Hearts colder than Alexa’s big freeze

When snow blanketed the eastern suburbs of Cairo last weekend for the first time in over a century, due to snowstorm Alexa, Egyptian children squealed with delight. This was their chance to make snowmen and engage in snowball fights, activities most of their parents had only witnessed on TV or in movies. Those kids were lucky; they had hot meals and warm beds waiting at home. Social media was ablaze with photographs of scenes that wouldn’t look amiss on the covers of seasonal greetings cards. One showed a statue of former Egyptian Prime Minister Saad Zaghloul Pasha in a swirl of white flakes with the poignant caption “Cover me!” But stone doesn’t risk frostbite, hypothermia or death when temperatures plummet.

Just 400 miles or so to the north of the Egyptian capital, 80,000 Syrian refugees, roughly 10 percent of those who escaped from the ravages of civil war to neighbouring Lebanon, will brave the cruelest of elements under canvas this winter. Many, especially the young, sick and elderly will struggle to survive as aid agencies battle international donor fatigue. There’s a severe shortage of food, medicines, stoves, heating oil, blankets, coats and boots. Young children clad in the same light summer clothes in which they fled the bombs, scamper around in mud-caked sandals.

For those in icicle-laced, mud-floored tents or shivering behind plastic sheeting nailed to flimsy wooden frames, there is no respite from cold that gnaws at bones and makes ears, noses and fingers numb. Nights are long and miserable as families huddle together to share the warmth of their bodies or scrounge for anything flammable, scraps of wood, old shoes, cardboard boxes, to build a fire inside tin drums just to warm their hands. New mothers holding newborns tight to their chests pray their babies will survive in below zero temperatures. On Friday, a three-month-old baby boy in the northern Lebanese town of Akroum succumbed.

Mother Nature has certainly exacerbated the plight of Syrians in Lebanon, but this ongoing tragedy is largely man-made. The refugees are innocent victims driven from their war-torn country by sheer survival instincts, but a growing number regret that decision amid feelings of humiliation and abandonment. Lebanese authorities treat them as an unwanted burden on their resources and absolutely reject the idea of semi-permanent accommodation or licensed camps, which is why so many have to make do with flimsy tents or plastic lean-tos. The government fears any structure that smacks of permanency citing once temporary Palestinian camps that evolved over 65 years into permanent communities. Those fears are groundless, the difference being Palestinian refugees are barred from returning to their homeland whereas Syrians are already clamouring to go back home and will do so once the dangers abate.

Willfully allowing the elements to endanger lives and worsen existing miserable conditions when the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, is pleading to be permitted to erect shelters is a shameful indictment of man’s inhumanity to man. Political considerations should play no part in an emergency and, moreover, Syrians and Lebanese share a common history, culture and very often the same bloodlines. The Bekaa Valley is one of the worst affected areas but in the capital, Beirut, where Syrians are seen sleeping in doorways or under bridges.

Safe havens

There are no halos for the international community, either. Pledges given have not been fulfilled and UNHCR appeals have raised a mere 50 percent of the amount required to feed Syrians without savings or even a meagre income, forcing the agency to restrict their help to people in the direst of straits, leaving others going hungry. This harshest of winters was anticipated by weather forecasters, but there have been few serious attempts to alleviate its repercussions in Lebanon as there have been in Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Amnesty International recently published a report, titled “An International Failure: The Syrian Refugee Crisis” damning EU member states for neglecting to provide safe havens for refugees and for mistreating Syrians who’ve risked life and limb to reach Europe’s shores. Germany has come to the fore pledging to admit 10,000 while 18 EU member nations have shut their doors. Amnesty International says European leaders should “hang their heads with shame.”

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds a similar view. On Saturday, he slammed the world’s apathy towards Syrian refugees, saying, “Each day, Syrian children freeze to death. I’m asking the world, addressing the world’s conscience, how can you look at the faces of your own children?” We can because we feel helpless; we’ve learned to avoid unpleasantness. When safe in our own comfortable homes the stricken faces of Syrian women and the eyes of youngsters minus their natural sparkle stare at us from our TV screens, we reach for our remotes and turn the channel.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at heardonthegrapevines@yahoo.co.uk.

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