Khaled, his wife and three children fled Syria’s Homs five months ago when their home was hit by a rocket. He and his family were inside the building at the time. They survived and escaped across the border but Khaled says the children still have nightmares. They are now living in a ShelterBox tent in Akroum, just two kilometres from the border.
‘God only knows where we would be living if we didn’t have the ShelterBox tent,’ said Khaled.
Nestled in the mountains, when the mist clears Akroum has a clear view across the border to Homs. At night the flare of explosions can often be seen in the distance. Mohammed Adraa, a local school principle, works with one of ShelterBox’s partner organisations in Lebanon, Akkarouna. It is on the concrete outside the front of Mohammed’s house where Khaled and his family’s tent is pitched.
Mohammed and Lilian help ShelterBox bring shelter to Syrian refugees and also share their family home with 18 other Syrian families, May 2013, Lebanon.
‘Mohammed is one of many partners doing a great job helping us bring aid to the most vulnerable Syrian refugees,’ said ShelterBox Operations Coordinator Phil Duloy (UK/US). ‘Mohammed is not only looking after refugees in the community but also willing to give up space in his own home with his family and care so much about other people. He is an exceptional human being and we are very lucky to have partners like him.’
Over the past few months ShelterBox has been working with local implementing partners on the Lebanon-Syria border, like Akkarouna, to provide support to refugees fleeing the continuing conflict in Syria. Response Teams continue to assess the evolving situation and prepare to distribute more boxes to the communities most in need.
Friday, may 10:
ShelterBox has been working in Lebanon with local implementing partners to distribute aid to the growing number of Syrian refugees in the West Bekaa valley.
The refugees have made arduous journeys across the mountainous border to reach safety. Some of those ShelterBox spoke to in the area came from Damascus, others from Hama, but all said they feared repercussions if their identities were made public.
Local communities in the smallest of Syria’s neighbouring countries are donating land on which to pitch the tents and often providing electricity and water from their own supplies to support their Syrian guests.
tuesday, april 30:
As conflict and violence continues in Syria, more people are being forced to leave their homes to seek safety in neighbouring countries. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) figures show that half a million Syrians are now living in Lebanon, meaning one in ten people are a refugee. Over the past few months, ShelterBox has been working with local implementing partners in the small country to distribute shelter to these vulnerable families.
monday, march 25:
ShelterBox has been working with the Ministry of Social Affairs to provide 700 boxes containing winterised kit. They have cleared customs and at various distribution hubs where multiple implementing partners are undertaking discrete micro distributions to Syrian refugee families. Due to the increased security situation, all teams are home as trained partners continue with distributions.
friday, march 8:
Bassam Shebab and his family fled the embattled Syrian city of Homs a month ago. Bassam was smuggled over the border in the north of Lebanon whilst his family crossed at the Bekaa Valley. He, along with his wife and five young children, have been sharing a makeshift shelter with his brother, sister-in-law and their two children, waiting for the fighting to stop to enable them to return homes.
This family is not the only one waiting for the conflict to end in their home country. One million is the number of people who no longer sleep under their own roofs, wondering when they can return home, that is, if their home is still standing when that time comes.
One million is the number of Syrians that have fled to countries like Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to escape from almost two years of violence and civil war at home, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Figures show that half of the refugees are children, most of them aged 11 or under.
ShelterBox Response Teams (SRTs) are at work now in Syria’s neighbouring countries Lebanon and Jordan, and ShelterBox is considering a return to Iraq Kurdistan, and will look at further opportunities to deliver aid into Syria itself.
In Lebanon, the smallest of Syria's surrounding countries, the influx of refugees has swollen the population by ten per cent. SRTs are now delivering winterised ShelterBoxes in discrete micro distributions with various implementing partners to Syrian refugee families, like Bassam Shebab's.
'We will be so much more comfortable in the tent,' said Bassam, relieved to be out of such cramped conditions. 'It will never feel like home but we thank ShelterBox for helping us.'
ShelterBox’s Head of Operations Ross Preston MBE commented, ‘The Bekaa valley is a corridor into Lebanon used by thousands of refugees. Housing is sparse and conditions in the winter weather have been appalling. With our distribution partners we are now making every effort to reach these widely dispersed refugee families, but this is a very challenging operation. Lebanon is being overwhelmed by the refugee crisis, and its government has given special permission to ShelterBox to provide tents to ease these people’s suffering.’
wednesay, february 20:
'The refugees are now coming in even greater numbers,' said ShelterBox Response Team (SRT) member David Webber (UK). 'These people have nothing and have been subjected to loss of family, rape, kidnap, robbery, the list goes on.'
An SRT has been conducting needs assessments in the most northern part of Lebanon on the Syrian border to get an overview of the latest ever-changing situation for refugees. Since the conflict began in Syria, this isolated area has been hosting higher relative concentrations of refugees than almost anywhere else in Lebanon. They have received very little humanitarian assistance from the outside and the winter has only compounded the hardships they face daily with high snowfall and subzero temperatures.
'The number of Syrians is increasing and the conditions are not getting any better,' commented SRT member Torstein Nelson (NO).
'We met Rehab, a widow who has been living in a simple unfinished one-room building. Her husband died in Syria in the early phase of the war nearly two years ago. The room they live in has no heating, windows nor doors and a graveled floor. Some thin blankets are the only coverage to keep the freezing wind away. She lives here with her three daughters aged two, three and four.
'In a similar building nearby, used for sheep until recently, there are two families living together, nine people in total. They have been here for four months and have no other place to live or go, as like most Syrians here, they have no official documentation that would enable them to travel to areas with better accommodation and little or no money.
'Just next door we also met Suhela, also a widow after her husband died during fighting in Homs a year ago. She has five children to look after aged one, three, eight, 12 and 15.
'There are so many similar stories here and new stories come up every day as new refugees arrive.'
The living conditions for the refugees are terrible but the local communities are helping them as much as possible, which they are very grateful for.
'The recent influx of refugees in this area consist of very poor and elderly people; families with children and people with health problems,' said a mayor of a municipality in the region that cannot be named for security reasons.
'The village community does as good as they can in this difficult situation but the biggest problem here is lack of shelter and warm blankets. The number of refugees will increase in the near future with more people fleeing from Syria.'
'These are some of the most damaged people I have ever come across,' said SRT member David Webber (UK) who has been on over 20 ShelterBox deployments. 'Although the local communities are sharing, there is still not enough for everyone. They have a lack of food, inadequate winter clothing, little bedding and no medical facilities. They can go nowhere. They are used to living in conditions like you and me; this is pretty much as bad as it gets. We must do all that we can to give them a little hope.'
'It is difficult to think of another place where the need for help is greater than in this area,' said Torstein.
tuesday, february 12:
There are five members in the Mostor family. Mother Khaibra and Father Mostafa with seven-year-old son Ahmad, five-year-old son Turkue and baby daughter Khadija. They are Syrian refugees. They were forced from their home in Homs after their neighbourhood sustained continuous shelling. They moved as soon as they felt safe and have joined their extended family, who had made the journey before them. They believe their house has now been destroyed.
They are not yet registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) as they arrived just a short time ago. As a result they are receiving no official help as they are not recorded as refugees. They live in a one-room makeshift tent that they built themselves. There are about 20 families now living on this flat piece of land.
They are high in the mountains of the Bekaa Valley. By four o'clock in the afternoon the temperature is already below zero as a freezing fog descends. A ShelterBox Response Team (SRT) meets the family whilst making needs assessments.
'We were invited to come into their 'home' as they told us their story,' says SRT member Fiona McElroy (UK). 'On first glance it looks tidy and ordered with blankets stacked in the corner that have been given to them by relatives and local people. There is a stove inside but it has only been lit once as there is no fuel.
'The local landlord fills three jerry cans of water as often as he can, which is for all the families to share. They have no regular food supply and no income. They cannot afford to rent anywhere.
'The floors and walls are wet as the water comes in when it rains and they sit in the dark as they have no light. It's already dark by four o'clock.
'As they have their photo taken, they continue with their story. Khaibra mentions Ghazi, her youngest son who was three months old. He is not in the picture. He died 10 days after they arrived here. 'He was just too cold,' Khaibra tells me.
'This family, like so many others, is weary and traumatised. I tell her I am sorry for her loss and she begins to cry.'
The Mostor family is one out of thousands of others who have been uprooted from their homes by fear and violence and are now struggling to survive the coldest winter conditions in over two decades.
ShelterBox has a Response Team in Lebanon assessing the need and working hard to find suitable avenues to distribute winterised shelter and other lifesaving aid to Syrian refugee families in need. wednesday, january 23:
Treacherous road conditions, delayed flights and closed schools. Snow and ice cold conditions have caused disruption across the UK leaving many people frustrated. However, the worst winter storm in two decades hit Syria and its neighbouring countries last week bringing destruction and threatening lives in a region already facing a refugee crisis from the country’s civil war.
ShelterBox Response Team (SRT) member Fiona McElroy (UK) is part of an SRT in Lebanon currently assessing the need for emergency shelter:
‘Conditions are incredibly poor. Over the months as people have arrived, they have rented any available property in Lebanon. Standards have grown poorer and prices more expensive. As the conflict has continued, the numbers of people fleeing the war are growing. It is the people who are poorest who are now making their way across the border. Most have come with few possessions and many have just the clothes they stand up in.
‘Once over the mountains from the Mediterranean coast of Beirut to near the Syrian border, the temperature drops considerably in the Bekaa valley and up into the mountains. The air feels like winter, thin and sharp. This week, Lebanon has experienced an extreme storm that has brought snow to areas of Lebanon, which have never seen it before. 50 centimetres of snow fell in some places. Temperatures overnight have been falling down to -6 degrees Celcius.
‘It’s not until you look amongst the communities such as Barelias district that the truth begins to reveal itself. Local families often build their own homes a floor at a time as money allows and in some, refugees live on the unfinished floors. Also beside many, makeshift shelters have been set up by Syrian families who have nowhere else to go. When you really start to look, you can see how many there are. Syrian refugees are the hidden homeless in Lebanon.
‘I have been told that the families have built these structures themselves and have put them up because sometimes they are unable to find anywhere to rent or because they can’t afford to rent. Some landlords let them stay on the land for free but others charge rent. The neighbours will often share their electricity supply but the families have to pay for what they use.
‘The shelters are made from all sorts of material – timber frame with bits of tarpaulin over the top. Others are covered in strips of plastic advertising hoarding weighed down by old car tyres. In trying to insulate them, the families have lined the roof with cardboard but when you look behind it, you can see the mould growing because it is permanently damp. With so many people crammed inside, it is almost impossible to breathe. The children are constantly sick with respiratory infections.
‘There are three families living in each shelter, often with up to ten children in each family. Some of the children go barefoot as they have no shoes. There is a metal stove in the middle of the communal area which does offer some heat, but only for a few hours a day.
‘They can only burn the stove for three or four hours a day because fuel is expensive. Sometimes they have to burn plastic as there is nothing else. That is why the children are coughing.
‘One woman whose husband was killed in Syria lives with her children in a space that is 8x4 feet. There is barely enough room for the three of them to lie down flat on the ground at night to sleep. They have one blanket between them.
‘These people are not here to live. They are only here because of what is happening in their own country. If it was safe tomorrow, they would return home the next day.’
Tuesday, january 15:
ShelterBox is offering a practical winter response to the Lebanese government’s call for international help with its growing Syrian refugee crisis.
Already 190,000 Syrian people have registered in Lebanon as refugees although it is believed that the figure is more than 300,000. It is feared that should fighting in Damascus intensify a further one million could be on the move towards Lebanon within days. Last week the Beirut government broke a year-long hiatus by saying it will register and recognise the refugees, asking for $180 million worth of international aid:
‘We stress the commitment of the Lebanese government to provide shelter and protection to Syrian refugees.’
A ShelterBox Response Team (SRT) has been on the Syria / Lebanon border assessing needs and building a network of local implementing partners made up of non-governmental organisations, community groups, Immams and health workers to help with aid distribution.
They are now standing by to receive a consignment in the form of hundreds of ShelterBoxes. These contain winterised tents, blankets, groundsheets and other equipment to help displaced families that have fled civil war, but are now caught in bitter winter storms, the worst in the region for 20 years.
SRT member Fiona McElroy (UK) describes the hundreds of thousands of Syrians as the ‘hidden homeless’.
‘It is not immediately obvious, but once you drive through Lebanese neighbourhoods it is possible to see that refugee families are living in really terrible conditions right across the country,’ said Fiona.
‘Many are now resorting to living in whatever structures they can find vacant. We met one family living alongside farm animals in outbuildings. There are unfinished houses still under construction, and Syrian families have moved into these buildings, most of which have no windows, power or running water. They are ice cold and not wind or waterproof.
‘Some landlords have allowed makeshift tents on their land, and others charge rent and electricity for structures often riddled with mould and damp. Many house three families with up to ten children and are terribly overcrowded. But some families have spent the money they brought with them, and now have to move on as winter weather closes in but in reality, they have nowhere to go.
‘We saw a recently arrived family living in a metal container, which in the current sub-zero temperatures would be cold enough to be life threatening.’
Fiona and colleagues David Webber (UK) and Mark Van Alphen (NL) accept that they are operating in a complex political landscape. So far the Beirut government’s official stance has been to distance itself from the Syrian conflict, wary of destabilising its own delicate community balance. So last week’s call for aid was significant.
There has also been a presumption against setting up refugee camps in Lebanon. So, once tents and equipment arrive Fiona and the team will work to ensure that families are supported in the communities they are already living in, and that the distribution will be ‘sensitive and discreet.’
ShelterBox is advanced in its response among international relief organisations in already having permission from Lebanon’s Minister of Social Affairs, Wael Abu Faour, for an agreed quantity of ShelterBoxes to be sent to the country specifically for Syrian refugees.
The SRT has already visited the Bekaa valley – Chtaura, Barelias municipality and Aarsal. In these areas, families have arrived from all over Syria, but mostly from Homs, Idlib, Damascus and Aleppo. Refugees in the mountainous areas further north are particularly vulnerable, as there is very little shelter from the icy winds and snow.
friday, january 4:
ShelterBox has been constantly researching various avenues to bring emergency shelter to Syrian refugee families over several months. An opportunity has arisen for another SRT to return to Lebanon to carry out needs assessments around the country. The team consists of David Webber (UK), Fiona McElroy (UK) and Mark Van Alphen (NL).
thursday, october 4:
What started out as a peaceful protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the southern Province of Deraa in March 2011 has degenerated into a regional interethnic civil war.
The growing violence, sectarian tensions and economic hardship has forced more and more Syrian families to flee not only their homes with around 1.2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs); but also their country with over 294,000 refugees in neighbouring countries, according to the latest report from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
With the escalating conflict now also hindering aid agencies going into Syria, how can ShelterBox distribute aid and help people in need?
With the restricted access to Syria, we have explored other avenues through the surrounding nations of Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, but each has its challenges and limitations.
There are ShelterBoxes prepositioned with the Jordanian Red Crescent in the capital Ammam, which were originally going to be used to set up transit camps along the border to accommodate the influx of Syrian families into Jordan. Existing transit camps have been criticised by the international community for inadequate standards resulting in the Jordanian Government becoming wary of setting up future transit camps.
'The Jordanian Red Crescent is working on alternative solutions with the Government of Jordan to set up a transit camp,' said ShelterBox Operations Coordinator Tom Lay.
'Currently the security situation in Syria does not allow for a safe return by families and there is every chance they will become displaced again and even victimised for having received international assistance.
'Therefore we will use the relationships between the Jordanian and Syrian Red Crescent societies, the latter being granted the most humanitarian access in Syria of any humanitarian organisations, to distribute our boxes on our behalf to families attempting to return to their homes in Syria once the situation allows for this.'
Safety of ShelterBox Response Teams (SRTs) and the practicalities of logistics are constraints for ShelterBox in the Arab region.
How does ShelterBox carry out need and site assessments as well as transport aid in such a restricted region?
The Turkish Government is retaining complete control of the assistance to refugees crossing their border, but has issued a list of materials that they require in order to meet the needs, distributing it to the humanitarian community in Turkey, including the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
'IOM's Chief of Mission has asked us if we would be willing to explore options in partnership with them including winterised tents, kitchen sets, blankets and stoves,' said Operations Coordinator Fionn Mckee. 'It is very much a concept stage and there are no guarantees the Turkish Authorities will accept aid under any conditions but is a good possible avenue for the future.'
ShelterBox is looking to develop partnerships with civil society organisations (CSO) based in Western Iraq in order to establish, and where appropriate, support this region’s emergency shelter needs, particularly as winter draws closer.
A key strength of ShelterBox is its flexibility to operate alongside the giant UN agencies as well as small community based organisations. Separate from the politics, our approach lets us find and address the needs of communities across countries and territories through a neutral and impartial engagement strategy based on humanitarian principles. In this way, we sometimes make the impossible, possible.
Fear of registration
In Lebanon, the on-going fear of destabilisation of the country and continuing fear towards registration amongst the Syrian families is meaning the estimated refugee population is far lower than the reality.
An SRT travelled to Lebanon in August to explore a response with various agencies and contacts including the Lebanese Ministry for Social Affairs. However, due to negativity towards camps, there currently is no position for ShelterBox working with the Government at this time.
ShelterBox is seeking alternative avenues however it must balance its response across the religious sects and understand the potential consequences of not doing so.
'We have to stay neutral and not be seen to be taking sides in Lebanon to deliver aid' said ShelterBox Operations Coordinator Alice Jefferson.
'We are currently liaising with a number of organisations including Handicap International who have teams on the ground reporting that hard shelter is being prioritised by the humanitarian community.'
ShelterBox follows humanitarian organisational principles that are beneficiary-led; with these numerous issues and restrictions in the region it seems that currently food, medicine and protection are immediate priorities.
However, with the ending of the harvest's income for renting or home improvement, impending freezing conditions with winter fast-approaching, guaranteed influx to a saturated real estate market and lack of other international nongovernmental organisations' shelter provision, the need for shelter will become more and more important.
wednesday, august 22:
ShelterBox’s response to the crisis in Syria has been postponed following a spate of violence and kidnappings in Lebanon’s capital Beirut that began on 16 August.
ShelterBox Response Team (SRT) members Alice Jefferson (UK) and Phil Duloy (UK and USA) had been working with ministers in the Lebanese government to facilitate the importation of ShelterBoxes.
They had also been planning potential distributions to Syrian refugees with several international non-governmental organisations (INGOS), including Handicap International, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR); and a consortium of eight local NGOs operating in the central Bekaa Valley. The Response Team had submitted a proposal to Lebanon's Council of Ministers through an influential contact on Wednesday afternoon.
Later that same afternoon the armed wing of the Muqdad clan made good on its promise to retaliate to the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) kidnapping of their fellow clansman, Hassan Muqdad, some time earlier.
Details are unclear but reports state that around 30 people were seized in the northern parts of the Bekaa Valley and in southern Beirut.
‘Members of the Muqdad clan wearing balaclavas and holding automatic weapons were interviewed on live television, saying they were targeting citizens of countries and even local individuals who they deemed supportive of Syria's insurgency,’ said Phil. ‘Their list included the very contact we had just been meeting with, who was due to pass our aid request to the government.
‘The Council of Ministers had just one more session before a break for Eid, a national holiday lasting two and a half weeks, and we knew that security issues were pushing the importation of our aid off the agenda.
‘Having found no other secure routes for ShelterBox aid in to Lebanon, we reluctantly made the decision to wait for a better chance and focus our efforts on Jordanian routes.’
This wave of kidnappings in Lebanon has raised fears that the fight for control over Syria will exacerbate tensions in a country already polarised by sectarian divisions.
Alice and Phil were able to meet with refugee families during their time in Lebanon to discuss their most pressing concerns.
'We have been looking at how we can collaboratively help relieve the pressure on Lebanese families who have been hosting refugees in their overcrowded homes,' said Alice.
One of their contacts, Dr Abdullah El Tassi, was trained at a medical school in New York. He is a member of a coalition of eight locally-administered NGOs, which have been distributing food, water and medical supplies to those affected by the conflict, as well as offering medical treatment for people wounded fighting in Syria.
Through his contacts in the local NGOs, the SRT has been able to carry out need assessments in the central Bekaa Valley around Zahle and has been assessing suitable distribution options to refugee families in need there.
Abdullah introduced the SRT to one family who had spent the past 17 months moving from one place to another due to the fighting.
'The 48-year-old husband, 43-year-old wife and their eight children have moved five times in total as each of their homes has successively been destroyed,’ said Alice. ‘Six months ago their son was shot by a sniper through his wrist; four months ago a missile hit their home taking away all of their belongings; then last week they were finally forced to move as the residential area they were staying in was subject to a massive aerial bombing.’
‘They are now staying in an unfinished building where they are using rubble to block the windows and any curtains they can find to give them privacy from the other families,’ said Phil. ‘Although it is hot now, with winter fast-approaching and the area around Bekaa Valley being prone to heavy snow, it is important to move these people into warm shelters.’
ShelterBox plans on distributing emergency shelter and other lifesaving supplies to families in need through the local NGOs it has been working with, bringing them shelter and dignity. Once security is restored plans will be made for another Response Team to return to continue with the deployment.
wednesday, august 8:
Ongoing violence in Syria over the past 15 months has caused a significant number of refugees to flee across the border to neighbouring countries Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
A ShelterBox Response Team (SRT) has been in Lebanon's capital Beirut assessing suitable options to help relieve the increasing pressure on host Lebanese families, who are sharing their often overcrowded homes with Syrian refugees.
'The situation is very dynamic,' said SRT member Alice Jefferson (UK). 'It is very difficult to fully ascertain the numbers of refugees currently in Lebanon.'
It is thought that Lebanon is almost at capacity in hosting the refugee influx with the numbers continuously rising. There was a significant spike seen in the number of refugees arriving in Lebanon during the 17-18 July violence in Damascus in southwest Syria. Further significant influxes occur when violence is centred in Syria's western city Homs, due to its proximity with the Lebanese border.
'The host family support here is incredible as many households have opened their doors to multiple Syrian family groups,' said Alice. 'But we are looking at how to decongest these homes, relieving host families, and house those who have fled the continuous violence as well as try to restore some sense of normality to their lives.'
ShelterBox has been coordinating their efforts with the Ministry for Social Affairs; the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR); and various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working at a local level, some of which are already providing food and medical support to refugees.
'We are looking at providing contingency stocks with UNHCR if violence suddenly escalates and there is another major influx across the border,' commented Alice.