Life in the camp is tough, but at least the war is far’: Palestinians flee Syria for Shatila refugee camp
It is hard to find one Palestinian in Lebanon who doesn’t dream of returning to Palestine. Both elders and youngsters, it doesn’t matter if they have never been there, keep claiming their right to return to the houses of their parents or grandparents (of which most of them still hold the keys), and there is a very solid reason behind such an inveterate claim, as some Palestinian explains: “After more than 60 years, they (the Lebanese authorities) still treat us like dogs”. This is what the Palestinians who fled from Syria are experiencing now.
Palestinians in Lebanon have no automatic right to work, to social security, to joining a union and no right to possess of land or property. Furthermore, if a Lebanese woman weds a Palestinian, their children will be a second-class citizens, because they will not join her nationality. The denial of such basic civil rights is linked to the fear that the largely Sunni Muslim population would affect the sectarian balance of the country, which is enshrined in the constitution. It is decades now (from the beginning of the Palestinian refugees’ inflow in 1948, prompted by the creation of Israel) that this fear has been barring Palestinians to gain their civil rights, while the 12 camps, where most of them are living, are perceived as a security threat.
In these camps, often overcrowded and poverty-stricken, there are now thousands of Syrian Palestinians (about 45,000 are in the country) who find in Lebanon a quite shocking situation they didn’t expect to have to cope with.
“I feel as I am in prison here”, says Mohammed, a Syrian Palestinian in his 60s who fled with his wife, his widow daughter and two grandchildren from a Damascus’ suburb three year ago. His world is over, his life is in a limbo, waiting to leave the tiny and crowded Shatila camp, in Beirut. Mohammed keeps talking about the good life he had managed to build in Syria, which he calls “my country”, by working hard for 30 years. “Here we are five in a two-room house, but in Syria we had a big house, a car, I had a good job, we had free services and we were living in peace. We joined the equal rights with the Syrians, but it is different here”, he tells, adding that he didn’t like the protests against the Syrian president Bashar al Assad that turned into a conflict that has claimed the life of more than 250,000 people and has displaced millions. His wife Saada, instead, thinks that “the revolt started because in Syria there was no freedom and people wanted overturn the regime”.
But after three years in Lebanon, all of these things mean nothing, because they both dream of Europe, where two of their children have already fled. And when they are told about the not-that-welcoming policy of the European countries, they insist they want to get out of the camp, where they are sharing the harsh and poor life of the others inhabitants. Something they didn’t expect.
Shatila is a tiny overcrowded neighborhood, less than one and half square kilometers. Approximately 23,000 people are living in such a maze of alleys, with electric cables dangling from the building, poor services, the garbage at each corner and widespread poverty. Since the beginning of the war in Syria, the number of inhabitants has been increased, putting a strain on the keeping of already limited services.
Lately, the UNRWA, the Un agency for Palestinian refugees, has decided to adapt its hospitalization support in Lebanon, starting to require Palestinians to pay a percentage of their hospital bills (from 5% in the Palestinian Red Crescent hospitals to 20% in the private structures), which in Lebanon rank among the highest in the Middle East. Previously, the secondary healthcare (treatments requiring a short period in hospital) was fully covered by the agency. After many demonstrations in the camps, last week UNWRA has put off the health cuts until April 21, nevertheless the deepening resource crisis of the UN agency is affecting, and scaring, the beneficiaries.
In a dark and damp alley of Shatila there is the Rajaa’s two-room house, a 40-year-old widow with two children. She is Syrian Palestinian from Yarmouk, the infamous Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus. Rajaa needs health support for her daughter Mariana, who has born in Lebanon soon after she arrived, three year ago, and suffers from a chronic blood disease. “The life in the camp is tough, but at least the war is far”, she says, telling about the siege of Yarmouk and the time they didn’t have anything to eat and all around them was fighting. When her husband got killed, she made up her mind and came in Lebanon. In Shatila she gets support from some local organizations, such as the Palestinian Assomoud, and from the UNWRA, but money is never enough and it is difficult to get by.
Unlike Mohammed, Rajaa doesn’t dream of Europe. She wants to go back to Syria, where her relatives still live. For her Shatila is just a safe place to wait before she can return to home.