ZAHLE, Lebanon — As the driving rain turned to icy sleet and a blustering wind rocked their flimsy tent, Umm Khalil and her four children shivered, from fear as much as the cold. A major storm was descending on Lebanon, and along with hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees bracing for the onslaught, she worried the family would lose the few possessions they had left.
Or perhaps worse. Two Syrian babies died of exposure in Lebanon’s last storm, in November. Such is the ferocity of this one, which is expected to bring snow and gale force winds to the areas where most of the refugees live, that aid agencies as well as refugees worry that people’s lives could be at risk.
“I’m afraid the tent will collapse on top of us. I am afraid of how cold it will get,” Umm Khalil said Tuesday. “Most of all I’m afraid for my children.”
Winter storms are sweeping many parts of the world this week, including the United States. But there may be few people who will suffer more than the millions displaced by the war in Syria, confronting this fourth winter without adequate shelter from the biting cold weather descending on the region.
Victims of a humanitarian catastrophe that could dwarf all previous refugee disasters since World War II, the Syrians have overwhelmed the limited capacity of the international community to alleviate the suffering.
According to the United Nations, a total of 10.8 million Syrians have fled the war in the past three years. An estimated 3.2 million of them have taken refuge in neighboring countries, and 7.6 million have been displaced within Syria.
Whether they are being housed in tent camps or informal settlements, or have sought shelter in abandoned or unfinished buildings, the onset of winter is compounding their deprivation and loss.
“In summertime, we manage somehow. But in winter it is so hard,” said Umm Khalil, 33, who did not want to be identified by her real name because she fears for the safety of relatives left behind in Syria. As she spoke, another gust of wind sent the family’s pots and pans tumbling across the floor of the tent.
“Sometimes we can’t help thinking we would prefer to meet our deaths in Syria than go through this,” she said.
In tiny, mountainous Lebanon, now hosting the highest per capita population of refugees in the world, the suffering is perhaps most acute. The 1.15 million Syrians who escaped here from the war next door now account for over a quarter of the entire population.
Lebanon’s own fraught history and its deep sectarian divide have deterred a meaningful government response to the crisis. A shortfall of almost 50 percent in international funding for U.N. assistance to the refugees has left the steadily expanding refugee population with even less help than in past years.
“The level of misery this year is worse than the year before, and so on. The response is way, way less than the needs,” said Wissam Tarif, a human rights activist who focuses on refugee issues.
“What we see in Lebanon, we don’t see anywhere else,” he added. “It’s snowing in Turkey, it’s snowing in Jordan, but they are much more prepared than we are.”
Lebanon’s geography also makes the country a cruel place in which to live without proper walls or a roof. More than half the refugees here live above the winter snowline of 1,500 feet, and in the coming days forecasters have predicted snow at far lower levels and temperatures dipping well below freezing in some areas.
“It’s going to be ugly. We’re just hoping everyone has a place where they are warm and dry,” said Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, who acknowledged that the agency has not been able to assist all those who will be suffering.
In the tented settlement where Umm Khalil and her family live, one of many abutting the eastern Lebanese mountain resort of Zahle, Syrians say they are neither warm nor dry.
Days of rain have already soaked the floor of Nora Mohammed’s home, a flimsy construction of plywood and plastic that is a cross between a shack and a tent. The feet of her three children are swollen blue and red from cold.
Though they have socks and shoes, “why put them on when they would get wet right away?” she asked.
This is the first winter Mohammed, 25, has weathered outdoors, and she is learning to cope. Her family rented an apartment in Zahle when they first fled the fighting in the Syrian town of Homs a little over a year ago. When their savings ran out, they sold their possessions to pay the rent.
When their possessions were gone they moved into the tent, following an arc of deprivation endured by millions of Syrians as the war drags on without an end in sight.
Longer-term refugees, who have suffered through Lebanon’s winter storms before, have developed ways of coping with the cold. Fayzi Darwish, 65, who fled fighting on the outskirts of Damascus three years ago, has learned to wrap her feet in plastic bags to keep them warm. Her family’s mattress, salvaged from a garbage dump, provides a comfortable night’s sleep for her grandchildren in the summer. In winter it is used as ballast, propped up against the wall to stop the rain.
“To think, I used to live in a house, with three bedrooms and central heating!” she said, half laughing, half crying.
Her husband, Mohammed, has planted daffodils, daisies and geraniums outside the tent. “It is a way to pass the time,” he said. “Until we go home.”
A few of the geraniums still bloom, offering splashes of red and orange against the darkening sky.