ARSAL, Lebanon: Though her tent can hardly withstand the harsh winter weather and her fitfully stocked pantry dwindles with each passing day, Nayfeh Sadeek said she would rather live in the remote wasteland separating the Syrian frontier from Arsal than in the refugee-saturated border town itself.
Her family of nine had tried to find a place to stay in the town when they arrived three weeks ago by foot from the Syrian town of Nabk. But their search was fruitless.
“We went to Arsal, no one could give us anything,” the elderly woman said, “So we came back here.”
“Here” is a relatively unpopulated expanse of land covering the nearly 20 kilometers between an Army checkpoint just minutes from Arsal’s center and the Syrian border. Owned principally by cherry and apricot farmers from the town, the region is flanked by snow-capped mountains and dotted with orchards, one curious Ferris wheel, mounds of rubble, and, for the past few months, at least 200 Syrian refugee families.
But the isolation of the location and unclear internal movement restrictions for refugees have prevented most there from being able to access international aid.
Unable to secure lodging in Arsal, a Bekaa Valley town that has doubled in population by taking in more than 40,000 refugees, Sadeek and others managed to find local charities to provide them with materials such as metal rods and tarpaulin to construct their own tents.
“The landowners helped, as did other Syrians, everyone gave us something,” Sadeek said.
While local charities do make occasional trips to deliver aid to the families when their resources permit, the refugees say the donations are not enough.
“We don’t have flour to make bread,” said Sadeek’s husband, Ayoub, “We wear slippers when it snows, the tents are not sturdy and there are no proper lavatories. There is nothing here.”
Some refugees such as Khadija, who arrived from Qara one month ago, rely heavily on relatives who have registered with the U.N. and live in the Bekaa Valley. Khadija’s brother, Yahya, fled Syria seven months ago and brings food from Zahle to his sister and her family of three when he can.
“The problem is that these people are stuck,” he explained. He said he had observed that the Army no longer permitted recent arrivals from Syria to venture beyond Arsal if they had crossed illegally or without proper documentation.
“At first, refugees were able to take documents from the municipality [of Arsal] which stated that they had crossed illegally. But the Army no longer accepts these,” Yahya said. “So, these refugees can’t leave Arsal.”
As for international organizations, all the refugees interviewed responded morosely: “They don’t come here.”
“Their situation is tragic,” Arsal’s Deputy Mayor Ahmad Fliti said. “They can’t register [as refugees] with international organizations and ... [these] organizations have prohibited their aid workers from passing the checkpoint, these are their internal regulations.”
He added: “The refugees haven’t been able to enter the village [Arsal] because there is no room for any more refugees, there are just the farm houses along the borders and the orchards,” left for them.
As the northern border crossings have been closed for over a year, Arsal has become the main corridor for incoming refugees from Qalamoun. With 13,500 families staying in the town, according to Fliti, Arsal now hosts half the population of Qara, a city in Qalamoun.
Those living beyond the checkpoint are almost all from Qalamoun too. Most previously made their living as farmers but were forced to flee once battles erupted in November between rebels and regime forces. Many were originally displaced from Qusair last May.
The municipality had asked the Social Affairs Ministry to formally appeal to the Army to move the checkpoint down by 2 km, “so more area can be made available and aid workers can reach these refugees,” Fliti said.
However, the Army’s spokesperson told The Daily Star no request had been received.
Dana Sleiman, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, said they were aware there were refugees beyond the checkpoint. However, Sleiman insisted it was not their regulations that prevented them from delivering relief on a regular basis, as Fliti said, but rather “security reasons.”
“I would not call it a ‘regulation,’” she added.
Sleiman said their local implementing partners in Arsal, including Jousour al-Nour and the Jarrah Scouts ventured past the checkpoint “regularly.” Refugees on the ground, however, said the only organization following up on their needs were Arsal’s representatives from the lesser known Shebab al-Umma.
One member of Shebab, Mahmoud Ezzedine, said he was assisting the refugees because they had settled on his family’s land. His father, Mohammad, permitted them to stay and, with the donations provided by Shebab, they supplied the refugees residing on their property with food rations every 20 days, including oil, flour, sugar and canned goods.
“We have a project to build 30 more durable tents,” Ezzedine said, standing outside the gathering where about 25 families have settled. “We erected tents here after the Qusair battles, when about 60 families settled here, but they soon moved to the town.”
“We are covering relief activities in the entire country, not just Arsal, we have other communities we have to focus on and we are dependent on the generosity of our local donors,” he said.
When asked whether he thought the Army Command would be willing to move the checkpoint, Ezzedine was doubtful. “Even if they do, the landowners would have to formally allow the refugees to settle here. And I don’t think they would allow this.”
The refugees here sometimes venture to Arsal to ask local charities for food supplies, but harsh winter conditions have kept most entrenched inside their tents.
As far as Amina Hamshou is concerned, it is better to stay in a makeshift tent with intermittent access to aid than among hundreds of families clustered in the town’s reception halls and mosques.
“We tried to go into Arsal, but we decided to stay because there was no space for us there,” the widow and mother of one said.
The landowner here “gave us a place to stay, and a local charity gave us tents, so it’s far better here,” she added.
Like other refugees, Hamshou said the only downside was a lack of access to aid, especially fuel, food and health services. Her 10-year-old son Saad had his arm amputated after he was struck by a shell outside their Qusair farm, and Hamshou said his wounds needed medical attention.
The boy could be seen among a throng of young kids gleefully filling plastic cups with dollops of snow before devouring them with spoons.
“We don’t have drinking water,” the elderly Sadeek said as she watched them, “But it’s still better to stay here. At least it’s free.”