Life in a refugee camp: Palestinian voices from Lebanon

PNN/ Bethlehem/

This week, Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) marked, with deep sadness, the 35th anniversary of the massacre in the Palestinian refugee camp of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon.

Between 16 and 18 September 1982, Lebanese Phalangist militants entered the central-Beirut refugee camp of Sabra and Shatila and killed and injured hundreds of unarmed Palestinian and other civilians. The camp’s residents were defenceless.

The Israeli army – which had invaded Lebanon earlier that year and had surrounded the camp – had full knowledge of what was taking place inside, yet they never intervened. Instead, they illuminated the camp throughout the night by launching flares into the sky from helicopters and mortars.

Working in a hospital inside the camp at the time was a young orthopaedic surgeon from London, Dr Swee Chai Ang. During the massacre, Dr Swee and her colleagues worked tirelessly to treat the injured and protect patients.

On her return to London, Dr Swee joined with fellow medical professionals and humanitarians to establish MAP, in order to send out doctors and nurses to work in the Palestinian refugee camps and provide front-line care.

To this day, MAP and our partners continue to provide life-saving support to Palestinians living in refugee camps across Lebanon. This is the world’s longest-running refugee crisis.

Next year, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and across the region will mark 70 years of dispossession since they were forced to flee Palestine during the Nakba – or ‘tragedy’ – of 1948.

Continuing displacement

Last week a team from MAP met with Palestinian women, doubly-displaced due to the outbreak of the war in Syria. The women fled to Lebanon and are now living in the country’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, Ein el Hilweh, where they face restrictions to their basic civil rights, and limited opportunities for work and education. The women are part of a MAP-supported reproductive health programme run by our partner organisation, Nabaa. They spoke about their involvement in the programme and the difficulties they face living as Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

How long have you lived in Ein el Hilweh Camp?

Sada*: I moved to Ein el Hilweh six years ago to escape the war in Syria.

Farah*: I moved to Ein el Hilweh five years ago also due to the war in Syria. I came to the camp because it was cheaper to live here than outside the camp and because here everybody is Palestinian so I feel more at home.

Tell us about the group sessions you attend with MAP’s partner, Nabaa

Dima*: We are involved in Nabaa’s reproductive health project. In our group we discuss early childhood development, including the different stages a child goes through, how to best support them at each stage and how to act if they have challenging behaviours.

What have you learnt from the sessions?

Yara*: Even though I am old there were many things I did not know about the development of a child before I started attending Nabaa’s group sessions. 75% of the information we talked about today, I did not know before. Like issues relating to the development of the brain. Before I did not know much about how the brain of a child develops.

Alya*: We are often shown exercises in the session that we can use at home with our children.

Sada: One time we were given a square with three lines through the middle and were asked to draw another three lines to make three squares. We all found this hard at first and then the session leader showed us how. She used this as an example to show us that children at school can find it difficult to understand tasks and can need additional support.

What challenges do your children face growing up as Palestinian refugees in Lebanon?

Sada: The security situation, schools, education.

Dima: When there is conflict in the camp the schools close. This stops our children from completing their school year or studying properly. I have four grandchildren at school and they find it difficult to continue studying when there is conflict. Last year they had official exams and their attendance at school dropped due to clashes which effected their performance in the official exams.

During the recent clashes did you stay at home or were you able to leave the camp?

Maryam*: We stayed in the camp. We don’t have anywhere else to go outside the camp.

Farah: During the clashes I stayed in my house for seven days seeing armed groups move around the camp.

Maryam: Bullets were coming through the walls of my house. My children were very scared. Every time they heard a sound they were terrified.

Do you worry about being unable to move freely in and out of the camp?

Sada: We do not go out of the camp. We have to renew our permits every three months or they will send us back and we can’t afford to renew them so we have to stay in the camp. Even the new permits are difficult, it is not easy.

Since you moved to Ein el Hilweh have conditions got better or worse in the camp?

Dima: The conditions have got much worse. The conditions of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are very bad. The only thing we can do is talk and say what is happening. If I stayed in Syria it would have been better. If Yarmouk camp is safe again I will go back.

Yara: We are not happy here. I have been living here for 45 years, but I feel life in Syria is better than here.

Farah: Aleppo, where I lived in Syria, is now safe but I have a son who is at the age where he will be taken into the army, so if we cross the border into Syria they will take my son immediately into the army.

Maryam: I tried to go back once with my son, who was at the age they would take him into the army. At the border between Lebanon and Syria they stopped my son for eight hours because his name was similar to someone who was wanted. We were very scared. I don’t take my son with me anymore.

Where are other members of your families living?

Alya: My two eldest children are in Germany, my husband went to Germany two years ago too. For three years I have been living without my husband. I hope I can join them in Germany. My youngest child was six months old when his father left, now he is two and a half and he hasn’t seen him all that time.

Nadia*: My father, an old man, was living with my husband and me in the camp. He was very sick, he was dying, and my brothers and sisters wanted to see him before he died but they couldn’t. They left Lebanon illegally so they will not be able to return. It’s a problem all Palestinian Syrians suffer from.

Dima: My son moved to Europe when he was 16. I can apply to join him as he is under 18 years old. But I have not been able to join him. My husband died so my son is in a different country by himself.

What are your hopes for the future?

Maryam: A life for my children better than the one they live. Last week an Israeli aeroplane went above Saida [Lebanon’s third largest city, close to Ein el Hilweh]. It made a very loud sound. My children were very scared. I want safety and security for my children.

Nadia: I want to go back and see my brothers and sisters. Each one of us is in a different country.

Yara: I hope to go back to Palestine.

Read MAP’s report, If I Die, Bury Me in Palestine, to find out more about the experience of Palestinian refugees from Syria.


*Names changed to protect identities