UNICEF is making sure refugees wrap up for winter in Arsal

Every day for twelve days, UNICEF trucks carry hundreds of boxes of children’s clothing along steep, narrow roads and on up to distribution points in Arsal, home to thousands of Syrian child refugees

Simon Balsom
Little girl smiling as she receives UNICEF supply box.
UNICEF/ Lebanon2018/ Fouad Choufany

24 January 2019

How UNICEF Lebanon's winterization assistance remains vital life support for refugees

 

It’s shortly before noon on an early December morning in Arsal, a mountain village in the Bekaa on Lebanon’s border with Syria, and we arrive just as the temperature nudges over into double figures for the first time today. At 10 degrees, it’s not going to get any higher. Tonight it’ll barely stay above freezing, and the worst of this region’s winter won’t hit until February. Arsal is home to thousands of Syrian refugees, many of them children. Winter in a refugee camp is not an easy time for a child.

 

We’re here on Day 6 of UNICEF Lebanon’s 2018 Winterization Programme. Every day for twelve days, UNICEF trucks carry hundreds of boxes of children’s clothing along steep, narrow roads and on up to distribution points in Arsal. Destined for collection by the parents and caregivers of Syrian refugees between the ages of 0 and 15, these boxes represent real comfort and hope to their recipients.

Evidence of the programme’s essential nature are all around for us to see. Zahra, a Syrian mother in her early 20s, leaves today's collection point clutching two UNICEF-logoed boxes, closely shadowed by her young children - 4-year-old Ali, and Deeba who is just 3. Both children appear to be underdressed even for today’s conditions, and their mother explains just how essential UNICEF’s direct form of support has proved for her, year after year.

“I’ve been living in Arsal since 2013”, Zahra tells us, “and every winter since my first child was born we’ve benefitted by receiving a box of clothes just in time, just before the coldest days arrive." Her husband left the family some time ago - she’s heard that he has since married another woman - so Zahra remains their sole provider amidst what are already the most challenging of conditions.

"The winters here are very harsh, and I have no other clothes to dress them in. We live in a tent further down in the valley.

A woman and a little girl carrying UNICEF supplies.
UNICEF/ Lebanon2018/ Fouad Choufany

Without UNICEF and other UN agencies assisting us, life here would be impossible but, again this winter, we’ll manage.

Four boys standing wearing winter clothes
UNICEF/ Lebanon2018/ Fouad Choufany

"At least now, thanks to UNICEF, my children have something good to wear," she says. "The winters here are very harsh, and I have no other clothes to dress them in. We live in a tent further down in the valley. In Syria, we had a house, and my husband and I had a wardrobe of clothes of our own. Until last winter I had a stove to heat our home with, but this year I can’t afford to use it. Without UNICEF and other UN agencies assisting us, life here would be impossible but, again this winter, we’ll manage. We all here must be very grateful for what UNICEF provide”.

The programme’s effect is profound on all the men, women and children with whom we speak. For Maxime, UNICEF's Humanitarian Social Protection Specialist, the secret of its success is rooted in a well-planned logistical operation. "Today we've seen 400 families, that's around 1,200 children, benefit from this year's Winterization Campaign. In cooperation with our vital local partner in Arsal, Dar Al-Fatwa, we're able to pre-screen and pre-qualify possible beneficiaries before arriving here. So, when we load the trucks, we’re already aware of who we’ll be meeting here – of the children’s ages and their numbers. When we arrive, every family has a unique QR code which tells us which box belongs to them. We scan, they collect, and they go. We’ve been doing this for six years now, and the families here have learned that they can count on us. They know they can rely on UNICEF for support”. 

“I got these trousers and jumper from UNICEF last year. Apart from a pair of jeans, these are the only things I have that still fit me”.

Lack of necessary clothing can lead to sickness and gaps in education, and severe weather conditions increase the probability of relying on negative coping strategies as vulnerable families struggle to buy winter apparel for their children.

Also eager to be heard by us is 12-year-old Isaab. He’s with two friends, they all came to Arsal together around five years ago. Standing in the now-weakening winter sun, he's left his father in line to collect his box of new clothes and points to what he's currently wearing, “I got these trousers and jumper from UNICEF last year. Apart from a pair of jeans, these are the only things I have that still fit me”. Later that afternoon, as the sun dipped below the mountain-tops, Isaab would return to his tent with a new jacket, shirt, jumper, trousers, shoes, and underwear. His future as he grows from boy to man still unclear, but at least, for this winter, a little more survivable.

UNICEF Lebanon’s 2018 Winterization Programme is funded by the government of the United States.