BAALBEK – The sound of shouting children echoes in the playground of the United Nations-run school of Jalil camp in Baalbek, Lebanon. Palestinian children from Syria have recently joined the Palestinian children living in Lebanon.
And yet, this new coexistence among different parts of the Palestinian diaspora is not always easy: "Some Palestinian children from Syria feel humiliated because those who were born here call them ‘refugees!’ They had never thought of themselves that way before," says a youth worker.
More than 7,000 Syria-based Palestinians have been forced to flee to neighboring Lebanon, as the Syrian conflict grows more violent. Most of them have come from Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria -- located south of Damascus. The flow started last summer as violence moved closer to the Syrian capital.
This is yet again another exile after the older generations were forced to move from their native Palestine to Syria. "We stayed in Syria until the very last minute. All our lives, we were happy there as Palestinians," says 35-year-old Salwa, speaking from the first floor of a small house with a rickety staircase.
As she serves coffee, this housewife from Yarmouk shows us a set of small, round, traditional painted cups. "We cannot even afford these. We borrowed them! We live off charity. My husband is a scrap merchant; he is looking for a job. It is hard!" she whispers.
Solidarity in hard times
She receives help from relatives who have already settled in Jalil. "Most Palestinians from Syria who fled to Lebanon are staying with friends and family," explains Hoda Samra, the UNRWA spokeswoman in Lebanon. "Their hosts have shown great solidarity. Yet it is also quite difficult because the families who welcome them are struggling to make ends meet. They are not able to take in newcomers for the medium or long-term."
Besides this solidarity, Syria-born Palestinians do not receive much help. At Jalil camp, refugees were given mattresses or food parcels from the Lebanese Red Cross, the Emirati Red Crescent and even Hezbollah, which considers the camp as one of its strongholds, says Abou Jihad, one of the camp's political leaders. "Winter is coming. The main challenges are now housing and heating," he adds.
Criticized for its slow response, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine's Refugees (UNRWA) provides refugees with access to health care, and has opened special classes for 1,000 Syrian-born Palestinian children in several camps around the country. The UNRWA – which has been underfunded for years – launched a fundraising operation to raise $54 million, including $8 million for Lebanon. The rest will be mainly used for Palestinians in Syria but also in Jordan.
Living conditions and infrastructure are not the only concerns of these newcomers. Their relocation underlines the humiliating fate of the Lebanon-based Palestinians – whose population is between 200,000 and 450,000. In a room covered in foam mattresses, Karim, a 39-year-old executive, does not have much hope: "Palestinians here are treated like animals. If we have to stay in Lebanon because of the Syrian conflict, we will have to give up our former lives. Even if we were refugees, we had regular schools for our children, jobs, we owned land. It means that we'll have to start everything all over again, as if we were cursed."
On top of that, Karim knows that he will soon have documentation problems: while Syrian refugees were given a six month visa when they entered Lebanon, Palestinians can only apply for weekly visas -- and can only get one month’s extension. That means many will stay in the country as illegal aliens, unable to return to their native Syria.