BEIRUT — Scenes of Palestinian refugees fleeing from the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus have been likened to images of the Palestinian exodus following Israeli statehood in 1948, the much-decried event known to Palestinians as the nakba ("catastrophe" in Arabic).
When 25-year-old Rima and her family first fled from Yarmouk, they relocated to northern Damascus for two months. "I remember walking with my family toward the camp's northern exit and the words of my grandparents about their bitterness of leaving their country and home," she recalls.
Rima's family ultimately made their way to Wadi al-Zena, a town situated north of the Lebanese coastal city of Sidon. "Because of my dad's great fear for the family's safety — and we had also lost our jobs while relocating — he decided it was best to come to Lebanon."
According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), at least 45,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria have landed in camps in neighboring Lebanon. Kamal, 50, explains that leaving Syria was comparable to his ancestors' flight from Israel in 1948.
"My wife is Syrian," Kamal says. "I feel like I belong to Syria as much as Palestine. I was born and raised there. My entire life was there. We feel the same as people across Syria because we are enduring the same difficult circumstances."
Today he lives in the Palestinian Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut, where his wife Hadia works as a teacher at a humanitarian organization that helps Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
"When I came to Lebanon, I dreamed that it would be like how I saw it on television and in the Lebanese media, but I was shocked," Hadia says. "Here in Burj al-Barajneh, the infrastructure is crumbling, there are lots of rats and the sewers have a strong stench."
Kamal and Hadia met in Syria's Yarmouk camp, once home to nearly 200,000 people, including Palestinian refugees and Syrians alike. "You could live a reasonable life in Yarmouk [before the civil war]," she says. "Yarmouk was like a small city. But today, Lebanon is better than having stayed in Syria."
According to Wesam Sabaaneh, youth director at the Syria-based Jafra Foundation, the nearly half a million Palestinians in Syria "are particularly vulnerable because they are already refugees."
Echoing Sabaaneh, Kamal remarks that they "suffered far more restrictions" than their Syrian counterparts. "I am a second-generation refugee after the nakba," he says. "I was forced to do the same as my father, only I fled from Syria to Lebanon. It's a bizarre feeling to be born and live your whole life as a refugee, and even stranger to have to be a double refugee, seeking refuge yet again but finding a serious decline in our already bad living circumstances."
Back in May, life became even more difficult for Palestinians from Syria who are now in Lebanon when UNRWA announced that an ongoing funding crisis has forced the agency to cut $100 rent stipends that helped them afford housing.
Siham, 39, fled Yarmouk with her father, husband and three daughters in December 2012, when the Syrian military dropped bombs on the camp. Her brother had already been killed by a bullet fired by Syrian government forces earlier that year.
Photo: Syria Deeply
They fled to Qudsaya, a town north of Damascus, where her father died of a heart attack just two months later. "Only three weeks after that, my husband went to work and never returned," Siham says. "I didn't know how to provide for my kids and myself."
Another six months passed before she learned what happened. "A security patrol unit brought my husband's identification papers to the front door," Siham says. "The head officer told me my husband had died in their custody, then just turned and walked away. I was left speechless."
Fighting back tears, she adds, "I had lost my husband, my brother, my father and our home in Yarmouk, so I felt that Syria was no longer welcoming for me and my daughters. That's when I decided to come to Lebanon."
Siham and her daughters ended up in a Syrian refugee camp in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley region, where they live in a single-room tent and are banned from formally working. "We depend on aid from organizations and good people," she says, as tears stream down her face. "Palestinians from Syria are now going through their second nakba."