BEIRUT: The number of Palestinians who have fled the violence in Syria for Lebanon has reached 40,000, and some refugees have gone on hunger strike to protest what they deem a shortfall in assistance from the United Nations.
“According to our latest figures, some 40,000 Palestinians from Syria are registered for assistance from our offices,” United Nations Relief and Works Agency spokesperson Hoda Samra told The Daily Star.
Refugees protested Wednesday and Thursday outside various UNRWA offices, calling for monthly cash assistance to help them cover the cost of food and housing.
A protest outside the organization’s offices in Sidon saw Palestinians holding banners slamming the performance of UNRWA. One read, “the injustice we are suffering from UNRWA is even worse than the war our people have witnessed ... UNRWA is closing its doors to Palestinian refugees.”
Samra said UNRWA is providing health and education for those Palestinians who fled from Syria, adding that “we even had three rounds of cash distributions and we have repeatedly distributed coupons for food aid.”
But she said UNRWA was unable to promise monthly payments to the refugees – one demand of the protesters – because the U.N. organization lacked the needed funds.
“We will continue to give them money but we cannot commit to anything which is monthly. The financial provisions will be subject to the availability of funds,” Samra said.
Ahmad Mustafa, an official with Beirut’s Popular Committees, said the Palestinian factions are doing what they can to help the refugees but also have limited means. He slammed UNRWA for what he termed its “reluctance” to help Palestinians from Syria.
He said that a refugee who was protesting Wednesday, Mohammad Tahhan, fell ill and was taken to Burj al-Barajneh’s Haifa Hospital.
Tahhan, who Mustafa said had a brain injury, did not have the medication he needed. “UNRWA claims it is covering medical and health services. Well, this is definitely a proof that they are not,” he argued.
An open-ended sit-in outside UNRWA’s main Beirut headquarters began a month ago, and has become a temporary shelter for homeless Syrian Palestinians as well as the center of a hunger strike.
There are two tents at the organization’s entrance where some who can no longer afford shelter are staying.
One of the refugees, Issam Mansour, has been sleeping in the protest tent for a month and said he can’t afford accommodations for his family.
“My wife and three kids are moving from one place to another because they have nowhere to go, and I have been sleeping here,” he said, pointing to the roadside tent and the pile of thin mattresses inside.
Mansour explained that some nine refugees had begun a hunger strike this week, in a bid to pressure the U.N. for more consistent help. “It isn’t about food, we need a roof over our heads ... We are unemployed and cannot afford the high costs of rent,” he said.
“UNRWA is responsible for us. We are the Palestinians who were kicked out of their homeland in 1948 and the international community is committed to helping us,” he added.
Nabil Mohammad, who fled Damascus’ Yarmouk refugee camp two months ago, has been on hunger strike for three days and said he would continue until the refugees’ demands have been met.
“They just give us empty promises, they paid us three times, but what they pay is barely enough,” he said.
“I have a terrible headache but I will not eat or have any water. I hold them responsible for anything that happens to me,” he said, in reference to UNRWA.
Tarek Abdel-Halim, 21, a Syrian-Palestinian who was a university student in Syria before he fled, also stopped eating Wednesday in what he described a sign of “solidarity with other refugees.”
“My situation is not really bad. We were already not eating much, only one meal per day,” said Abdel-Halim.
In another tent, a group of some 10 women simply gaze at each other, as if in a state of permanent anticipation. There are piles of bread in the corner, as the women have not yet joined the hunger strike.
“We want to go on hunger strike too, but the men are against it,” explained Jamileh Dalloul, a refugee from Yarmouk.
“If the situation continues as it is, I will stop listening to them and I will go on hunger strike.”
“We have been outside the UNRWA for a month and not one person has come down to talk to us.”