Where are Syria's Palestinians now?
Once again, Palestinians are paying a double price for transformations in the Arab World. Today, it is the turn of Syria’s Palestinians to look for new refuge.
The Bekaa Valley
When asked for directions to the “shelter” used by Syrian Palestinian refugees at the Jalil Palestinian refugee camp in Baalbeck, a resident points to the adjacent cemetery. Indeed, eight families live there. Some are in the washing room and others in an adjacent hangar. There are 200 Palestinian refugees from Syria here.
The place is called Shelter #1. It holds 40 families in 15 rooms of no more than six m² each. Larger rooms no bigger than 16 m² house more than one family. They include a collective kitchen, two bathrooms, an outside toilet, and a small prayer corner.
Researcher on Palestinian affairs, Siham Abu Sitta, says that the most wretched places, however, are in Bar Elias, Deir Zeinoun, and Sowayri. They are mostly tents or unfinished houses. The UN has not been receptive to aid requests, referring them to UNRWA, which in turn complains about the lack of funds, Abu Sitta adds.
Umm Hussein, a refugee in Al Manara, is still in shock that she and her children are living on the street, again.
“We could not go to the UNRWA center because of the cost of transportation. Most families cannot pay,” Umm Hussein explains. “It is far and any trip with the children would cost LL10,000 ($7).”
Hajj Omar, who seems disgruntled with everything, says, “The worst problem we face is finding medicine. UNRWA only gives sedatives and generic medications.”
As for the education of refugee children in Bekaa, there are three schools. They teach the Syrian curriculum, except the “nationalism” material. Books were provided by several associations like Ghras Al Khair (Seeds of Good), Al Azhar, and Dar Al Fatwa, who also provide other needs for students.
In North Lebanon’s Tripoli region, the Baddawi camp hosts 2,492 refugees and Nahr Al Bared 1,316 refugees.
Mohammed Hassan, a refugee from Syria who is in charge of health at the Baddawi Popular Committee, explains that “in general, most cases in Baddawi and Bared are of chronic diseases. Two months ago, there were six cancer patients who had to return to Syria, being unable to get treatment in Lebanon.”
“Aid comes from NGOs mostly,” he continues. “The Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) covered some needs based on their meager capacity, but no medicine. However, some political factions cover these issues also. But patients still need money if they want to see specialists.”
“As for UNRWA, it treats Syrian Palestinians as it did in Syria, covering 50 percent of expenses, but only through pressure and connections,” he adds. “The percentage is not logical. UNRWA knows that Lebanon prohibits Palestinian refugees from getting jobs.”
“UNRWA staff treat us as ‘second class,’ since we come from Syria,” he continues. “We met the UNRWA director in North Lebanon and explained our situation, but nothing has been solved until now. The priority is 100 percent health coverage. We want to be treated like they would treat a refugee who was displaced from Bared to Baddawi, for example.”
In terms of education, Yasmine, a volunteer working on the issue in the Popular Committee, says that “primary and elementary school hours are after school, they only study three subjects, reading Arabic, math, and English. The whole issue is a formality, since teachers know that UNRWA will let the students pass anyway.”
Secondary classes are held in Nahr Al Bared School, based on the Lebanese curriculum, which some students are finding difficult. “In any case, if UNRWA did not cover the cost of transportation, the parents would not have been able to send them to school anyway,” says Mohammed Al Aswad, a teacher and member of the Popular Committee.
“There is a problem in education linked to the economic troubles,” Aswad explains. “Many families had to force their children out of school and into work. Do they want to make our children ignorant?”
Beirut and Surrounding Camps
Rashad, a university student, lives in a small room with 20 other young men who fled Syria. He is angry at the employment situation of thousands of young Palestinians who had to stop their education. He knows that “Lebanese Palestinians are deprived of all fundamental human rights needed to survive.”
“How do you expect the Lebanese government to agree to let Palestinians coming from Syria get jobs?” he asks sarcastically. “Our story is like a double joke. You need books and theories to explain our situation. I am a university student and I have no idea how to continue my education in Lebanon.”
Shatila camp has not changed in years, with its small alleys and the smell of martyr’s blood. But the camp is determined to survive.
Al-Akhbar tried meeting with an official from the camp’s popular committee, but no one was around. A passerby says that an armed clash occurred last night and a young Palestinian man from Syria, who was visiting from Germany, was killed. The camp was on full alert.
At the NGO Najdeh Now, the coordinator Abu Khaled Al Aidi explains the role of NGOs in providing aid to the refugees. “We began four months ago, when we decided to move our work from Germany to Lebanon,” he says. “At first, we did a general survey of refugees in Shatila, Daouk, Said Hawwash, and Hay Al Sellom. We provided mattresses and around a hundred food baskets. We provided simple medical aid to Syrian-Palestinians, but mostly to non-Palestinian Syrians who face a bigger problem.”
“Why aren’t all Syrian refugees treated as refugees?” he asks. “This way, the responsibility will fall on the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to achieve the right to health, work, and residence.”
Abu Khaled called on all non-governmental relief organizations to not only focus on aid, but to create pressure groups to recognize refugees from Syria as refugees.
We provided mattresses and around a hundred food baskets. We provided simple medical aid to Syrian-Palestinians, but mostly to non-Palestinian Syrians who face a bigger problem.Outside the NGO, a woman in her sixties was waiting for Al-Akhbar, it seems. As soon as she knew the journalists were from Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, she wanted to talk about her grandchildren who had to leave their universities. “They have to finish their university education,” Umm Imad insists.
She points to a key issue. Where will university and technical institutes go? Even if the Lebanese government solves their enrollment situation, where will they get the money for education in Lebanon?
The largest camp in Saida, Ain Al Hilweh, hosts around 7,000 refugees from Syria. At the camp’s popular committee, everyone was preparing for a protest outside the UNRWA offices to demand the return of refugees from Syria and better health and educational services, in addition to an end of violence in the Syrian camps.
At the protest, Al-Akhbar met with Haifa Al Atrash, a Palestinian painter who came from Yarmouk with her family. She now works with a committee coordinating the affairs of refugees from Syria in Ain Al Hilweh.
“I have three children. We left and took with us some of our savings. However, Lebanon is very expensive and the savings were spent a long time ago,” she explains. “So we had to look for work and this is where the real suffering begins. Our children were deprived of education because they had to work. UNRWA did not do its real job in providing this, especially the school curricula.”
As for the popular committees, there is lack of capacity and unintended negligence. But the PLO does not bear the responsibility for organizing the situation of refugees. “Some people had to sleep in the streets of Saida. The mechanisms are frail and the capacities are feeble. There should have been a plan from the beginning of events. The aid does not even cover the minimum of needs for families. There is also negligence and the unfair distribution of aid.”
Abu Jihad, in charge of the committee following up on the issue of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, says that “Ain Al Hilweh is densely populated and does not have enough houses. If the original count was 40,000 and 4,000 are added, imagine the magnitude of problems due to this overcrowding.”
“House rents were around $200 per month. When the refugees came, it jumped to $400 and $500. Isn’t this exploitation?” he explains. “School dropout rates are high due to the difficult living situation and children are being forced to work by the families.”
There was less agitation in Rashidieh camp in Tyre, despite the same complaints. But it might have to do with the nature of the southern camp. “People in the camp are really nice and good, and they stand by each other,” says Umm Mohammed.
Tarek Ibrahim, who smiles throughout his interview, describes the situation. “There are problems in health, education, and paying rent. But the biggest problem is in finding work. I have been looking for any kind of work since I arrived. But people here support each other, despite the poverty.”
Al-Akhbar took the above stories to those in power. The first meeting was with Abu Iyad Shaalan, secretary of the popular committees in Lebanon. “From the start, we dealt with the situation under the general headlines of surveying, then communicating with local and international organizations to provide for the refugees daily survival,” he explains.
“The presence of the majority of Palestinians displaced in Syria inside the camps has made it easier to receive food and non-food aid,” he explains. “The problem is that those outside the camps are less in contact with the aid agencies.”
As for the PRCS, “food aid was distributed in coordination with the Qatar Red Crescent Society in the south, but the north was neglected. The Qataris refused to deal with any political side, but agreed to work with the PRCS,” he adds. “As for the PLO, we provided a small amount of money. We received $250,000 ($50,000 from the refugee affairs directorate, $50,000 from donations from the West Bank, and $150,000 from the PNA). The amounts were distributed to 5,000 families and 2,000 families remain.”
“We informed UNRWA to expand their services and their staff, which they did. They employed an additional 30 people and money will be transferred to the relief agency in Lebanon,” he adds.
In terms of education, “UNRWA and the Lebanese government agreed to officially recognize the certificates for the ninth grade and Baccalaureate. We should be putting pressure on UNRWA to fulfill its obligations. We are not looking for shelter space together, but in the meantime, UNRWA needs to provide monthly rental amounts for families, until the crisis is resolved.”
But if the situation in Syria escalates, increasing the number of refugees, is there any plan? “We are afraid that Israel will do something in Lebanon and then the question for Lebanese and Syrian-Palestinians will be: where will we go now?” Shaalan replies. “Frankly, I do not have an answer.”
He concludes by saying that those who are facing problems or have complaints can go to the headquarters at the Mar Elias Camp in Beirut. “The office of the popular committees is open to everyone.”
UNRWA Avoids Questions
As for refugees finding work, he again answers with another question, “Lebanese Palestinians cannot work due to Lebanese laws, how could the Syrian Palestinians do so?”While everyone put the blame on UNRWA, the relief agency is refusing to comment officially. An “informed source” inside the organization, who would not give his name, says that “full health services are provided to Palestinians from Syria like any Palestinian in Lebanon. However, in Syria, Palestinians were treated as citizens and had better health facilities.”
“The problem in education is in the curriculum, since in Syria it’s in Arabic and the curriculum in Lebanon is different in general,” he adds. “We enrolled the students in the UNRWA schools and sent their records to the education ministry. The problem is with older students, due to the difference in curriculum. In December 2012 and February 2013, we provided financial aid.”
In terms of plans for additional refugees, in case the situation in Syria escalates, the answer was clear: “The Lebanese cannot build more camps. Refugees will live wherever they find an empty space. If the state is unable to do anything, how could UNRWA do it?”
As for refugees finding work, he again answers with another question, “Lebanese Palestinians cannot work due to Lebanese laws, how could the Syrian Palestinians do so?”
Statistics on Palestinians in Lebanon
According to figures from the popular committees, 30,660 Palestinians fled into Lebanon from Syria. Around 5,000 remain in the Bekaa, close to the Syrian borders, in two main gatherings, Al Jalil (3,616 refugees) and central Bekaa (1,652).
In the North, Baddawi hosts 3,616 and Bared 1,316.
In Beirut, Burj Al Barajneh hosts 2,628 refugees, Shatila and the surrounding areas 2,000, and Mar Elias 732.
In the South, 7,876 refugees arrived to Ain Al Hilweh and 1,304 are dispersed around Saida. Mieh wa Mieh camp hosts 1,012, with an addition 2,160 in Wadi Al Zaineh.
Further south to Tyre, refugees from Syria are distributed among Shabriha (144), Rashidieh (392), Bass (368), Burj Al Shemali (2,500), Qasimiyeh (172), and Jal Al Bahr (78).