BEIRUT

Lebanon News

Syrian Palestinians take refuge in Lebanon

Palestinians who fled Syria hold a protest in Ain al-Hilweh demanding their basic rights.

BEIRUT: Mufida Nasser barely remembers her early childhood in Jaffa, which her family fled for the safety of Damascus in 1948 with dreams of returning some day.

Today, the 75-year-old grandmother is determined to return to her home in Syria. “Of course I will return. My home is in Syria in Yarmouk,” Nasser declares, referring to Syria’s largest Palestinian gathering on the outskirts of Damascus.

Sitting with her family in a small apartment in Shatila, she says she has come for a short break. “I came here two days ago because I needed to get away from the violence. It started to escalate in the camp two weeks ago,” she says.

Her daughter, Nawal Salman, 52, barely had time to pack when she fled shelling at her camp of Hajr Aswad for nearby Yarmouk in July, two weeks later taking to Lebanon a small suitcase for what she thought was a short trip during the month of Ramadan.

“I didn’t expect to stay this long,” she says as she stuffs zucchini under candlelight in the middle of the day with just a small window facing a narrow alley as her only source of natural light.

She shakes her head at the basic living conditions to which she is getting accustomed – a small dark room, dirty water and no money. Like her mother, she’s determined to return to her life in Syria, and reunite with her friends, her house and her belongings.

Exasperated, Salman still doesn’t understand how Syria’s Palestinian refugee camps became a target of shelling. “We’re Palestinian. We’re not with anyone. But they [the authorities] wanted us to take sides,” she says. “Now the violence is all over the country.”

She adds, “It’s so sad. Who would shell a camp?”

At Shatila, the cramped and crowded Palestinian refugee camp on the edge of Beirut, Syrian-plated cars stacked high with suitcases navigate the narrow streets. The camp has little to offer these newcomers other than a safe haven from the violence from which they fled. Families of five or more often share a bedroom, and many are without work and spend their days at their apartment or those of their neighbors.

As of late October over 3,000 Palestinian families from Syria had registered with UNRWA, which is seeking to provide them with assistance in cooperation with NGOs. But the new refugees say that with the winter coming they’ll need more help.

Palestinians from Syria have been arriving in Lebanon since shortly after the beginning of the popular uprising that began in March 2011. But their numbers saw a sharp increase over the summer when shells began regularly hitting Damascus, including Yarmouk, an unofficial Palestinian camp, which is also home to Syrians and other groups, on the outskirts of the capital.

Following reports of shelling in early August, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness issued a public statement saying: “The agency notes with great concern that Palestinian refugee communities in Damascus and its suburbs are experiencing, more than ever before, the effects of the escalating armed conflict in Syria.”

Prior to the unrest, Syria’s Palestinian population generally had a good relationship with the government, vocal proponents of the Palestinian cause, which hosted different factions including the Hamas leadership and granted the refugees all rights except for voting in national elections.

In January, citing security concerns, Hamas officials abandoned their base in Damascus for Cairo. Before that, a series of incidents throughout the uprising contributed to the erosion of Palestinian support for Assad’s government. In March, presidential spokeswoman Bouthaina Shaaban accused foreigners, including Palestinians, of inciting violence.

Two separate demonstrations on the Israeli border, on May 15 and June 5, heightened Palestinian mistrust, as first six and then 20 died at the hands of Israeli forces, with many saying the Syrian government played an implicit role in the violence by allowing protesters to reach the border. The deaths led to a mutiny in Yarmouk.

Many Palestinians still support the Syrian government and many others prefer not to take sides, only hoping for a return to calm.

Like some of her new neighbors, Munira Nazha, 36, fled Hajr Aswad over the summer, planning on returning when the violence subsided. She says that Damascus, which she describes as once being like heaven, had become “miserable.”

“I’m so tired,” she says, sitting on the floor of her small shared apartment. “I just want to return without fear.”

While many Syrian refugees in Lebanon are struggling, those who fled Palestinian camps face additional bureaucratic hurdles.

Taghrid Hudayhed, 42, who arrived in Lebanon this summer, has both a Palestinian ID and a Syrian passport. Married to a Syrian, she is considered a citizen in Damascus. But in Lebanon she is legally Palestinian. She has registered her children in UNRWA schools.

Unlike many of her neighbors, whose houses sit empty in Syria, she is not so certain about going back. After rockets destroyed her house and a clothing shop that she ran with her husband, she says she has nothing to return to.

Hudayhed, who worked as a seamstress in Midan in central Damascus, says she is looking for any job in Lebanon so that she can pay off her family’s debts, which have now reached over $5,000. As she sees it, with nothing to lose, she is making the most of her new life in Shatila.

“The people here in Shatila are really nice,” she says. “Some people complain, but I’m grateful.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 30, 2012, on page 4.

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