Dire con­di­tions in Shatila mir­ror refugees’ lack of per­spec­tives


The Daily News Egypt - - International -

DW—Nar­row brick stairs lead up to the sec­ond floor of a run­down build­ing in the mid­dle of Shatila.The door is blocked, closed off with fresh ce­ment bricks. Un­til one month ago, the stair­case was used by the build­ing’s res­i­dents un­til a young boy got caught in the elec­tric ca­bles hang­ing above. He tripped, fell, and died.

Un­se­cured elec­tric wires are among the most com­mon causes of haz­ardous ac­ci­dents in the Pales­tinian refugee camp Shatila. Spread like spi­der webs, they run from build­ing to build­ing through­out the nar­row streets and al­ley­ways, loosely tight­ened with makeshift straps. Power cuts and elec­tro­cu­tion are fre­quent.

The camp has been at its limit for a long time, tells Shatila res­i­dent Imad Raad who also vol­un­teers for refugee aid or­gan­i­sa­tion “Bas­meh and Zeitooneh”. In ad­di­tion to an ex­tremely frag­ile in­fra­struc­ture, the camp was over­crowded even be­fore the Syr­ian war be­gan in 2011. Since then, thou­sands more have come to Shatila. Ad­di­tional floors have been built on top of build­ings as one way to ac­com­mo­date the new­com­ers.

Be­fore the war, 22,000 Pales­tinian refugees lived in Shatila, an area of 1.5 square kilo­me­tres, Imad Raad ex­plains. Since then, 17,000 new refugees have ar­rived, ini­tially mostly Pales­tinian Syr­i­ans, later joined by reg­u­lar Syr­i­ans as well.

Find­ing shel­ter for new fam­i­lies

“Fam­i­lies were ar­riv­ing at night and did not have a place to go,” Imad Raad re­calls. “They did not have any­thing on them. There was no help avail­able.” Long-time Shatila res­i­dent Imad Raad was among the first vol­un­teers who re­sponded to the cri­sis. He mo­bilised friends and neigh­bours. “We went around un­til the early morn­ing hours to find shel­ter for the new refugees.We knocked on doors to ask if there was space.” In ad­di­tion, Raad or­gan­ised ne­ces­si­ties

Un­se­cured elec­tric wires are among the most com­mon causes of haz­ardous ac­ci­dents in the Pales­tinian refugee camp Shatila

like kitchen fa­cil­i­ties, pots, or pil­lows.

Ini­tially in 2012, there were no aid or­gan­i­sa­tions present in Shatila. Bas­meh and Zeitooneh was founded in 2012; it started with peo­ple like Raad who were ded­i­cated to serv­ing Syr­ian refugees in Lebanon on the ground. Other lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional NGOs—in­clud­ing al-Na­jda, Beit At­fal al-Soumoud, Nor­we­gian Peo­ples’ Aid, or Doc­tors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Fron­tières, or MSF) —fol­lowed and set up of­fices in the camp.

The past years have put Shatila to the test, not only ag­gra­vat­ing liv­ing con­di­tions, but also strain­ing the so­cial fab­ric.“Pales­tini­ans who have lived here all their life know a life of strug­gling,” Raad ex­plains.“Refugees from Syria who had been well off be­fore the war are not used to this.”

At Shatila’s main square

In damp shel­ters and streets, open sewage is a threat to en­vi­ron­men­tal health con­di­tions. Ac­cess to med­i­cal ser­vices and ed­u­ca­tion is dif­fi­cult,as is find­ing work, be­cause even Le­banon­born Shatila res­i­dents are not al­lowed to le­gally take up a job in Lebanon. Many Syr­ian refugees are driven to beg in Beirut streets—young chil­dren try to sell flow­ers or shine shoes.

The camp has been at its limit for a long time The dream of Europe

In Shatila, in­te­gra­tion is vis­i­ble. Syr­ian fam­i­lies have opened shops and sell fruit and gro­ceries, one way to make a liv­ing. The per­spec­tives of find­ing work out­side the camp, how­ever, are slim.“The dream of go­ing to Europe is still very much in the minds of many,” says one Pales­tinian Syr­ian who came to Lebanon in 2013 with his par­ents.“Even if the jour­ney is dan­ger­ous, even if the laws and reg­u­la­tions in Europe are com­pli­cated,peo­ple who have fled the war and have no per­spec­tive here in Lebanon would rather choose the risk.”

Imad Raad helps new­com­ers who come to Shatila

Many fam­i­lies in Shatila have left for Europe, Raad con­firms.An es­ti­mated 6,000 peo­ple of those who ar­rived since 2011 have con­tin­ued their jour­ney, headed for Europe and an un­cer­tain fu­ture. “There are smug­glers of­fer­ing their ser­vices in Shatila,” he says. But pay­ing sev­eral thou­sand dol­lars for a pos­si­ble chance of a fu­ture in a new coun­try is an op­tion out of reach for many.Oth­ers hope to re­turn to Syria one day and choose to stay in Shatila—they want to re­main as close to their coun­try as pos­si­ble.

Founded by the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross in 1949 to house Pales­tinian refugees driven from their coun­try, Shatila was left to gov­ern it­self.The camp has ex­pe­ri­enced blood­shed and vi­o­lence be­fore; it was the scene of the bru­tal 1982 mas­sacre, dur­ing which 3,500 res­i­dents were killed by the Le­banese Christian Pha­lange mili­tia.Var­i­ous Pales­tinian fac­tions rule over dif­fer­ent parts the camp to­day.Young men armed with guns sit a few feet away from camp’s main square, above them flags with their an­nounced po­lit­i­cal lead­ers.

The Le­banese state re­mains in a state of limbo; it does not gov­ern within the camp and has con­tin­ued its in­fras­truc­tural ne­glect to­ward Pales­tini­ans refugees.

Prob­lems of reach­ing schools

The re­lief agency for Pales­tinian refugees in the near east,UNRWA,set up ed­u­ca­tional pro­grammes as well as health­care ser­vices and in­fra­struc­ture pro­grammes in Lebanon, in­clud­ing in Shatila. In­fras­truc­tural prob­lems and a lack of so­cial ser­vices have per­vaded how­ever, and have added to the le­gal void that Pales­tinian refugees are fac­ing in Lebanon.“In­ter­na­tional help was mostly ab­sent,” Raad states.The un­avail­abil­ity of med­i­cal ser­vices or ed­u­ca­tion re­flects the dire con­di­tions en­dured by many.“There was no ed­u­ca­tion, preg­nant women had no help be­fore Doc­tors Without Borders ar­rived.”

Ac­cord­ing to the UNRWA, there are 450,000 Pales­tinian refugees reg­is­tered in Lebanon, mak­ing up a to­tal of 10% of the to­tal pop­u­la­tion. Over half live in one of 12 refugee camps, Shatila be­ing the largest in pop­u­la­tion.Ac­cord­ing to the UNHCR, more than 350,000 out of 500,000 refugee chil­dren do not go to school. Pro­grammes funded by in­ter­na­tional aid are reach­ing out to Syr­ian chil­dren at Le­banese schools. Le­banese ed­u­ca­tion au­thor­i­ties have added sec­ond shifts so that refugee chil­dren can take part in af­ter­noon classes and hun­dreds of new teach­ers were hired with in­ter­na­tional funds.

Marginal­i­sa­tion of Pales­tinian refugees

Yet, many chil­dren have been out of school for years and face psy­cho­log­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties of pro­cess­ing ex­pe­ri­ences of war and adapt­ing to a new en­vi­ron­ment. Merely reach­ing these schools can be a chal­lenge as well. “Many fam­i­lies in Shatila do not have enough money to pay for the bus to school,” Raad says. Let­ting the chil­dren walk alone in the streets out­side the camp is dan­ger­ous.

Shatila res­i­dents are still marginalised and re­main without le­gal sta­tus in Lebanon. Although em­i­gra­tion to Lebanon has been go­ing on for decades, refugees re­main on the side­lines of so­cial and po­lit­i­cal life in the coun­try.They are not al­lowed to own property and are barred from work­ing in as many as 20 pro­fes­sions.

The em­i­gra­tion cri­sis due to the Syr­ian war is one of the main is­sues con­cern­ing Le­banese so­ci­ety and its peo­ple.The con­di­tions in Shatila are a re­minder of a very frag­ile sit­u­a­tion, one of ne­glect, of over­bur­den, and of the coun­try’s chal­lenges to in­te­grate new refugees as well as long-time refugees.

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