Palestinians from Syria languish in overcrowded Beirut refugee camp

10 February
Shatila camp, Beirut

For tens of thousands of Palestine refugees normally residents in Syria, the conflict in that country has meant not only traumatic violence, but being made a refugee for the second time.

Over 20,000 Palestinians have crossed from Syria to Lebanon since the start of the conflict. Seeking respite from the violence, most of the refugees have encountered a host of new problems.

Palestine refugees in the camps of Lebanon deal with poor living conditions and overcrowding. With the advent of over 20,000 new entrants in the camps from Syria, the situation has become critical. In some cases, several families share a single room, without water or electricity.

“We came here seeking shelter”

Sabah, a mother in her fifties, sits on a wooden bench in the small room she shares with her two married daughters, daughter-in-law, and their children. The room has one bed, a small kitchen, and a bathroom.

“We are refugees from Yarmouk camp [Damascus],” Sabah begins. “We came here seeking safety, but we could not find a proper shelter.”

Quiet for a moment, Sabah adds, “Can you imagine four families living here; 24 people including 16 children?

“We cannot go to the bathroom when we sleep at night for fear of stepping on someone. If a neighbour comes around to check on us, we can’t even fit them through the door.

Every day, Sabah says, the families leave the house to get some fresh air and sunlight after a long, humid night. “We only really relax during the daytime, when children leave for school.”

She is especially concerned about the effects the conditions are having on the children.

“There is no atmosphere to study at home. Even just breathing at the same time is enough to disturb all of us.

“How can a child move from one place to another, or jump and shout? Do you think they can study here?”

“It’s better than sleeping on the street”

Things are not very different in the shed in which Muhammad Azzamar and his family live. On entering, the voice of a family member pipes up, asking for a candle to be lit. With electricity out, it is difficult to see; the shed feels more like a narrow tunnel than a living space for three families, consisting of 12 persons in total.

Mobile phones provide some scant light. The place is saturated with humidity, and has no easy access to fresh water for drinking and personal hygiene.

“Our movement is crippled when the electricity is out. It’s very dark and the walls are saturated with humidity, they are always wet,” says Muhammad.

“We couldn’t find a better place to rent,” he adds. “We had to rent this place, although the rent, which comes to 250 US dollars a month, is too expensive.”

“Still, humidity and disease are better than sleeping on the street.”

“Everything has changed now”

“We enjoyed freedom and convenience in our homes in Syria,” says Jasim Khaled, whose family shares a two-room shelter with two other families in another part of Shatila camp. A total of 13 persons, including three children, live in substandard conditions in this crowded, overly humid shelter, lacking access to fresh water and other basic amenities.

“In Syria, we slept and woke up when we wanted. Our lives were well-structured, in keeping with our habits,” Jasim continues.

“Now, we are constantly stressed. The large number of people living in such a small space has deprived us from any sense of privacy. We don’t even have enough mattresses and blankets to keep us warm in this cold season.”

“Everything has changed now,” he concludes. “Calm and stability have turned to fear.”