Middle East

Twice-exiled Palestinians flee Syria for Lebanon

Palestinian girls hold up a sign during a rally in front on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency offices in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain El-Helweh on the outskirts of the southern Lebanese city of Sidon, on December 18, 2012. PHOTO/MAHMOUD ZAYYAT

BEIRUT: Some 13,000 members of Syria's Palestinian refugee community have gone back to square one in neighbouring Lebanon. Like their ancestors, they too have been forced to flee their birthplace into exile.

"The Palestinians can endure anything. But the children cannot understand that I cannot bring them milk or change their nappies, that I have no choice but to let them live in misery," said Umm Khalil, cradling one of her children.

Like other Palestinians, Umm Khalil's ancestors fled their home in what was then northern Palestine to Syria when the state of Israel was created in 1948.

This week, she fled Yarmuk camp in south Damascus after a deadly air strike and clashes between pro- and anti-regime fighters.

Umm Khalil has found shelter in a rented home in Shatila refugee camp, south of Beirut.

Since the weekend, some 3,000 Palestinians have arrived in Lebanon, fleeing the escalating violence.

Sixty-year-old Ahmed told AFP: "We Palestinians move all the time. We emigrate, we are used to it. We lived well in Damascus."

But his new home is dark after sunset, as there is no electricity for much of the day.

Ahmed's family of seven shares four bed covers, providing little comfort from the cold, wet winter.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) says some 13,000 Palestinian refugees have fled Syria's 21-month conflict for neighbouring Lebanon.

Many have rented cheap housing in several of Lebanon's 12 camps, which an international organisation described as "the worst in the region" for Palestinian refugees.

Amira and her children fled a battered camp near south Syria's embattled city of Daraa a month ago.

"When two rockets fell near the house I decided to leave," Amira said, holding her three-month-old baby. "I did it for the children. For two weeks I didn't have any milk for my youngest."

She once made a living selling bedcovers and homeware in Daraa, but in Shatila Amira has become dependent on charity.

"Since 1948, this has been our life," said her husband, Salem.

The family of six shares a tiny, humid apartment in Shatila, paying $300 a month.

Suffocated by the high cost of living, Salem has trouble making ends meet. A few days a month, he finds work in construction.

Although UNRWA and other groups provide basic assistance to Palestinians arriving in Lebanon from Syria, many refugees feel abandoned, especially now winter has begun.

Salem's family sleeps on thin mattresses on the floor, and rainwater seeps into their sparsely furnished home.

"There are organisations that help Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and others help Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. But for the Palestinians from Syria in Lebanon, there is nothing," he said.

"For Palestinians coming from Syria, this second exile is even more difficult," added Salem's friend Osama, a young Palestinian raised in Lebanon.

"Salem's grandfather fled Palestine for Syria. Though Salem doesn't himself remember the Palestinians' 1948 exodus, he is now going through something very similar to what his ancestors suffered."

In Lebanon, Palestinians face new difficulties, including a lack of job opportunities and sordid conditions in the camps.

Unlike Palestinians in Lebanon, those in Syria enjoyed the same social rights as Syrian citizens, said writer Salameh Kaileh, who was expelled from Syria after being jailed and tortured.

Because of their high level of integration into Syrian society, Palestinians have been swept up in the country's 21-month conflict.

"The Palestinians are living through all that is happening in Syria," said Kaileh. "The youth feel just as Palestinian as they feel Syrian."

Mohammed, 23, fled Yarmuk for Shatila with his pregnant wife and their nine-month-old daughter. He misses Yarmuk, even though it has become a battleground.

"In Syria we are treated just like the Syrians," he said. "For example, if we make a mistake, we are arrested just like any other Syrian."

He believes the rebels "have destroyed a country of security, where life is not expensive."

In spite of the conflict, which has divided the Palestinians over President Bashar al-Assad's rule, they all agree on wanting to return to Syria -- "before we go back to Palestine, of course."





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