Abir, her husband and two sons are bracing for their first winter as Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s impoverished mountain area of Wadi Khaled, near the northern border with Syria.
Locking the door behind her, Abir removes the black niqab from her face and sits her two sons on a futon in the single room she shares with her family in an abandoned school in the scenic village of Mashta Hammoud.
“Would you believe that I can’t even bring myself to ask for sweaters for my children?” says the 29-year-old, lighting a Bunsen burner to boil potatoes for her doe-eyed boys, aged four and two.
“All the refugees here in the school are getting ready for winter, but in my mind I cannot yet accept that there’s no going home, that it will begin to get cold and we’ll still be here.”
Since the regime of President Bashar al-Assad launched a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in March, more than 3,580 Syrians have registered as refugees with the United Nations in north Lebanon.
The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates 900 of them are between the ages of four and 17 and will need schooling this winter.
“The Lebanese education ministry has agreed to allow the displaced Syrian children to register in public schools, and UNHCR will be covering tuition fees,” said Jean Paul Cavalieri, UNHCR’s deputy representative to Lebanon.
But for the refugees, the problem runs deeper than paperwork.
Nazha, who hails from the Syrian border town of Heet, fears her son and two daughters will face discrimination at school; worse yet, that they might be abducted by Syrian operatives in Lebanon.
“I am afraid for them on so many levels,” said the 35-year-old, whose son was supposed to start high school this month. “So I will not send them to school this year.”
Like other refugees, she is convinced the Assad regime has powerful proxies in Lebanon, where the government is dominated by the Syrian- and Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah.
“I am terrified every time my husband goes outside for a walk. I am always afraid the regime or its friends here will find him,” said Abir.
At least 600 Syrians entered Lebanon between September 1 and 7 alone. Many more, Cavalieri says, could be stuck on the other side of the border.
“We have reports that security on the Syrian side has been tightened and that there are many who are trying to come across but are stuck,” he told AFP.
Most of the refugees who did make it came across on foot come from Heet, Tal Kalakh and Homs via illegal border crossings, making their way across the rocky terrain to the Kabir River.
From the illegal Buqayaa crossing on the Lebanese side of the Kabir, a lone Syrian military tank can be seen rumbling slowly along the border. Three Syrian soldiers puff on their cigarettes as they monitor the area.
In recent months, thousands of refugees have used the crossing, often braving gunfire. Some are able to bring with them basic provisions; others, nothing.
While most have found shelter with relatives in Lebanon, many like Abir are entirely dependent on hand-outs, mainly from the United Nations and small regional non-governmental organisations.
As winter approaches, so does her realisation that they will not be going home anytime soon and are trapped in an area where even the local population is struggling to survive.
In the Mashta Hammoud school, many of the children have not bathed in days and lack proper shoes.
They have invented games to pass the time, drawing a “map” of Syrian towns on a piece of cardboard. Where the stone falls, they explain, there will be war.
The United Nations estimates that more than 2,700 Syrians have been killed, many of them civilians, since mid-March when the protests erupted.
Several of the refugees interviewed said they fear the conflict will drag on indefinitely unless Western powers intervene and force Assad out.
For Abir, leaving behind her parents and her two-bedroom home in Tal Kalakh was the only choice after her younger brothers — identical twins — disappeared in a protest three months ago.
One of them made it back bruised and broken, but alive.
The other was found at the local hospital’s morgue and was buried 24 hours before Abir fled to Lebanon.
“My children were terrified, and my elder son began to wet the bed at night. They would scream and hide in their room when the gunfire broke out,” she said, choking back tears and proudly displaying her brothers’ photos on her cell phone.
“The world needs to know that we fled an all-out war by the state on the Syrian people.”