Notes from the field: Palestine refugees from Syria struggle with life in Lebanon

17 April 2013

UNRWA staffer Irina Prentice writes from Lebanon, where she traveled last month to set up emergency communications for Palestine refugees from Syria.

17 April 2013
Beqaa Valley, Lebanon

“You feel like the buildings around you just fall down,” says seven-year-old Khaled, describing the shelling he witnessed before fleeing Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus. “You feel like you are standing in the middle, and all of a sudden, everything around you falls apart.”

Khaled’s words aptly describe the reality faced by up to 525,000 Palestine refugees caught up in the Syria conflict today. Over 40,000 of these people have fled to neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan. The continuous displacement that blights Palestine refugees in the region is staggering.

“No food, only bodies in the rubble”

Sitting on a foam mattress in a UNHCR tent in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, middle-aged grandfather Moussa explains how he also fled the destruction of Yarmouk camp. “The camp was destroyed, our house was beyond repair. We lost everything...” Here Moussa, who suffers from paralysis in his arms, chokes up. His sentences are hard to understand. He mumbles and begins to sob.

Deciphering his words, Moussa’s wife says, “There was no bread. We were five months under siege, in a totally deteriorated situation. There was no food. We saw body parts in the rubble.”

Moussa’s emotional outpour visibly upsets his children and grandchildren, sitting around him on the floor of the tent. One of his daughters, crying periodically, reaches over to dry her helpless father’s face.

Before stepping out of the tent, an increasingly-upset Moussa says, “We are not allowed to speak. If we speak, we will be taken away…” His fear and despair are powerful to witness.

Refugees once more

“It’s one thing talking about suffering, but it’s another living through it”, says Ahmed Mouh, UNRWA’s Chief Area Officer in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley.

Ahmad knows what he is talking about. A Palestine refugee from Nahr el-Bared camp in North Lebanon, Ahmad too lost everything in the 2007 conflict between the Lebanese Army and the militant group Fatah al-Islam, which had infiltrated the camp. “From one day to the next, we lost everything. It was all destroyed in the fighting.”

Ahmad is on the frontlines; a large number of refugees fleeing Syria enter Lebanon through the Beqaa Valley. For the Palestinians among them, now numbering 40,000, the flight from Syria is yet another episode in a long history of displacement and fragmentation.

Driving to meet more Palestine refugees from Syria, we travel on a winding road along the eastern hills of the Beqaa. We are heading to a school, located in a remote part of the valley, that has been vacated to accommodate refugees. Ahmad is briefing me on the situation of a family we are about to meet.

“The hardest part? There’s no work”

Bilal is a healthy two-month-old baby. He was born in an empty classroom that is now home to a Palestine refugee family from Yarmouk camp. “We’re still working on his birth certificate”, explains Ahmad.

“As you can imagine, this isn’t an easy procedure when you are a Palestine refugee to start with, and then imagine when you have no legal residency, and are born in a school... but we are trying to work something out with the authorities”.

Speaking with Bilal’s father, Khaled, I’m curious to learn how he and his wife are coping with the new addition to their family while displaced. Khaled, a tall slender man, is proud of his baby, showing him off with affection and a penetrating smile. Yet, despite the joy he feels for the child he cradles in his arms, Khaled is struggling. “The hardest part is there is no work here”, he says.

A world that has fallen apart

“Over there”, Khaled reflects, referring to Syria, “the door is open. When you need a piece of bread, you can go to any neighbor and he will welcome you and give you two loaves. It is not the same here.

“We are thinking about going back, because life is too hard and we have nothing.”

I push him to elaborate: “And if you go back, what do you expect?”

Khaled answers with a note of determination. “When we go back, we will do it again. We will be Palestinians again. We, as Palestinians, we love each other, we are neighbors, we are a family,” he says.

Khaled’s words reveal a vision of a perfect world for the 525,000-strong Palestinian community in Syria. Sadly, it is a world that has fallen apart.

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