BEKAA, LEBANON — A makeshift bucket brigade hauled 14 pails of mud and slush from the tent that Um Mahmoud shares with a dozen other Syrian refugees in a ramshackle settlement here in the Bekaa Valley, now blanketed with snow that lends an alpine sheen to the rugged stretch that extends to the Syrian border.
While holiday-makers from Beirut hastened to the hills with sleds and toboggans, piling souvenir snow onto their vehicles for the drive home, there was nothing merry about the weekend blizzard for the multitudes of Syrians living rough in makeshift camps scattered throughout the region.
"It was like a sea here yesterday," Um Mahmoud, a mother of 10, said with an easy smile Sunday as she and other women showed visitors the interior of their mud-floor tent, damp and disheveled after the storm. "How can we cook in such a mess?" she added, pulling back a curtain to show a bare kitchen stocked with meager provisions and subject to predations from marauding rats.
The sun was shining Sunday in the Bekaa, exposing a fairy-tale landscape of white-capped peaks and snow-dusted plains. The stunning vistas were of little solace to displaced Syrians, many of whom were found in their improvised enclaves clearing out the snow, slush and mud that had made an already arduous life more grueling.
The next storm cannot be far off. The weekend's blizzard was but a preview, with the muddy quagmire that is the aftermath certain to be seen again.
Tiny Lebanon is now home to more than 1 million Syrian refugees, officials say; that means that about 1 in 5 residents of the country is a Syrian who has fled the civil war raging next door. Aid groups have applauded Lebanon's generosity in permitting the entry of so many.
But Lebanon hosts no formal refugee camps, like those found in several of Syria's other neighbors, notably Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Refugee camps are a red line here.
Mindful of the role of Palestinian camps in detonating their country's civil war a generation ago, Lebanese officials are wary of any formal settlements that may morph into permanent communities, disrupting a delicate sectarian equilibrium. This is a nation where political power is carefully allocated among Christians, Druze, Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims. Refugees could alter the balance.
As the Syrian war enters its third winter, desperate refugees in Lebanon who cannot afford apartments and don't have loved ones to host them face grim prospects. The scores of provisional camps that have sprung up provide for basic needs but are far from reliable. Aid arrives irregularly, and in haphazard fashion, refugees say, despite the work of United Nations relief teams and humanitarian agencies. Many tents have heating stoves, but fuel has been in short supply.
"It has been freezing cold here and fuel was like gold," said Ahmad Awadh, a resident of another Bekaa-area camp.
Awadh's site is slightly more upscale than the abandoned factory grounds that host Um Mahmoud and others, mostly from the northeast Syrian province of Raqqa. The camp has 39 tents with concrete floors and blue plastic sheeting that provides some insulation from the rain and snow.
About 500 people reside in the camp. Most appeared to be from the embattled suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian capital. A majority of the tents appear to have both portable heaters and stoves, provided by various aid groups, and some have electrical connections. Still, residents complain that delivery of aid is sporadic, enrolling children in schools is next to impossible and finding a job is illusory.
"What would force us to come to such a bitter place if what we were leaving was not more bitter?" one man asked visiting journalists, citing an old saying.
A woman said her two children were top students in a suburb of Damascus before the family fled the country. Now, they don't go to school. There is no room in the Lebanese system, they have been told. Many Syrian children have already lost more than a year of regular schooling.
As the sun shone, residents cleared out their tents of debris, hung their wet clothes to dry and gathered firewood. For many this is not their first winter away from home. Their predicament is difficult, they say, but not life-threatening. Their thoughts remain with loved ones back in Syria, where so many in besieged, rubble-strewn communities are subject to daily shelling and clashes, as well as being cut off from regular supplies of food, fuel and water.
"We watch the news, and we hope something will happen, but in truth we have no confidence," said Um Ammar, a mother who, like others interviewed, preferred to be identified by a nickname for security reasons. "People are laughing at us."
Back in the suburbs of Damascus, she has been told, desperate residents are burning school desks and clothing for heat. The situation is dire. Yet Syrians here seem to want to go back as soon as possible.
"Even if we received all the aid in the world we would still want to go home, even if they fed us almonds and sugar," she said, citing another old saying.
Many query foreign visitors about the prospects for peace. Will there be negotiations in Geneva next month, they ask? They are keen for any sign of progress in the war that has convulsed their homeland.
Given the dire situation in Syria, many reckoned they were lucky to be in Lebanon, despite the many shortcomings of life as refugees.
"We cannot complain too much," Um Mahmoud said. "After all, we escaped from death."
Bulos is a special correspondent.