31 Mar 2015
On the second floor of the Malaab Building, at the entrance of Ain al-Hilweh, Umm Ammar Ghar sits in a small room roofed with plastic boards. Ghar came to Lebanon from Syria’s Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp after fighting erupted there. “Fate carried me to Lebanon,” Ghar said. “I used to own two buildings, one inside the Yarmouk camp and the other outside it. My financial situation was excellent; I used to make a living off the rent.” But when the Syrian crisis started, everything went downhill, she explained. People began to leave the camp as the situation deteriorated and became dangerous. After the death of her son, Ghar is now also responsible for two grandchildren. Beginning in 2012, thousands of Palestinians fleeing Syria looked for refuge in Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian camps. More than 8,000 settled in Ain al-Hilweh, the largest, some settled in the nearby Mieh Mieh camp, while others joined relatives spread across the other 10. Most of these refugees are from Syria’s Yarmouk, Sayyida Zeinab and Husseinieh camps and took only their identity papers when they left. Although the number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon coming from Syria has reportedly decreased, the intensity of their suffering continues unabated. Local relief organizations are trying to help, but with UNRWA reducing the level of aid it provides, the lives of thousands of refugees have become more difficult. At the southern entrance of Ain al-Hilweh, the al-Furqan Association for Charity Work distributes milk bottles. Fawzeya Sakr stood in a queue, holding her child, as she waited for her name to be called out. She receives three bottles of dried milk. “Thank God,” she said. “There’s someone who’s thinking about us and providing us with milk for the children.” Sakr, who gave birth to her second child in Lebanon, said she hoped the international community would extend more help to refugees. The Palestinian camps in Lebanon were already impoverished and overcrowded when the Syrian war began, and were ill-equipped to handle the influx. The Kifah School has been turned into a shelter for around 40 families; 128 people, mostly from Yarmouk and Sayyida Zeinab, now live there. Standing near the school, 6-year-old Ali Shehadeh carries 1,000 Syrian pounds that his father kept with him when he came from Syria. “I don’t know how many sweets I can buy with this,” he said. Women in the complex share two washing machines. Umm Diab has just one hour to use it before it’s her neighbor’s turn. “We live a miserable life of poverty and negligence,” Diab said. “I pray to God that there will be a spark of hope so that we feel we’re living and can move from this darkness to the light.” Ahmad Younis lives with his family at the shelter. He came to Lebanon from the Sayyida Zeinab camp in 2012. Like many refugees, Younis had to flee the war to keep his family safe. “I used to own a house and a large part of it was destroyed,” he said. “I lost 24 of my relatives.” Younis used to work as a print engineer, but has had difficulty finding a job that will provide a decent livelihood. He works odd jobs and hopes to make enough money by the end of the day. “We are suffering from unemployment and the biggest concern is rent,” Younis said. “In Syria, we were blessed with security and peace; we had nothing to do with [the fighting].” Younis said he hoped to travel to Europe to establish a better life, a dream shared by many refugees. Ibrahim Maqdah, the secretary of the Union of Islamic Institutions in Ain al-Hilweh, explained to The Daily Star that while organizations try to meet the needs of refugees, there are a number of barriers to doing so. “The beginning of the refugee crisis was miserable and reminded us of the tragedy of our displacement from Palestine,” Maqdah said. But as the Syrian war enters its fifth year, the number of Palestinian refugees coming from Syria has stabilized, according to Maqdah. However, he said, their tragic situation continues. “Palestinian refugees who fled Syria to Lebanon aren’t considered to be refugees; rather their treatment is based on a residency [paper] that the Lebanese government demands.” This presents a problem, he said, as many aren’t able to afford it. Maqdah also bemoaned the reduction in support provided by UNRWA. He said the organization still provides refugees with $100 to pay for rent, but has cut back other vital services. “Everyone knows that the minimum cost for a room, kitchen and toilet is $300 per month,” protested Maqdah, adding that aid organizations struggle to make up the rest. Medical care is also another area of neglect, according to Maqdah. “The number of families now is 1,500; in 2014 there were 3,000 families, but many returned to Syria, emigrated, or died in the sea [making the passage to Europe],” he said. Many of the ones who left, Maqdah added, decided that in both cases they could be considered dead, be it in Lebanon due to the harsh living conditions or in Syria as a result of the fighting. “Many of these families don’t have someone to support them.” Maqdah said the Union of Islamic Institutions treats all refugees equally, based on their level of need. “We don’t discriminate between Palestinian Syrian and native Syrians,” Maqdah explained. “We don’t ask refugees about their political affiliations because they’re refugees, so we don’t interfere in their personal affairs.” He said the institutions provide food and urgent assistance such as milk and diapers for children, as well as cooking equipment. “Palestinian Syrian [refugees] have the right to study, so many students have been enrolled in schools. We also hold educational workshops,” he said. The institutions also have a psychological support program for children. However, Maqdah said there are 88 people with disabilities who require higher quality care than they can currently provide. Palestinian Syrian refugee Hanan Ahmad does social work with women and girls and explained that the refugees’ problems extend far beyond material deprivation. “Providing services doesn’t stop with shelter, food and medication,” she said. “We follow up on them socially when there are problems among the families that we need to solve.” However, despite such efforts, the outlook for Syria’s Palestinians refugees remains bleak.