Hanin Handan, her husband Rasmi, and their son. Currently they live just outside Al Jaleel camp in the wider Palestinian neighbourhood. After their home was burned down during the fighting they fled Syria with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. Photo: Luca Sola
Weaving our way around the hilltops as we left Beirut behind us we drove for at least two hours before we caught our first glimpse of Bekaa Valley nestled between snow-covered mountains and shrouded in a thick blanket of fog. To our right we could still see the sea on the other side of Beirut, but here I felt a million miles from the sea. The temperature dropped rapidly with every mile we drove, heading further into the valley.
We headed to the east of Bekaa, to one of the oldest Palestian settlements, more commonly referred to as 'camps'. Al Jaleel camp in Baalbek was home to around 3,000 people before refugees from Syria started flooding in, now reports by local NGO's indicate that that number has doubled in the last 6 months. Families already living in Al Jaleel have taken in relatives and friends fleeing the conflict in Syria, some homes now housing up to 6 families.
Ali Taha from Oxfam Italia's partner organization 'The Children of Al Jaleel' took us to meet families who yesterday received stoves and oil in an Oxfam funded distribution. Al Jaleel is just 1 square km is size, a maze of concrete houses, narrow ally ways and hidden doors. The walls are high and the melting snow drips from the rooftops above. Ice covers the ground where snow once settled just a few days before, now melting and turning the paths into a muddy mush.
The first people we meet are camping in the cemetery on the edge of the settlement. 26 people living in basic brick rooms. Finished just 3 days before, they were built by the community living in the settlement. Everyone here is hard at work trying to help the Syrian refugees in any way they can. One man shows us his room that he shares with his wife and two children. He is relieved to have somewhere to sleep and shelter from the snow but it is cramped and cold inside, there are no windows and the wind whips through the fabric sheet, which acts as a door.
Just outside of the settlement we walk through the wider Palestinian neighborhood and Ali Taha introduces us to Hanin, a young mother who fled Syria with her husband and 1 year old son and nothing else but the clothes she wore on her back. Her home was burned down in the fighting, luckily whilst they were out, and so they decided to seek refuge in Lebanon with Hanin's family in Al Jaleel.
Hanin tells us how every single thing she and her husband owned was burned and lost in their home in Damascus.
"All of our food is from food distributions, we have no money for food as we lost everything when our house burned down. We used to have a good life, my husband had a good job rearing chickens and we were happy. Now we have nothing left."
Inside Hanin's home it is bitterly cold. The concrete walls and floor feel like slabs of ice under my bare hands and I can see my breath as I talk to Hanin. The house feels empty, unloved, unlived in. In fact it isn't actually finished and has no heating and no furniture. There are no personal belongings either, just one thin mattress on the floor, on which Hanin sits.
We have been here for just an hour and I can no longer feel my toes. Hanin is shivering as she tells us her story and the only thing I can think about is that she and her baby have to sleep here tonight in sub zero temperatures.
"It is so cold here that we all get sick, I worry about my son, he is the most important thing in mine and my husbands life, he is all we worry about. At night we give our son all of our blankets to try to keep him warm and we instead go cold. At night I lay awake and can't sleep because of the cold. It is hard to sleep when you are so cold. We have no heaters and no warm clothes, we came with just what we were wearing and rely on our family and on local NGO's to help us."
"We fear for the future of our son, that's why we left. Here we have nothing and we are cold all the time, but it is better to be cold than to be in the middle of the fighting."
Hanin is staying in this empty apartment with her mother and father in law and their daughters. The home actually belongs to the family's great grandma who tells me she is doing her best to take care of as many of her family as possible.
"There's so much fighting and so many people dying in Syria. I am doing my best to give my family a safe place to stay here in Lebanon. 6 years ago when there was trouble in Lebanon my family did the same for me, they gave me a place to stay in Syria. Now it is my turn to return the favor. "
The family sit together huddled in coats and hats, they are outside on the balcony where in fact it is warmer than inside the house. As they sit there soaking up the last of the afternoon sun it is plain to see they are close and that this is what keeps them so strong in the face of such difficulties.
The granddad shares spiced coffee with me, such a generous act when the family clearly has no food to speak of. Hanin's sister-in-law's, Dima, twin sister Bara, both 20 and Ula, 13, tell me how they miss school and wish they could return to Syria soon so that they can go back to learning English, which they speak so well. Hanin's cousin Adlai, 23, only arrived here 2 days ago and is already thinking about when she can go back.
"I just arrived two days ago with my young sister, we left our mother and father back in Syria with the rest of our family. Damascus is very dangerous at the moment, there's so much fighting. We miss our home and we miss our parents and hope to return there soon."
Later in the afternoon, as part of an Oxfam-funded distribution, Hanin and her husband receive an oil heater from Al Taha. It humbles me to see Hanin so happy to see a heater but I know this will make the world of difference to her and her family. At the very least they can now keep warm at night.
"With a heater everything is different. We can all stay warm and I don't have to worry so much about my son and think that he might get sick."