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Liquid mud and cold weather among problems for Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Liquid mud is the latest challenge facing the 92 Syrian refugee families who call a collection of makeshift huts and tents in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley their home.

It has been raining and women are sweeping it out of their living quarters in a desperate attempt to maintain some semblance of cleanliness.

In the next few weeks the squelching mud will freeze, giving way to new hardships of plummeting sub-zero temperatures and snow.

The 585 inhabitants are preparing for winter now - laying concrete floors and stock-piling food scavenged from the leftovers in farmers' fields.

Informal settlements like this one are clustered all along the Lebanese/Syrian border, housing some of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees now living in Lebanon.

This camp lies between the town of Bar Elias and the Syrian border just over the mountains a few miles away - the border is so close, in fact, that the sound of shelling and bombing can be heard at night.

It is not run by a non-governmental organisation and consequently does not meet recognised international standards.

Most of its residents have been here for years, paying about 660 US dollars (£520) each year to the local landowner for makeshift tents made from old advertising sheeting.

They have electricity - from a connection to the main government supply and via generators. The average cost per family is around 50 dollars (£39) per month.

Water is collected in buckets from a well while attempts are being made to install septic tanks for sanitation.

The Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund helps fund supplies of essential items such as food, warm clothes, blankets and medical services for the camp's refugees.

Director Alistair Dutton said there are concerns over density, sanitation and drainage, and electrical safety in such informal camps.

"I think even if you have seen pictures of the camp ... it is almost impossible to imagine what that is like to live there. It is a nightmare," he said.

Public health is at risk due to the unsanitary living conditions, with the liquid mud a "health hazard waiting to happen", and bronchitis and pneumonia common conditions as winter sets in, he added.

One woman, who has lived at the camp for four years with her husband and three children, left Homs after their neighbour's house was bombed. The blast was so strong there was literally no dividing wall left between the two properties.

She gave birth to her youngest son, two, in the camp. He swallowed a cockroach at eighteen months old and still suffers from respiratory problems as a result. Her eldest boy, seven, needs surgery.

"The situation here is dreadful," she said. "We are suffering from the cold and unemployment.

"I am very worried about my son, he needs surgery for his ears. I am trying to save every penny I can to pay for it."

Sakra El Yasser is caring for her 12-year-old grandson Moussa after his mother died. They have lived at the camp for four years after fleeing their home in a rural area near Aleppo.

Moussa has suffered from a severe and painful skin condition since the age of two, causing painful blistering and the loss of his fingernails, and also has learning difficulties.

Sakra said: "He is enrolled in school but he doesn't really understand what is happening. He doesn't feel comfortable enough. He goes but just because he has to."

The family cut down on food costs to help pay for Moussa's medical needs.

"He is always in pain. If it's cold, his hands become very, very painful," she added.

"I'm worried about that in the future if something were to happen to me, who would take care of Moussa because he cannot look after himself. He couldn't work, he couldn't provide for himself."

Moussa, like many other children in the camp, says he is content here. There is security within its boundaries where he can play hide and seek and football in relatively safety.

Muhammad, 14, also says he is happy despite working around 10 hours a day, seven days a week at a meat market.

Many children are not in school, instead working for farmers earning about four dollars (£3.15) for five hours' work.

"It has been two years living here because of the war in Syria. There was violence, torture and terror," Muhammad said.

"Of course I was frightened and I'm feeling safer here."

The refugees have created a sense of community too.

Ishac Taleb, 20, is the striker in the camp's own football team. His idol Lionel Messi takes a prominent place on wall of the camp shop he runs.

"I set up a shop here in the camp to help people, mainly as a favour in order to allow people to buy from here," he said.

"Sometimes people run up debt and sometimes it gets so big they can't pay it off."

Despite the harsh conditions, most of those living here seem grateful to have found this place.

Maryiam, 40, and Fatima, 70, both from Aleppo, are stockpiling sacks of potatoes they gathered from the leftovers in the nearby fields.

"We are very worried about the winter because we have no heat source," Maryiam said.

"Life here is very difficult. We have no reason to live. We are getting by, we are not living actually.

"We are run over by mice and rodents. We have no heating, the tents are falling apart because of the rain."

She adds that her grandchild, also Maryiam, 11, is happy because there is " safety, security and stability."

To donate to Sciaf's emergency Christmas appeal to help refugees including those living in camps in the Bekaa Valley, visit www.sciaf.org.uk or call 0141 354 5555.

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