Arsal : trapped refugees fighting the rain, the cold and the snow

The door of the warehouse slides open revealing a swarming sight of at least a hundred women and children. Too weak to fight the bitter cold brought by snowstorm Alexa, most women lie on bunked beds covered in blankets, children stare at us torn between cold and curiosity. We have just opened a door of what they call a “collective shelter”. It can be a warehouse, a garage, an old factory, whatever as long as it is cheap and big enough to shelter refugees too diminished to afford better or in this case widows and their children fleeing the battles in the Syrian Qalamoun mountains. I just realize that I’m standing in a puddle of water when a girl takes me to her grandmother who took her to Arsal fleeing the town of Qarah leaving behind her parents and brother killed in one of the many bombings. I squeeze my way through the children and leave the scene its too much, enough of compassionate and useless nods these people need food, a decent shelter and relief, at the moment I can’t give it to them, the repeated clicks of my camera is not going to help them. “This is nothing” mutters a Syrian social worker “go and look in that house”. In the car we all know he is right.

This is Arsal a town overflowing with populations fleeing the Syrian civil war. 40.000 refugees for 35.000  locals. Hidden behind the tented settlements, unfinished buildings or at the best rented houses. Some are fighters of the free syrian army resting from the combats but most of them are regular citizens who have took refuge in the Sunni municipality already isolated in a Shia populate region. Trapped between the clashes in their own country and the fear of being bothered in unwelcoming land. Since November 15th heavy fighting in Qarah and many neighboring villages in the Qalamoun mountains between Syrian Armed Forces and the Free Syrian Army have drastically increased the number of incoming population. UNHCRnow estimates 30 to 40 families arriving each day. The ones who have a passport are lucky enough to enter Arsal and to receive help, the others are to wait on the outskirts between Lebanon and Syria where they have built makeshift camps and hope for aid.

Last week the rain flooded the camps, this week the early arriving snow has transformed already tough conditions into a living freezing hell. In two weeks I saw children walking bare feet in the mud and then snow, families arriving by foot with their luggage after the army confiscated their car, tents without stoves, stoves without fuel oil, starving women mourning their husbands and difficulty taking care of their own children. All this is a small detail of a war resulting into 126 000 deaths, more than two million displaced outside Syria and more than 6.5 million internally displaced. Once again we are turning our backs on these populations, we are letting our indifference take place in front of our humanity. For two weeks I was with them and I didn’t know what to say. I felt guilty and ashamed for each time that I read the news without caring, for each time I heard a death toll without reacting.

But don’t we always do that ? So what do I say to the young 17 year old girl who is freezing in a stinking warehouse mourning her elder brother ? What do I say to the 20 year old Syrian social worker who has interrupted his education ? What do we say as Europeans to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq  who are assuming most of the displaced while we are choosing the ones we shelter on base of their diplomas and our needs while we leave the others to stay or to take their chances in the mediterranean ?

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