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Deadly blaze devastates Syrian refugee family in Lebanon

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Syrian Refugees Mahmoud (left) and Abdullah (right) describe the fire that swept through their informal tented settlement in Bekaa Valley, killing their young children. © UNHCR/Houssam Hariri

Local community comes together after fire sweeps through tented Bekaa Valley settlement, killing eight young children from one extended family.

By Scott Craig | 15 December 2017

BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon - Eight young Syrian children died when fire tore through an informal refugee settlement of densely packed wood and plastic tents in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley last week, in a tragedy highlighting the precariousness of their lives in exile.

The blaze broke out December 7 in Ghazze, a village about 40 kilometres east of the capital Beirut. Fanned by strong winds, it swept through the settlement in minutes. All the victims were from the same extended family.

“The fire happened so quickly, it couldn’t be stopped … I tried to help put it out but we couldn’t. There was nothing we could do,” said Ahmed, whose son Yaccoub, aged four, and daughter Hala, two, died in the fire.

His brother Mahmoud’s two sons, Mohamad, five, and Abdullah, three, were also killed. His wife Maysa was at a local market when the fire broke out, but by the time she ran back to the settlement, it was too late to save them.

More than one million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon. Many live in informal settlements like the tented community in Ghazze, where families use stoves to cook with and to heat their tents.

Nearly three quarters of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live below the poverty line. In addition to the dead, the fire also left nearly 40 families homeless, destitute and their close-knit community devastated.

Mahmoud’s brother-in-law Ibrahim was visiting a relative in a local hospital when he was told about the fire. He rushed home and found his neighbours – both Syrians and Lebanese – trying desperately to put out the flames.

“Nothing was left after the fire, no clothes, no toys ... nothing,” said Ibrahim, who lost his two children, Fatima, aged four, and two-year-old Khalil. “We just have the memories of our children.”

In the aftermath of the fire, the community’s Lebanese neighbours offered shelter and comfort to those who had lost everything.

“I don’t look at people as Syrians or as Lebanese anymore – we are neighbours. People sometimes say the Syrians are a burden – but I don’t think so, they are my friends, and my neighbours,” said Iman, a Lebanese living in a nearby apartment block.

“I cannot see a mother cry over the bodies of her own children and not do anything about it.”

The fire is the deadliest to strike Lebanon’s Syrian refugee community, but not the first. A blaze in Akkar, in the country’s north, killed three people including a child, just one week before the Ghazze blaze. In July, a fire in Bar Elias – also in Bekaa – killed one child. And two people were killed in a blaze in Jiyeh last December.

Ghazze’s Mayor Mohammed Al Majzoub opened the municipal hall to the refugees. He says the cause of the fire was never established, but that it started in an empty tent and quickly engulfed the settlement before residents could react.

UNHCR and its partner Medair are working with the municipality and authorities. Following a plan approved by the municipality and the landlord that increases spaces between tents to help reduce the risk of a similar disaster in future, they will soon start to rebuild.

UNHCR is also collaborating closely with Lebanon’s civil defense authorities on a joint awareness campaign on fire prevention – as well as training refugees, local residents and firefighters.