The ongoing conflict in Syria has forced millions of Syrians to flee their country, with Lebanon hosting an estimated 1.5 millions of those who have been displaced. Due to Lebanon’s no-settlement policy and economic downturn making most forms of accommodation unaffordable, approximately 300,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon reside in 6000+ informal tented settlements. As tent materials are degradable and require constant repairs, refugees rely on UNHCR kits to weatherproof their tents, ensuring their families can remain dry and protected throughout the winter months.
I’m sitting in Omar’s office, getting an overview of the docket of informal settlements his team will visit throughout the day. As the Project Manager for the weatherproofing shelter program, he shares about the hecticness of the last week. His team is immersed in the emergency response phase of tent weatherproofing. With recent high winds and snow, they’ve received numerous referrals from Syrian refugees living in informal settlements whose tent roofs have leaked or in some cases collapsed. His team follows up on these calls to assess tent conditions, using UNHCR sector guidelines to establish whether the families are eligible for a tent weatherproofing kit.
I arrived in Zahlé at the beginning of February to serve as a Project Officer in Lebanon, supporting the program teams. Zahlé is the most populous city in the Bekaa valley, an area that hosts the largest number of registered refugees in Lebanon. Due to the Lebanese government’s no-camp policy, many refugees who fled Syria reside in informal settlements on rented land. Barred from building permanent structures, refugees in these sites have used timber, tarp, and other materials to erect tents. With the Syrian conflict entering the twelfth year, refugees remain in protracted limbo. Facing limited opportunities for local integration and a return to Syria that is an implausible dream, precarity is a daily companion.
Today, I will be joining Omar and his team as they visit an informal settlement about twenty minutes outside of Zahlé where they will distribute weatherproofing kits and follow up on new referrals. Driving around the Bekaa valley, I’m struck by the clusters of white structures that punctuate the scenery, ranging from a handful of tents to over one hundred. Omar’s team first visits the UNHCR warehouse that Medair operates to collect supplies. Within the warehouse there are neat piles of mattresses, tarps, fire extinguishers, lumber, plywood, blankets, stoves, and fuel – supplies refugees rely on to repair their tents and make them habitable.
We arrive at the first informal settlement, a group of nineteen tents situated between warehouses, a highway, and fields. The team introduces themselves and asks to speak with the Shawish, the designated representative of the settlement. After getting the Shawish’s approval to commence activities, the team calls out the households who are eligible to receive weatherproofing kits. Comprised of timber, plywood, tarps, and concrete blocks, these kits are vital for repairing leaks, elevating possessions from flooded floors, and ensuring families stay dry and shielded from harsh weather conditions. Separating from the team conducting distribution, I accompany Omar and Ziad, an Assessment Assistant, to follow up on referrals. They listen as families explain the structural issues with their tents and proceed to assess the exterior and interior of tents, taking note of the problems. As we make our way through the settlement, Halomi, a precocious toddler, waddles over and attaches herself to our group. Weaving between tents, she authoritatively establishes herself as the assistant guide, pointing out the pigeons that refugees keep and trade and demonstrating how a rope looped over rafters can serve as a swing.
There’s a sense of community here. There are threads that bind, entwining the people and structures in the settlement. These threads are seen in the way people move between tents greeting one another. They become visible in the ways in which people have decorated the interior of their tents. Fabric meticulously attached to walls and ceilings shroud plywood and tarp and provide a veneer of permanence. And yet, there’s an undercurrent of fragility. Families dwelling in informal settlements are subject to evictions. Weather conditions erode materials and rip the plastic sheets that cover the exterior of tents. Caught in protracted impermanence, without the continued shelter interventions by organisations such as Medair, the dignity of living conditions of refugees in informal settlements would be further diminished.
The team has finished the weatherproofing kit distribution and assessments for this site. It’s time for us to leave. I say, “Yalla bye,” to Halomi, and she mimics my movements, in effect waving goodbye to her mother. Her mother laughs. Someone wisely hands Halomi a banana. She unwraps her small arm from my leg to receive it and happily wanders away. I never thought my value would be weighed against a piece of fruit. As we drive away, I reflect on the resilience of this community and how Halomi boldly interacts with the people and structures around her. Straddling permanence and impermanence in Lebanon, refugees continue to create home.
Medair’s weatherproofing shelter activities in the Bekaa valley are funded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
This content was produced with resources gathered by Medair field and headquarters staff. The views expressed herein are those solely of Medair and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any other organisation.