Lebanon: Life for Palestinian refugees in Bourj el-Barajneh

June 2013, Beirut: Since the start of the conflict in Syria, over half a million refugees have arrived in Lebanon, including nearly 60,000 Palestinians. Credit: OCHA/D.Palanivelu
Displaced by conflict in Syria, Palestinian refugees in Beirut’s suburbs are struggling to cope.

In the southern suburbs of Lebanon’s capital Beirut lies Bourj el-Barajneh, a cramped refugee camp which is home to an estimated 28,000 Palestinian refugees. At least 3,000 people have arrived in the past year, fleeing the violence in Syria. Their arrival has stretched the limited resources available in the camp, leaving many without adequate access to even the most basic public services.

The narrow alleys of Bourjel-Barajneh run between numerous buildings – old, new, mostly unfinished or poorly maintained. Most Palestinian refugees living there are completely dependent on organizations like the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and other humanitarian partners.

“Over 90 per cent of the Palestinians here are unemployed so they either depend on assistance or they have to borrow,” says Dima Zayat Shehab, a health manager from the American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), an international NGO that works with OCHA and UNRWA. “We have found that food and shelter are the two biggest concerns.”

Since the start of the conflict in Syria, over half a million refugees have arrived in Lebanon, including nearly 60,000 Palestinians from places like Damascus and Homs. UNWRA estimates that by the end of the year, there will be at least 80,000 Palestinians from Syria in Lebanon. It has appealed for US$65 million to help them but has only received about 38 per cent of this funding.

The agency is also working with humanitarian organizations inside Syria, where 80 per cent of Palestinians have been severely affected by the crisis, including hundreds of thousands who have been internally displaced and do not have enough to eat.

Many refugees are traumatized by their experiences in Syria and by their difficult lives in Lebanon, adds Dima. ANERA recently received an allocation of about US$250,000 from the OCHA-managed Emergency Response Fund to help people who have recently arrived from Syria. Working with a local NGO, Nejdeh Association, they aim to provide women with essential aid supplies for their families. The funding will also help the organizations continue providing therapy sessions to help people cope with trauma.

“Our recent assessments show that around 94 per cent of the people, both children and adults, who have arrived from Syria, have experienced some sort of trauma,” says Dima. “Some of them were kidnapped or have witnessed the violent death of a close relative or friend.”

“My daughter slept for three days.”

Wissam Youssef, a 32-year-old mother, arrived with her two teenage children last December when the violence intensified in Damascus’ Yarmouk camp, once the largest Palestine refugee community in Syria. Many were killed and nearly 90 per cent of the residents were displaced. Fearing for the lives of her children, she fled.

“Many people said that Yarmouk would never be hit because it was a very safe area,” Wissam says. “When they started bombing around us, my daughter become so afraid, and started screaming that she doesn’t want to die. When we came to Lebanon, she slept for three days.”

Wissam returned to Syria recently to find her home destroyed. Her husband still lives in Syria, where he is able to find work but his salary has been seriously affected by the devaluation of the Syrian Pound and is not enough to provide for his family in Lebanon.

Wissam has started working for the NGO Nejdeh Association, distributing aid to other refugees in Bourj el-Barajneh. She says she is one the luckier ones, who has managed to find a way to cope with her situation. But she remains very concerned about her family’s future including hopes of returning to Syria someday.

“Every time I think we should go back, the situation (in Syria) gets worse,” she says. “I don’t have any hope anymore that it is going to get better. I’m very afraid for my children if we go back.”

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