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Aid Groups Worry As Winter Approaches In Syria


War has many ways to kill, even those who escape violence on the battlefield. For more than two million Syrian refugees who are spread across the Middle East, the weather is now their greatest enemy. International aid workers are racing against the coming cold. They're trying to prepare the refugee population, which is already weakened by war and deprivation. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Beirut.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Thirty-two Syrian families live here in flimsy tents on farmland in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. They're bracing for another winter, worried about the rains. Last year, water seeped through the plastic sheeting that serves as a roof and flooded dirt floors for weeks, says Freyal(ph), who lives here with her six children.

FREYAL: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: There was mud everywhere, she says, water up to my knees in the flooding. This year, she says, conditions are even worse.

FREYAL: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Everyone is sick here. There's not enough food. There are more than 400 of these refugee settlements in this farming valley, where Syrian families live in tents, unfinished buildings and animal sheds. But the tent camps are the most vulnerable. So this year, a Swiss aid agency, Medair, is trucking in sandbag to try to keep the winter rains out. Manager George Mekhasi(ph) says Medair's project is to help four to 540 settlements by the end of November.

GEORGE MEKHASI: Last year, they used to sleep in the water and have too much skin disease and...

AMOS: The kids were sleeping in the water last year?

MEKHASI: Yeah. Yeah, because the tents were low and they don't have anything to raise their tents. And we are providing the sandbags and we are making French drains to avoid the flood.

AMOS: Aid agencies in Lebanon are struggling with the biggest winterization project ever but working with less than half the funds they need. Here, the refugee population has grown tenfold since last year to more than a million, now about a quarter of the country's population. But donations have fallen far short. Bryce Perry is the country director for the International Rescue Committee, a U.S.-based NGO.

BRYCE PERRY: People are saying that this is going to be the worst winter they've seen in 100 years. And everyone is gearing up and working as fast as they can. We'll be distributing 10,000 clothing kits, children clothing kits, because we know that it's just a matter of days or weeks before the temperatures really start to drop.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language)

AMOS: This tent settlement is called Turbal Three(ph). More than 100 families pay about $30 a month each for a small patch of ground. If they came with any savings, it's long gone by now. Most live off handouts from the U.N. refugee agency, and there's little to spare for warm clothes and heat. But Alison Ely, the shelter management coordinator for Medair, says the biggest problem here was trash - a mountain of it that washed into the tents along with the rain.

ALISON ELY: It was smelly, and there were rats and snakes. And when they were clearing it, you could see all the rats coming out. And it was really dirty. And so, yeah, it's much, much better now.

AMOS: And better still, when Ely struck a deal with a nearby Lebanese municipality for a regular garbage pickup, a small breakthrough in a country that has refused to open organized refugee camps for Syrians. Even in the informal settlements, no shelter can have more than the basics. Some lumber and plastic sheeting, anything more permanent, is prohibited by the government. But these are the places hit hardest by winter snow and rains, says Ninette Kelley, head of the U.N. refugee agency in Lebanon. She proposed opening large transit camps to head off the winter crisis.

NINETTE KELLEY: We think people, as winter is coming, people will need to have better accommodation than they do now. And we could provide it in these transit sites.

AMOS: But the proposal submitted this summer has yet to be approved by the government.

KELLEY: We need to move them because if we don't, they'll be flooded in the winter. I'm having very difficult time getting the government to help us manage that.

AMOS: Lebanon has hardly managed the relentless refugee wave, the largest in the region. The U.N. continues to register thousands a month here. Tensions are rising with a local population that can hardly cope. This winter will strain Lebanon even more and is likely to deepen the suffering of the refugees. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.


This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.