in the main Dalhamieh settlement, though the nearest drinking water source is 2.5 km away from the makeshift camp.
Refugees living in these tented settlements are among the most vulnerable, and all are slated to receive winter aid from NGOs, particularly those living at altitudes above 500 meters.
Many, however, are complaining about a new targeted aid system which tries to focus aid toward the most vulnerable refugees.
The system, which provides basic provisions to about two-thirds of the refugee population in Lebanon to overcome funding shortages, tends to favor families with no breadwinners, but some refugees in the settlements say they cannot work if they were smuggled across the border, don’t have ID cards or are defectors from the military.
Aid workers agree the main problem is funding the “winterization” effort.
“In terms of funding, that is the biggest issue we are facing, and the biggest thing we’ve had to take into consideration in doing our negotiations around winterization,” said Rachel Routley, the grants manager at the Danish Refugee Council in Lebanon. “There is not enough funding.”
“ UNHCR and the World Food Program have not been adequately funded to deal with this crisis, and winterization itself is very expensive.”
The UNHCR has only raised 27 percent of the money requested in its latest funding drive.
The winterization effort alone is expected to cost $50 million across all the agencies.
Along with the UNHCR and other agencies, the DRC is helping to provide winter assistance to both registered refugees and newcomers.
Routley said that plans under consideration include financial aid using ATM cards provided to refugees. Such financial assistance would include $150 for newcomers per family as a one-off contribution, which is likely to be used to buy winter clothes or heating stoves. Registered refugees would receive $150 in November and $100 in subsequent months through March under the plan.
Newcomers are among the most vulnerable refugees since they arrive with scarce supplies. Aid for newcomers also usually includes mattresses, blankets, food, hygiene kits and a kitchen set.
Cash assistance would be cheaper for NGOs since they don’t require warehouses to actually store supplies like blankets and heat stoves.
But, Routley said, it would also be a sign of respect to refugees, giving them the opportunity to make their own decisions on what they need for winter.
The DRC already winter-proofs its collective shelters. The organization rehabilitates abandoned buildings in order to house families, and it ensures the buildings are, for example, insulated and sport double-glazed windows.
Lisa Abou Khaled, external relations assistant at UNHCR in Bekaa, said winter aid would include one thermal blanket per person, a heating stove for each household, and fuel on a monthly basis. Refugees may be provided with vouchers or cash to buy the items.
They will also be provided with large plastic sheeting, nails, wood and mattresses to rebuild ailing tents.
Abou Khaled estimates there will be roughly 60,000 vulnerable households in the Bekaa Valley alone by the end of the year that will need the winter aid, including Palestinians and Lebanese returning from Syria, adding that the UNHCR is coordinating with NGOs to ensure no duplication of efforts.
There are 380 informal tented settlements in Lebanon, 250 of which are in the Bekaa Valley and will face a harsh winter in rain and snow.
UNHCR is tasked with winterizing 37,000 households, and other partners will handle the rest, Abou Khaled said.
The vinyl plastic sheeting of the tents is evidence of past attempts at keeping the refugees warm in the threadbare homes, lined with straw mats and a few pillows and blankets that hopefully will be replaced with something warmer.
But Khaled Bazzazi has a worried look in his eyes as his son clings to him.
“It’s much harder for those in the tents, and you’ll see what happens in the winter,” he added.