Farther Yet From the Promised Land

Refugees forced into a second exile, some 10,000 Palestinians have fled the civil war in Syria for an uncertain welcome in the camps of their countrymen and relatives in Lebanon.

“Mama, where is my father? Did he die?” eight-year-old Bassil asks his mother again. They are here in a tiny room at the Ain el Hilwe camp, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, in the outskirts of the city of Saida. His mother, in her forties, seated in a chair eroded by time, answers with a gentle but uncomfortable smile. It has been more than a month now since she lost track of her husband, when they left him in Deraa, in the south-west part of Syria. Layla and her two sons fled the country when fighting between the regime’s forces and the Syrian rebels escalated. Neighbors who have arrived in the Lebanon camp recently told them that the family house has been bombed. She lives now with the anxiety that something has happened to her husband.

Beginning last July, when the fighting started getting close to Damascus, some 10,000 Palestinians refugees have fled Syria, leaving everything behind. Most are from the Yarmouk refugee camp, just south of Damascus. Like Layla and her sons, they came to the refugee camps of Lebanon, generally those in the Beqaa Valley and Saida. They have come to this, their second exile after Palestine, and all of them hope to return quickly to Syria. One, two, three months, perhaps a little more; they are just waiting for the aerial bombardment to stop. But the longer the war goes on, the more a move that was supposed to be temporary starts feeling semi-permanent. Their meager savings are running low while their situation is worsening.

Bassil-a round head, topped with short hair-is a talkative boy. He endlessly describes the small room in which the three of them live together. “And here is where we sleep” he says, mimicking tossing a rug onto the floor. “And this is the TV.” But the TV is more like art on the wall, he adds, since it has never worked.” With a disdainful expression, he points at the walls. Drops of the autumn rains are pearling on the exposed rebar. Laden with an acrid humidity, the air stinks.

“Soon winter will be here,” worries Layla. “All I have is this sweater for the boy and not one blanket.” For his part, after thoroughly comparing his house in Syria and the one here, Bassil concludes that the only thing he likes about Lebanon is his two new buddies Ibrahim and Ayman.

They arrived hoping to live with an uncle who is renting the room upstairs. “Family solidarity is the main reason why these refugees come to Lebanon,” explains Yasser Daoud, director of Nabaa, an NGO that helps Palestinian refugees. But since the uncle is himself destitute, Layla resorted to renting the 200 square foot room on the ground floor for 150 dollars a month; the price has since risen to 200 dollars, a fortune.

A few streets from here, other families are piling up on their own relatives. “We are facing untenable situations where twenty people live together in two rooms without access to proper hygiene,” says Daoud.

There is a sense of abandonment among these Palestinians. They have received a few handouts via NGO initiatives, says Layla, and some food given by the management of the camp and local charitable and religious organizations. She pauses, her hands joined in the folds of her dress, then she adds: “after the meals, Bassil tells me that he is still hungry.” Silence. The only help they receive from the United Nations agency with official responsibility for the Palestinian refugees, the UNRWA, are classes that are open only in the afternoons, after the classes reserved for the children of the Lebanon Palestinians. “They are more like a daycare with a few games,” says Layla. Bassil, who has quit drawing, still loves school more than anything else. When he heard that he would not be allowed to go to school any time soon, he went all by himself and found the director of the school: “Why don’t you enroll me in your school? It is my right, I want to study,” he told the director, with the audacity of his youth. He now sits down every morning with his new classmates.

The UNRWA has been under fire for its lack of response in face of the urgency, but “it cannot be blamed” says Daoud, “this is the responsibility of the international community,” whose donor countries have been steadily reducing the funds they give to the UNRWA for several years. To face this new challenge, the agency has called on to its donors: “We are hoping to raise $54 million, $8 million of which will go to Lebanon,” says Hoda Samra, spokesperson for UNRWA’s section in Lebanon. “The rest will go to Syria and Jordan.”

The daily life of the newcomers from Syria is not eased by the difficulties of coexistence with the original residents of the refugee camp. “Frequently on the street, I hear people saying with scorn: oh you are one of those Syrians,” says an irritated mother.

“People talk about us as if we were not human beings,” adds another angry one. All of them speak out about what they feel is “people taking advantage of their situation”: prices going up, rents doubling and the like.

“Add to all this the fact that I am sick and can’t work” says Layla whose only source of income is her older son, 17, a small-time vendor around the camp, who brings in few dollars every day.

Despite all these difficulties, the refugees are still arriving in massive numbers. “Lebanon remains an enviable asylum compared to the camps hastily put up in the Jordanian desert,” says one interviewee. “Very soon we will be confronted with very serious housing problems: the camps in Lebanon are already overpopulated.” An enviable asylum? But it is still sometimes an unlivable asylum: “Some prefer to risk their lives and return [to Syria], where, at least, they say they can die with dignity. After the misery they have endured in Lebanon, they refuse to stay any longer. We should not forget that here [in the Lebanon camps]64 percent of the Palestinian refugees live under the poverty line, plus all the restrictions [imposed by the Lebanese law on Palestinian refugees]like the fact that they don’t have access to employment, to healthcare, to property or to education, a marginalization [against the Palestinian refugees]that does not exist in Syria.”

Until now, “under the condition that they leave Lebanon and return to Syria, the Lebanese government waives the 50,000 Lebanese pounds fee they have to pay for having exceeded the time limit of their stay in Lebanon,” adds the UNRWA spokesperson Samra.

That is why, from the tiny room where she lives now, Layla still can think about a future. Filled with the hopes that she can get back to her previous life, she timidly bets on a quick fall of the Syrian regime. Bassil, on the other hand, dreams of Palestine, “a very pretty land, much prettier than Lebanon or Syria.” However, what he dreams about right now is “to find his father and… also some candy.”

Baptiste De Cazenove