Like most conversations between strangers, it began with the weather.
Abul Nidal (not to be confused with the founder of Fatah, Abu Nidal) tells me there is a bizarre phenomenon occurring in the cramped confines of Sabra, one of Beirut’s refugee camps. “First it rains outside, on the roof. When it finishes raining there, it rains inside,” he says, pointing to the stains on the walls and ceiling.
For Syria’s Palestinian refugees, fleeing their adopted country’s civil war to safety in Lebanon, finding a little humor in their bleak situation is often all they can do.
We are sitting in Nidal’s rented “apartment,” a damp, concrete box with two rooms, the largest of which is covered in thin mattresses and rugs. There are 19 people living here, including his five grown children and their kids. They pay $300 a month for rent alone. Electricity and water cost extra.
He looks exhausted by the situation he has found himself in. Around us, three women and nearly a dozen children under 10 have arranged themselves on the floor. In his hands, Nidal plays with the broken peak of his baseball cap.
This is the second time he has had to leave his home in Yarmouk and come to Lebanon to escape the Syrian conflict.
“Now we have two rights of return,” he says, smiling wryly. “One to Palestine and one to Syria.”
Like most of the nearly three-quarters of a million refugees who have fled Syria’s increasingly brutal war, Nidal and his family escaped with nothing but the clothes on their back.
But unlike their fully Syrian counterparts, the only U.N. agency allowed to help the Palestinian Syrians is the United Nations Reliefs and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the desperately overstretched refugee body that was set up in 1947 specifically to deal with Palestinians displaced following the creation of Israel.
Even before the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, Palestinian refugees were among the poorest communities in Syria. Now, Nidal’s financial situation is desperate.
Just to get into Lebanon, each Palestinian Syrian has to pay around $20, which buys them a weeklong visa that can be extended for up to one month for twice that amount. These fees are “prohibitively expensive, particularly for larger families,” says a statement Human Rights Watch on the issue. By contrast, full-nationality Syrians do not pay to enter Lebanon and are given a free six-month visa on arrival.
The one-time $40 UNRWA allowance that each member of Nidal’s family received on arrival is long gone, he says, and the food vouchers they were given can only be used at specific, more expensive, places. He went out this morning to find work but found nothing. In four days’ time, he will have to pay his rent.
This is a typical experience for the more than 20,000 Palestinian Syrians who have recently sought refuge in Lebanon. Because of their nationality, they are receiving a different level of assistance than other Syrian refugees. Further, most end up staying in places like Sabra or Ain al-Hilweh, among Lebanon’s pre-existing Palestinian community, whom HRW has long described as living in “appalling social and economic conditions”.
Syria’s Palestinians refugees face similar barriers in Jordan, where they are now being refused entry at the border.
“Life was better in Syria … When the road becomes better, I will return.”
The aid discrepancy is primarily a bureaucratic problem that could, with some work, be resolved. But it is not so easy to address the political and social issues raised by the arrival of large numbers of Palestinians, whom many in Lebanon blame for triggering a 15-year-long civil war that ravaged the tiny country of 4 million people.
Abdullah, who prefers not to give a last name out of concern for his family still inside Syria, and who describes himself as “Palestinian by blood and Syrian by nationality,” has been working on the issue of relief for Syrian refugees since the conflict began, shuttling between Damascus and Beirut.
“Syria is nothing like Lebanon,” he explains, frowning. “There are no [Palestinian] camps, it’s mixed. In Syria there is no difference between Palestinians and Syrians. You are a person so you are treated the same way, whether Palestinian or Syrian.”
To resolve the crisis here, he says, there must be a change in attitudes: “The main thing is the need for political will from the part of the Lebanese and especially the people.”
“The people cannot keep looking at the Syrian refugees and only seeing the issue of the Palestinian refugees and what happened when they were here and how they think they started the civil war.”
He tells me he comes across many cases of discrimination. One refugee needed an asthma inhaler, a common item that costs around $13. “Nobody would give it to him,” Abdullah says, “No hospital or pharmacy, because he was Palestinian Syrian. He died from an asthma attack.”
Rana Mansour, also Palestinian, fled to Sabra in early December with her six children, aged between 17 and 3. Her husband is still in Syria. “We feel like we’ve been forgotten about,” she says, hugging one of her younger daughters to herself. “Whenever we ask for help we are told to go to UNRWA. But they hardly give us anything.”
In order to pay the bills and buy food, Mansour has had to pull her two oldest sons out of their UNRWA-run schools and send them out to work. One fixes bicycles and another paints cars. They are 15 and 13 years old. “Life was better in Syria,” she says. “When the road becomes better, I will return. People here already live in bad conditions. The small amount of aid Palestinians receive here is stretched even further.”
“People say to us all the time: ‘We are poor already, why are you taking more from us?’ They resent us.”
UNRWA, already struggling to serve some 455,000 Palestinian Lebanese, readily admits it is overstretched by this new influx.
The agency submitted a revised request for $13.3 million in extra funding in December, after its original appeal last September--which only ever received 20 percent of the requested funding--became redundant in the face of rapidly rising numbers.
“The available funds for UNRWA in Lebanon cannot cover this crisis,” explains UNRWA spokeswoman Houda Samra. “We only have 50 percent of the funds we have requested [for the Syrian Palestinians],” she says, “so we can only come up with half of the goods that we want to come up with; we can only provide half of the services we want to.”
One of the services UNRWA provides for Lebanon’s Palestinians is medical assistance. But aside from offering general care in their health clinics, budget restraints mean that life-threatening cases can be hospitalized. For Dalah al-Laham, this means she will have to find another way to help her son. The 14-year-old was injured when a shell hit Yarmouk camp last November, and Laham has not been able to get him treatment in Lebanon. This is largely due to the large costs involved, but also, according to her and Abdullah--who is working on her case--partly due to his nationality.
He needs a complex operation to remove bits of shrapnel embedded in his skull and physical therapy for his right hand, which is currently paralyzed. Laham herself has breast cancer, but getting treatment for that is currently out of the question.
Sitting in a small room in Shatila, another Palestinian camp in Beirut, she chews her lips nervously as she talks. Laham pays $200 a month for rent alone, and, like Nidal, she has used up her UNRWA allowance. She has gone 16 days without electricity, she says, and doesn’t have money to eat. “Food is more expensive here than in Syria, so life is harder.”
“There are already Palestinians living here in bad conditions,” she says. “Some people resent us coming.” Do they feel discriminated against in Lebanon, I ask? “Taba’an,” she and several people in the room reply in chorus. “Certainly.”
Yet UNRWA says that they have not seen a difference in the way Lebanese authorities treat Syrian and Palestinian Syrian refugees. “So far we have only seen cooperation,” says Samra. “They even included Palestinian Syrians in national plans established to call for more funds.”
For Nidal, the conclusion is simple. “I regret that I came,” he says. “If I had stayed under the shells in Yarmouk it would have been better than here.”
“Hopefully we can go back soon. Even if I return and my house is completely flattened, I will stay there. At least there I have some dignity. Here there is none.”