Safaa’s home is a tiny room in Borj el Barajneh, a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, just minutes away from the flashy glamour of downtown Beirut. She just turned 21, but she sleeps next to her 18-year-old brother and eight-year-old sister.
According to Safaa, their father is in Jordan, unable to return to Lebanon because he lacks the correct paperwork, while their mother died last year from an electric shock caused by faulty wiring in the camp. The three siblings are crammed into the second floor of their house because they’ve given the ground floor to a family of Palestinians who fled Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria four months ago. "We didn’t know them before, but now we are like one family," Safaa says with a smile. "It’s easy to give people a room to live in. If we don’t take care of each other, who will take care of us?"
Over 100,000 Palestinians recently evacuated Yarmouk after a Syrian government aerial assault on the camp. U.N. officials estimate that almost 17,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria have crossed the border into Lebanon since the beginning of the uprisings in March 2011, flooding the already overcrowded Lebanese camps.
Thousands of Palestinians returned to Yarmouk on Dec. 21, following reports of a deal brokered by Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations and Arab League envoy to Syria, in which both sides of the Syrian war agreed to keep the Palestinian camps out of the conflict. However, the truce proved to be short-lived, and many Palestinian families have opted to stay in Lebanon, fearful that their camp will again fall victim to the violence that has ravaged Syria for almost two years.
"The geographic location of Yarmouk means that it is strategically important to both sides," says Nabil al-Sahli, a journalist from Yarmouk who arrived at Borj el-Barajneh a few days ago with his family. "We are doing our best to distance ourselves from the situation … we hope that we will be able to return to our camp as soon as possible."
Al-Sahli’s 20-year-old daughter, Hanadi, a slim, pretty girl in a stylish hijab, is less sanguine about their situation. "There are no bathrooms," she says. "I can’t sleep … there’s no privacy. It’s very difficult." She pauses for a moment to collect herself. "I have no dream anymore," she says quietly as her eyes fill with tears.
Refugees have been a polarizing issue in Lebanon for decades. As well as the estimated 400,000 Palestinians already living in Lebanese camps, over 170,000 Syrians have crossed the border into Lebanon since the beginning of the conflict. Unlike in Turkey and Jordan, the Lebanese government has not established any official camps for Syrian refugees. Instead, Syrians are scattered across the country, some in ad hoc private settlements, some with host families, and many left to fend for themselves.
A number of politicians from both sides of Lebanon’s fractured leadership recently called for the border with Syria to be closed in order to halt the influx of refugees into the country. However, on Jan. 4, the Lebanese government announced that the borders would remain open and proposed a plan to register and assist the refugees, asking foreign donors for $180 million in emergency funds to facilitate the new policy.
According to Lebanese Minister of Social Affairs Wael Abou Faour, who is in charge of dealing with the refugee crisis, coming up with a comprehensive strategy to assist the Syrian refugees hasn’t been easy. "We’ve been struggling for over a year to come up with this plan," he says. "For some of our partners in the government, not having a plan to support and assist the Syrian refugees is a way to protect Bashar al-Assad … it’s unacceptable to talk about closing the borders or transferring the refugees or obliging them to go somewhere else."
Although Abou Faour is optimistic about the new proposal, he is concerned about Lebanon’s ability to handle another major influx of refugees. "I think that, so far, we were able to reach a consensus with the main political parties within Lebanon that this crisis would be dealt with as a humanitarian issue, not a political issue," he says. "But the main concern is what we will do if we have another major influx. We are talking about the possibility of a battle for Damascus. If that happens … I think we will be obliged to establish camps."
Ahmed Moustafa, an official with the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a group associated with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), says that when it comes to the Palestinians fleeing Syria, the Lebanese government and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the organization responsible for providing assistance to Palestinian refugees, have not been effective in their efforts. "Assistance and support is very weak," says Moustafa. "UNRWA has offered very little assistance to the Palestinians coming from Syria."
On Jan. 2, dozens of Palestinians displaced from Syria protested outside the UNRWA headquarters in Beirut, demanding more aid from the organization. But according to Hoda Souaiby, public information officer for the UNRWA field office in Beirut, there is simply not enough money to cover all the new refugees."UNRWA is faced with major financial constraints," she says. "We had to put out an appeal to the donor community because we did not have any reserve funds in Lebanon."
In the cramped room that serves as her home, Safaa opens the sheet covering a window and points to the house across the street. "See that house?" she says. "Syrians are living there. Not Palestinians from Syria. Syrians come to live in our camp … to save money, but the government of Lebanon and the U.N. take care of them … this camp is for Palestinians, not for Syrians. We can’t handle any more people."
But conditions for many of the Syrian refugees are no better. At a construction site in the primarily Druze town of Aley, about an hour away from Beirut, Yasser opens the door to the half-built room that he, his wife, and their seven children are living in. Blankets cover the damp floor, and although it’s warm for winter in Lebanon, his breath clouds as he speaks. "The rain is the hardest thing we’ve had to deal with, and the sickness," he says. "My wife gave birth to our last baby here, in the cold and wet."
Yasser’s family fled his home near Damascus about a month and a half ago. The owner of the building site in Aley originally agreed to let them stay there, but he needs to continue construction, so Yasser says he and his family will be evicted very soon.
His children scamper and play on the rubble that surrounds the site. Their faces are smeared with dirt, and they’re dressed in little more than rags. Yasser puts an arm around his wife, who is carrying a small baby with fleabites scattered across his neck. "We are waiting to go home," he says. "We can’t stay here in Lebanon, but we can’t go back now. God willing, Assad will fall and we can go back to Syria."
Salma Chouhayeb, wife of Lebanese Member of Parliament Akram Chouhayeb and director of Aley Salvation, an NGO that works to help the Syrian refugees in Aley, says that although many Lebanese politicians fear that the Syrian refugee crisis will become permanent, much like that of the Palestinians, she is confident that will not be the case. "The Palestinians were a different situation," she says. "These people … are not going to be here long. There won’t be permanent camps like the Palestinians. They are waiting for the minute they can go back to their country."
At a school for Syrian refugee children operated by Aley Salvation, Nadim Chouhayeb, who works for the NGO and is related to Akram Chouhayeb, explains that the work they are doing is not safe in the current political climate. "Every day, we are getting official ‘advice’ not to help these Syrian refugees, sometimes in a tone that very much sounds like a threat," he says. "We are civil workers, and we are afraid that we will be targeted."
Later on, Chouhayeb lifts up his shirt to display the firearm tucked into his pants, then reaches into his car and produces an impressive machine gun. "We don’t move without our guns," he says. "We know our destiny, and we are ready for it."
In the meantime, the refugee crisis in Lebanon continues without an end in sight. In the room downstairs from Safaa’s house in Borj el-Barajneh, Khaled, his mother, sister, and seven-year-old brother sit on the floor, taking care not to tread on the worn mattresses and blankets that they sleep on. Khaled, 22, and his family left Yarmouk four months ago. He says that despite the Palestinian effort to distance themselves from the Syrian war, it was inevitable they would become involved. "Syrians were streaming into the camp to escape the violence," he says. "As things progressed, Palestinians composed only about 15 percent of the population in the camp. The conflict came to us. That’s why we had to leave."
Ali, Khaled’s seven-year-old brother, is silent until asked what he remembers about Syria. "I remember tanks firing, the noise from the guns, and blood everywhere," he says in a whisper. "I remember people dying in front of me."
His mother puts an arm around him.
Sulome Anderson is a freelance journalist based between New York City and Beirut.