Syria: Palestinians from Syria flood Lebanon camps

23 Dec 2013

Hasna and her family fled Syria to the El Buss camp in southern Lebanon last winter. They now share a three-bedroom house with four other families. Credit: OCHA
Aid agencies are supporting Palestinian refugees from Syria seeking refuge in Lebanon.

When Hasna and her family fled Syria to the El Buss camp in southern Lebanon last winter, the experience was bitterly familiar: Hasna had fled Palestine during the 1948 War, at age 10, moving with her family to the Yarmuk camp in Syria.

After the disruption of this first displacement, Hasna’s family was reluctant to leave Syria, even when the conflict intensified.

“We really wanted to avoid leaving,” says her son, Mahmoud. “We had heard many stories about refugees’ struggles in Lebanon. So when the fighting started around Damascus, we first went to Hama to stay with relatives, and then moved to the Lebanese-Syrian border area. Finally, it became too dangerous there as well.”

Mahmoud operated a successful iron workshop in Syria, employing his three older sons. “We were busy all the time. Now, in Lebanon, the situation has changed. I just had open-heart surgery, so I have to rest for at least two months.” Aid organizations in the camp could not cover the full cost of his operation, which has left him in debt.  His three sons have been unable to find work.

“Unemployment is very common here,” said Mahmoud’s son Ibrahim. “In Syria, I never really felt different, and Palestinians had access to the same jobs and services as Syrians. In Lebanon, Palestinians are not allowed to work. It is very hard for us to adapt.”

The unemployment rate among Palestinians from Syria is close to 90 per cent.

Crowding, stress

Around 80,000 Palestinians from Syria have flocked to the 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, placing a strain on resources and on community relations.

Hasna’s family now shares a three-bedroom house with four other families.

Khawla Khalaf, a social worker at the community-based organization Beit Atfal Assumud, helps Palestinian refugees arriving in Lebanon.

“One of our priorities is to channel new arrivals towards the relevant organizations, so that they manage to stabilize their situation,” Mr. Khalaf said. New arrivals must register with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which is responsible for delivering services in Lebanon’s Palestinian camps.

American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA) – with support from the OCHA-managed Emergency Response Fund and coordination from Beit Atfal Assumud – launched an emergency relief plan targeting 1,900 families in southern Lebanon this spring.

According to Khawla Khalaf, who supervised the distribution process, covering basic needs was not the sole purpose of the emergency plan. “It also allowed families as well as social workers to spare some energy for more long-term problems, such as their children’s schooling or the treatment of post-conflict [trauma] in the family,” he said.

Mounting costs

Sleiman, his wife Leila and their six children also fled from the Yarmuk camp in Syria at the beginning of 2013, arriving in the El Buss camp in Lebanon. They brought little with them.

“Getting out of Yarmuk can be tough these days,” Sleiman says. “Before the war, there were no checkpoints at the entrance of the camp. But since a couple of months [ago], the army monitors movements in and out of the camp. They often prevent people from leaving, telling them that it is too dangerous. So if you are really on your way out of Syria, you should not be seen carrying trunks and suitcases. We left with a purse and a backpack – that’s all.”

Six weeks later, Sleiman’s cousin Rashid and his wife Ghofran also arrived in El Buss. They fled after their home was shelled and burned.

They are having difficulty adjusting to the high cost of living in Lebanon. The families share a one-bedroom apartment for US$300 per month. “With this kind of money, I could rent a palace in Syria,” Sleiman says. For the price of one bag of bread in Lebanon, 10 could be purchased in Syria, he added.

The costs are mounting over time.

Nawal is hosting family members from Syria. “Because my husband has been absent [for] a couple of years now, I have started to sell traditional embroidered clothing. But this is surely not enough to cover the needs of the 10 children that now live with us,” she said. “I am really happy that I could help my relatives to settle down, but they will have to leave very soon as I cannot handle their needs anymore.”

“Because of such cases, ANERA has been looking at ways to help host families,” says Samar al Yassir, ANERA Lebanon’s Country Director. “Helping host families not only reduces tensions but also builds the resilience of the community. During our first emergency distribution plan – fundedby OCHA – ANERA allocated around 15 per cent of resources to host families.”

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