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Rare Middle East snowfall, deadly cold piles on misery for Syrian refugees

A general view taken on January 7, 2015 shows a Syrian refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese town of Arsal in the Bekaa valley, near the border with Syria, as a heavy stow storm hit the region. Many Syrian refugees were trapped in their tents by the heavy rain and snow, struggling to stay warm in temperatures hovering around zero degrees. (WISSAM AL-OMORWISSAM Al -OMOR/AFP/Getty Images)

Rare, heavy snowfall in Lebanon’s central Bekaa Valley is adding insult to injury for refugees from the war in Syria, who are enduring their fourth winter in makeshift settlements.

At the time of the snow on Wednesday, the combination of a deep surface cyclone and a high pressure system over eastern Europe was helping to funnel cold air southward from Scandinavia and northern Russia towards the region.

According to Weather Underground, snow remains in the forecast for both Friday and Sunday as temperatures will endure a 72-hour sub-freezing stretch after Wednesday’s initial cold front. Friday’s high temperature will be as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit  (17 degrees Celsius) below normal for central Lebanon.

At least four refugees have died so far due to the cold, including a three-month old baby girl waiting for passage from Syria into Lebanon.

Video shows snow-covered palm trees and slushy roadways in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Three million people have fled the Syria conflict, and refugees now comprise more than a quarter of people living in Lebanon.

From the New York Times:

Fouad Othman, a Syrian refugee living with his wife and two children in a tent in eastern Lebanon, said by telephone that they had been keeping warm by burning wood or using diesel when they could afford it. But the surprise snowfall had added to their troubles.
“My concern now is not losing my tent,” Mr. Othman said, adding that he had been up all night adjusting the tent spikes and knocking snow off the roof so the structure would not collapse.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports conditions have been especially bad in the higher elevation camps near Arsal, in northern Lebanon:

Six emergency shelters have been set up where UNHCR partners are ready to receive families leaving tented sites, and local municipalities are clearing roads. Across the Bekaa Valley, UNHCR and partners are working to provide people with materials to repair shelters. Plans are also under way to replace blankets, mattresses and other items that have been damaged.

But there was a bright side to the snow — the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Wednesday was the first day in three years with no casualties in the Syrian conflict, as heavy snow grounded military aircraft and brought a temporary halt to fighting.

Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist whose writing on weather and climate has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, MarketWatch, Quartz, the Daily Beast, VICE, and Slate.