ZAHLEH, LEBANON — Fear, confusion and a lack of information are preventing many Syrian refugees in Lebanon from knowing where to turn for aid.
With a constant surge of refugees now fighting the bitter winter cold, humanitarian organizations are struggling to find ways to reach them with the information they need to survive — and are recruiting some refugees to help out.
In Lebanon, where displaced Syrians now equal one-third of the population, the problem is made worse by the government's refusal to establish official refugee camps, leading to a chaotic, fractured operation with major gaps in coordination.
Many distrust a Lebanese government they deem sympathetic to President Bashar Assad and are suspicious of international aid organizations, making them hesitant to register with the U.N. refugee agency to become eligible for assistance.
"Everyone, who comes here is confused and afraid," said Elyse Maalouf, a UNHCR worker in Zahleh, one of two registration centers in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, where hundreds of informal refugee settlements have sprung up. "Many refugees are reluctant to register because they fear their names would be shared with the Syrian government."
Of all of Syria's neighbors, Lebanon has been the hardest hit by the exodus of Syrians fleeing their country's violence. Close to 1.5 million Syrians are now in Lebanon, scattered across the volatile country often in makeshift substandard accommodation. Unlike in neighboring Turkey and Jordan, there are no official refugee camps.
From immunization and other health services, to education and even basic aid to survive outside their war-stricken homeland, most Syrians in Lebanon feel lost in a world of rumors and misinformation.
"Managing and disseminating information becomes much more of a challenge than it would have been if they were in a camp setting," said Ninette Kelley, UNHCR representative in Lebanon.
A donors' conference for Syria is set to open in Kuwait on Wednesday. The U.N. last month appealed for a staggering $6.5 billion to cover this year's funding needs — its largest-ever request for a single crisis.
Experts say more money needs to be allocated for information programs, crucial to any successful aid response.
"Information saves lives, and a significant part of what we have to do is advocate to funders and donors that this actually is a tremendous need," said Kirpatrick Day of the International Rescue Committee.
In an effort to deal with the massive aid effort, U.N. agencies and NGOs have concentrated their operations under the "Inter-agency Information Sharing Portal," where the work of various groups can be followed.
But with each having its own organizational mandate and the geographic scatter of the refugees, the effort has remained largely uncoordinated.
Unregistered refugees, particularly in far-flung corners of the country, are often left out in the cold — literally — with no access to aid except from sympathetic locals. Surveys have found few listen to the radio and even fewer watch TV. Internet and social media does not come into play when it comes to needy Syrians.
A recent survey by the global media development agency Internews found 60 percent of refugees cited their main trusted source of information as being "another person, friend, family." Text messages on mobile phones are often the most advanced tools to reach refugees with information such as polio vaccination dates and locations.
"When it comes to Syria, it's really back to basics," Kelley said.
To deal with the problem, aid agencies have started to train and recruit refugees as volunteers, not only to distribute information to fellow Syrians but also to provide important feedback. UNHCR used 100 volunteers last year and is planning to increase that to 1,000 next year.
"Refugees often trust those with whom they live, and this is a great way to keep refugees informed appropriately through mediums that they have confidence in," Kelley said.
Others are struggling to come up with ways reach Syrians. Internews recently partnered with the International Rescue Committee for a project called Tawasul — Arabic for Connection. The project, still in the preliminary stages, aims to find innovative ways to get information out.
"One of the things that we feel is a pressing need that has largely gone unmet is access to information from sources that people in the midst of the conflict can trust," said Day, the project leader at ICR.
The U.N. has put the total number of people in need of humanitarian aid at 9.3 million. They include some 2.3 million Syrians who have fled the country, flooding neighbors such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, which can barely keep up with the strain.
At the UNHCR center in the town of Zahleh in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, Syrians stood in long lines in the biting cold, waiting to register as refugees.
"Nobody tells us what is happening," said Hajj Khater, an elderly man from Syria's war-shattered northern province of Aleppo. "I registered a month and a half ago. We were supposed to start getting assistance after 20 days but we're still waiting, God only knows why," he said, drawing his red-and-white checkered scarf closer to his face from the cold.
Many are afraid their names will leak back to the Syrian or Lebanese authorities.
"It was not an easy decision to register," said Atallah Farha, 52, who fled the fighting in the western town of Qusair a few months ago. For months, he struggled to find information about how to make a life for himself and his family, living in a makeshift tin shack in the border town of Arsal. His youngest daughter became sick and started losing weight.
"The (Syrian) regime is a human shredder, they won't spare us, even here," he said, explaining his reluctance to register. "But we have seven children and they need food, milk and diapers."
Amid a funding shortfall, many have turned up at aid distribution points only to be told they are no longer eligible for assistance.
"There is much anxiety among the refugees and so much confusing information about aid, whether they are getting it, what they are not getting and how they can get it," said Marion McKeone, a spokeswoman with Save The Children in Lebanon.