Palestinian Camps in Lebanon: The Displaced Guests of a Refugee Host
By: Robert Abdallah
Published Monday, August 13, 2012
We are now nearing the end of the month of Ramadan. The faces of the residents of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp cannot belie their weariness.
Their lips, dry throughout the days, cannot hope for more than water to quench their thirst, and their evenings lack the usual sumptuous meals of Ramadan. The market in Nahr al-Bared has not returned to normal activity, and the residents’ intermittent businesses and professions are not sufficient to cover the costs of an iftar meal.
Faces have become even gloomier with the influx of the newly displaced individuals from Syria, from the Yarmouk refugee camp and elsewhere. The repercussions of the Syrian crisis, from its humanitarian and political dimensions and security-related implications, to the issue of Syrian refugees, are weighing heavily on Lebanon.
North Lebanon has been the most harshly affected. Banners of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are ubiquitous and solidarity with the dispossessed Syrians goes beyond humanitarian considerations, while the political-confessional environment is further reinforced by the flow of Syrian refugees.
Al-Akhbar made enquiries about the fifty families who were displaced from Syria to Nahr al-Bared camp. But some people seemed hesitant to talk, not wanting to turn the families that fled Syria to stay with their relatives into yet another issue, or to deepen the rift between the camp and its surroundings over positions vis-à-vis the Syrian regime.
It was merely said that “some families had fled Syria as a result of rumors that the Palestinians might come under attack there.” A visit to the home of “the teacher,” Ahmad Najib, a former tutor who worked for UNRWA, was recommended. Najib’s house now shelters more than one family.
Another local, Abu Wassim al-Gharib, advised we check with the Popular Committee (PC) instead of meeting with the displaced families, saying that “the committee has all the information and it is better to ask their opinion.”
We thus spoke to the PC official at Nahr al-Bared camp, Hajj Abu Salim Ghoneim, who tried to stress that the committee is playing a key role in the refugee issue. He said that the committee’s priority is to keep the camp away from becoming entangled in political or security issues, without saying anything about whether or not the PC can provide meaningful assistance.
Ghoneim tried to list the committee’s achievements. He spoke about “registering the refugees in a database” and contacting the General Security (DGSG) in the North to clarify their legal status, while praising the DGSG’s facilitation and discounts in relation to the refugees’ visa fees. The PC official also mentioned contacting military intelligence to ask them “to allow them [the refugees] to enter the camp and show leniency to those who have been in the camp for more than a week but have not renewed their permits.”
As for promises, Ghoneim said that since the “UNRWA’s approval to cover 100 percent of treatment [costs] for patients, we are making efforts to secure accommodation for the displaced through UNRWA leases, or using schools to provide them with shelter.” Regarding international organizations and NGOs, Ghoneim said, “We have received promises that furniture and clothing will be provided.”
Ahmad Najib, meanwhile, was out for noon prayer. He did not want us to meet his guests, but he compensated for this by agreeing to stay in the mosque for the rest of the afternoon to talk to us about the refugees’ conditions.
Najib accommodated three families in the home of his son who had immigrated; there are no homes for rent in the camp. The former tutor explained the refugees’ unwillingness to meet with journalists by saying that they “will return to Syria” and that “some have already returned.” So, according to Najib, the Palestinians are afraid of being scapegoated, not by the regime, but because of the chaos and lax security. He also said that the situation is stabilizing once again in the Yarmouk camp, and that the Palestinian camps in Syria are now safe.
His succinct explanation of the exodus of Palestinians then gave way to a lengthy digression on the Palestinian presence in Syria. There, he says, Palestinians “have rights” and that all they lack are some key posts in the state, which is something that Palestinians do not have in any Arab country. Initially Najib did not want to expound on the stance taken by the Palestinians relative to the events in Syria, preferring to say that “Palestinians are outside of the intra-Syrian conflict.”
But Najib quickly adds, “We are not against the regime. If the regime falls, Palestinian presence [in Syria] will be affected, and the treatment [of Palestinians] will change.” To corroborate this, he cites the stance apparently taken by one of the leaders of the opposition, “maybe Burhan Ghalyoun,” who said that “the Palestinians have been given tens of thousands of jobs at the expense of the Syrians.”
In Beddawi camp, things are different. Shortly after iftar the camp is full of activity. There is a street carnival that spreads from the main street into the alleyways and backstreets. Economic conditions here, despite being modest, seem to allow a certain level of festivity during Ramadan evenings. The streets are packed with cars and motorcycles carrying two or three teenagers each, while women, in the small spaces in front of their homes in the narrow alleyways, can be seen sipping coffee. There are kids playing with fireworks, and the noise coming from the small generators does not muffle the sense of joy and expectation for the approaching Eid.
The optimistic faces allow you to ask anything, and even those who do not have answers soon guide you to another source. So without much trouble, we reached a displaced family from al-Tadamon neighborhood in Damascus close to the camp of Yarmouk.
The head of the family had left her husband behind. The husband is still working in Syria, whenever possible, and is in contact with his wife by phone. Fatima (not her real name) is a mother of three. She said, “I fled death. Chaos is frightening, the gangs would do anything, and even women were being kidnapped for ransom. Everything was fine until the school year ended, when the bombing of al-Azaz neighborhood happened.” She added that a bomb damaged the school in the camp so parents hurriedly moved to evacuate their children.
The mother then added that the incidents that took place in some neighborhoods in Damascus prompted some Syrians to take refuge in the Yarmouk refugee camp. She said, “This is when the problems started. We did not know what was happening, who was killing whom, and this is why we came to Lebanon, because we were very frightened.”
Fatima, through her phone conversations with her husband, has come to the conclusion that things are calming down in Syria. She is in a hurry to go back, because the relatives she is staying with are impoverished. Her two boys are sleeping on her brother’s bed, after he went to stay at his uncle’s house. Fatima and her daughter are sleeping on the floor, since “it is summer and the floor is cool,” and there is only one fan in the house.
Fatima says, “I want to go home when things quiet down; the humiliation here is too much. The refugee relief organizations are more talk than action,” she adds. Fatima had gone to the White Hands Society in Akkar where she found that “there is no order whatsoever. People there are pacing up and down, and some are saying that they miss the days of Bashar [al-Assad].”
Fatima said that only al-Bashaer Society in Abu Samra gave her something in the end, which was a food aid package, after she paid LL 30,000 in travelling to the offices of all the various NGOs.
In contrast to all the attention being given by many local, Arab and international organizations to the issue of the Syrian refugees, the people of Nahr al-Bared camp are questioning the neglect demonstrated by UNRWA and other relevant bodies towards their suffering. A resident who lives in a shanty-hut was furious about the fact that garbage has not been collected, despite the fact that the sanitation department had been contacted.
Meanwhile, Ahmad Najib asks why UNRWA is requiring the people concerned to personally come pick up their food aid packs, which was not required in previous years. Najib adds, “Why are people being humiliated?” he asks this question after having counted 36 people in a small room, all waiting to receive their food aid packages.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.