Syria, and its refugees, brace for the freezing cold


LEBANON — In a devastating war that has already taken over 100,000 lives, survivors now face a miserable winter. Snow blanketed Syria this week, and bombed-out houses offer little protection.

12 year old Mohammed (family name withheld) in line with his mother at the UNHCR center in Akkar, Lebanon. Originally from the town of Hama, he fled with his parents 5 months ago. They hope to get help with food and clothing, but complain that their main issue is the expense of heating oil and the high rents they have to pay in Lebanon. Paul Nassar / NBC News

Syria’s children have already been killed by bullets and bombs, air bombardment, improvised explosives and chemical weapons. An estimated 11,000 young people have been killed in just under three years — and now they are dying of cold.

There are reports that children as young as six months old have frozen to death, but those could not be verified by NBC News.

The United Nations made its first delivery of humanitarian aid by air to Syria from Iraq on Sunday, dropping food on the Hassakeh governorate, which had not received any significant since May, Reuters reported.

The U.N. plans to airlift more food, blankets, sleeping mats and kitchen sets to the northeast over the next two weeks after plans for ground shipments were scrapped due to the difficulty of negotiating with different factions on the ground.

Fear of the winter has given rise to desperation in the refugee camps where nothing more than tent sheeting stands between the displaced and the bitter cold.

A Syrian refugee woman fetches water at a refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013. Bilal Hussein / AP

In a United Nations depot in Akkar, in northern Lebanon, mother of six Wad al Jasem gathered wood for a fire to keep warm. She has just two mattresses and one blanket for herself, her son and five daughters.

There are blankets to be distributed, but they are set aside only for those living in the coldest conditions high in the mountains.

"This is my situation, look at it," said Wad, standing in a makeshift tent she had to call home, some 40 miles away. "When I don’t have money for gas, I cook on the stove."

She's from the Homs section of Syria. Her husband is still there, but she hasn't heard a word from him in three months and has no idea when, or if, they will be reunited.

A Syrian grandmother (she refused to give her name) who has been in Lebanon for a year. Originally from Homs, she fled her hometown when her neighbourhood came under heavy shelling by regime forces. She cares for her grandchild whist her daughter looks for work. Paul Nassar / NBC News

"The days I get work I can feed my children, but I don’t get work every day," she said. "Nobody’s really giving us real help."

In Lebanon alone, there are hundreds of camps, thousands of families and up to a million refugees. Amnesty International says the West should "hang its head in shame" for the "pitiful" help it has offered them.

A group of desperate women at the refugee center surrounded me to tell their stories and beg for help.

"I have no money for the hospital," said one, whose husband is sick.

Another asks for helping reaching Europe. The Amnesty report says 2.2 million people have fled Syria, but Europe has offered to assist only 12,000.

Meanwhile, as the war grinds on, opposition fighters backed by the West are losing ground. Last week, the United States and its allies announced they were suspending supplies to moderate rebels, fearing that extremists were taking over. 

Reuters contributed to this story

UNHCR workers in Akkar, Lebanon handing out vouchers in the form of debit cards that Syrian Refugees can use at various locations throughout the country to purchase food and winter supplies for their families. Paul Nassar / NBC News