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Impoverished Lebanese, Syrians struggle to survive the cold

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Impoverished Lebanese, Syrians struggle to survive the cold

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BEIRUT — A snowstorm in the Middle East has left many Lebanese and Syrians scrambling to find ways to survive, burning old clothes, plastic and, in some cases, even sheep manure for warmth as the temperatures drop and poverty soars.

The storm, nicknamed “Hiba” in Lebanon, started on Tuesday evening and is expected to peak on Thursday. Lebanon’s economic collapse and currency crash mean that a growing number of families cannot afford fuel to heat their homes this winter.

“The situation is very, very difficult,” said social activist Baseem Atrash, speaking from the snowy town of Arsal in northeast Lebanon, near the Syrian border. Arsal is home to one of the largest concentrations of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, with some 50,000 people, most living in flimsy tents.

Atrash said Syrian refugees, as well as some Lebanese who have fallen into poverty since the country’s financial crisis began in October 2019, lack diesel for heaters, while constant power cuts render electric heaters useless. .

“They burn anything to keep their heaters on, from plastic to old clothes,” Atrash said. Earlier this month, a Syrian mother and her three children died in their sleep after inhaling toxic fumes from burning coal to heat their bedroom in a village in southern Lebanon.

Lebanon, a country of 6 million people, is home to 1.5 million Syrians who have fled the decade-long civil war in their country. The United Nations estimates that 90% of Syrian refugee households live in extreme poverty. But as Lebanon grapples with an unprecedented economic crisis, poverty has deepened for Lebanese and Syrians. Soaring fuel prices coupled with a collapsing currency means that many basic commodities are now beyond the reach of the average Lebanese.

Nadim Attieh, a Lebanese, decided to donate some of his firewood to families in need after learning how cold it would be. He took to Twitter to spread the word about his in-kind donation: a ton of wood – enough to last five or six families for the next three coldest days.

“I stocked up on wood over the summer and I have a good amount of it. So why not share with disadvantaged people,” asked Attieh, himself unemployed since losing his job in the Persian Gulf a few years ago.

The cost of a ton of wood is now five times the minimum wage, selling for 3 million Lebanese pounds ($120), while some 20 liters of diesel now cost around 300,000, nearly 10 times what it cost three years ago.

In Syria’s northwest Idlib province, where many of Syria’s 3 million residents are displaced, Yassin al-Yassin fortified his tent with tarpaulins and extra supports as the weather deteriorated.

Al-Yassin, who lives in the tent with his wife, two daughters and son, cannot afford to heat himself with wood or diesel. It will therefore burn dried sheep manure accumulated since the summer.

“All we have to protect ourselves are tarpaulins and blankets,” he said by phone from the tent, surrounded by mountains near the Turkish border. He said only those who receive hard currency from relatives abroad can afford to buy diesel and wood for heating.

Aid group CARE International said temperatures are expected to drop in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria to well below zero, putting the lives of millions of people already living in precarious conditions at risk.

“People can see their own breath when lying on their thin mattresses, you will see children walking around in flip flops and torn shirts. Families are afraid of freezing to death,” said CARE Syria Country Director Jolien Veldwijk. .

Colds and respiratory illnesses are increasing and spreading, as is the threat of COVID-19 in overcrowded camps without sufficient health care, CARE said.

Ahamd Rakan, displaced nearly two years ago from his hometown of Kfar Nabel in the last rebel-held stronghold in northwestern Syria and now living in a tent, said he was collecting firewood, olive seeds, papers and old clothes for months in order to use them for heating.

“I’m luckier than the others. I have a heater to keep my children warm,” he added.

In Gaza, residents struggled to stay warm despite power cuts. The coastal enclave, home to more than 2 million people, has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since the militant group Hamas seized power in 2007. Hamas and Israel have fought four destructive wars since then, the most recent in last spring, and countless series of small skirmishes.

At the height of the storm on Wednesday, rainwater flooded the streets of Gaza and schoolchildren waded through the muddy waters after class, prompting criticism of Hamas for its mismanagement of the territory. Elsewhere, children were playing barefoot in the muddy alleys.

“It’s freezing cold in this area, beyond what you can imagine,” said Suzan Ahmed, 35, as she put a potato in a pot to boil over the fire.

Heavy snowfall also blanketed the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria during the 1967 war in the Middle East. Bulldozers could be seen clearing snowdrifts on Mount Hermon, where the region’s only ski resort was closed to visitors due to stormy weather. Snow started falling early Wednesday and more is expected.

In eastern Turkey, heavy snowfall shut down a major highway linking the cities of Tarsus, Adana and Gaziantep, stranding thousands of people and vehicles in half-meter (yard) high snow , the state-run Anadolu agency reported. Gendarmerie forces distributed food overnight as authorities worked to clear snow and reopen the highway. Access to thousands of villages has also been blocked.

Meanwhile, authorities have closed schools in 55 of Turkey’s 81 provinces.

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Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb in Beirut, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem and Wafaa Shuraf in Gaza contributed to this report.

Impoverished Lebanese, Syrians struggle to survive the cold

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