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Luna Safwan

Poor and overcrowded, Shatila is overwhelmed by Syrian influx

Date of publication: 9 December, 2014

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Syrian refugees, especially those of Palestinian origin, have found refuge in already existing Palestinian camps in Lebanon. But these, overcrowded and poor, are finding it hard to cope.

On the southern side of Beirut lies the Shatila refugee camp.

Dirty, overcrowded and suffering every conceivable infrastructure problem from a decrepit sewage system, ad hoc electricity connections and chaotic, dangling architecture, the Lebanese civil war left an indelible stamp here 32 years ago with the massacre of thousands of unarmed civilians by Phalangist militants under Israeli supervision.

Today, it is Syria’s civil war that is leaving its mark. It is less tragic than the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres but the impact is nevertheless dramatic.

     Syrians come to us expecting help. We mostly offer them apologies.

- Ziad Hemmo


Home to some 10,000 registered Palestinian refugees – who remain barred from all but the most menial work in Lebanon – camp residents rely on UN handouts for their survival. Overcrowding and poverty remain perennial problems.

And over the past years, those problems have doubled. In total, according to estimates from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, some 44,000 Syrian refugees of Palestinian origin have sought refuge in Lebanon. These have “been divided between Palestinian camps and Palestinian neighbourhoods around Beirut”, according to a spokesman.

Unofficial estimates suggest that in Shatila alone, the population has grown to as much as 22,000, at least in periods.

Misery piles on misery

Fouad Abu Khaled, 40, looked tired. He and his family arrived at Shatila in 2013. Greying, he fixed his hair to speak on camera, his first time in front of the lens. But he had little good to report.

“This camp is a big prison. We only got our residencies renewed 15 days ago. Only now are we allowed to wander outside.”

He shares a dwelling of two small rooms with his wife and 11 children. The smell of moujaddara adds a homely feel, but the place offers scant protection from the rain outside.

“It’s worse than a barn. No matter how many times you fix the ceiling, it is never enough. Some places are just falling apart,” said Abu Khaled.

His wife Khawla arrived with coffee. She too was disconsolate. If they stay another year in the camp, she said, ”we might go crazy”.

The lack of humanitarian supplies and the deteriorating economic situation generally in Shatila, are topics that constantly exercises Ziad Hemmo, the secretary general of Shatila’s Popular Committee, a camp administrative body.

Residents often congregate at his office to vent.

“It’s worse then what happened in the 1948,” Mohammad Ali Abu Mohammad said, referring to the Nakba. Abu Mohammad fled Syria with his family in 2012 from the suburbs of Damascus where their home was. Now, he is wondering if it was the right decision.

“Back in Syria, I had a job, I had a phone, a car, a good life, I could feed my family and take my kids to the nearest hospital whenever I want,” he said. “Around here it’s impossible.”

Mohammad chose Shatila because of friends. His family were, he said, among the first to arrive, so he’s watched the situation go from bad to worse. It was a lengthy, but ultimately successful process to transfer the family’s refugee papers from Syria to Lebanon, in order for the family to receive aid from UNRWA, the UN body charged with the welfare of Palestinian refugees.

Still it doesn’t mitigate a distinct drop in living conditions. Shatila has just one clinic, and when his six-year-old son recently had a severe asthma attack, he had to rush him to a hospital in another area.

Straining scarce resources

“The little clinic in Shatila was closed, I had to rush him to a hospital in Burj al-Barajne area,” said Abu Mohammad, an option only available because he had his UNRWA papers in order. “He was about to die. The bad hygiene and atmosphere in the camp are making it harder for him to breath.”

UNRWA says it is trying its best to improve conditions. The UN body, which was set up after 1948 specifically with a mandate to care for Palestinian refugees, offers each family US$100 a month in housing aid and has been working to improve infrastructure in the camps. But it is an uphill battle for the chronically underfunded organization and with the Syrian crisis, a spokesman conceded, "no one is capable of doing everything that needs to be done".

Abu Afif described himself as one of the 40,000 Palestinian Syrians waiting for more aid. According to the 6o-year-old, the allowances offered by the Lebanese government are extremely limited. He also receives coupons worth a total of US$200 a month, but for a family of eight with rent to pay, and in need of education and health services, it doesn’t stretch far.

For Abu Afif, who did not want to give his real name, there is a silver lining. He has found a way to emigrate to Brazil – not one he would share – and hopes for similar closure for his fellow residents in Shatila.

Meanwhile, the UN is also struggling with the influx of refugees. Syrians and Syrians of Palestinian origin – or Palestinian refugees who wound up in Syria either in 1948 or 1967 and are now dislodged for a second time – are dealt with by different bodies.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, provides for Syrian nationals, “including the ones who wind up in Palestinian camps”, according to a UN official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official would not comment on whether allowing Syrian refugees to go to already existing camps was official UN policy.

Official or not, the influx is straining already scarce resources.

Hemmo, the Popular Committee general secretary, put it this way:

“Shatila is a poor camp, Palestinians here are in need, some are homeless and most of us can’t find jobs. Syrians come to us expecting help. We mostly offer them apologies. Do they expect more? It is what it is.”

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