April 2013 -- UNRWA staffer Irina Prentice has recently travelled on a work mission to set up emergency communications for Palestine refugees from Syria who have fled to neighbouring countries. This is the second instalment of her Notes from the field.
“Hana Maria was my wife”, Yamen a young man in his late twenties from Yarmouk camp tells me.
Despite looking worn out, he handles his daughter with gentleness and affection. Almost two, Alma is and energetically making her presence felt in the dark room we are all sitting in.
“My wife was killed by a random shooter during sniper fire exchange last summer. We could not distinguish who it was”, he continues.
Alma is dancing around in the middle of the room, leaning into the arms and laps of her relatives who take contemplative pauses as they describe their recent displacement.
We are about 12 people in a little room, in the heart of UNRWA’s largest Palestine refugee camp in Lebanon, Ein El Hillweh in Saida city. We are seated on the floor. There is no furniture except for a bed used by two chronically ill family members. The room is dark. One of Yamen’s sisters takes Alma away; the toddler protests vociferously.
We left because it became too insecure
“We are 17 people living in two rooms”, states Atiem, Yamen’s father. “We came here because of the war in Yarmouk camp.” Asked to elaborate, Atiem explains that the family used to own three shops in the heart of the camp: "We worked in the construction business. By the time we left, the shops in the main commercial strip of the camp were looted, destroyed and burned.”
“We left because it became too insecure”, continues Atiem. “We could no longer move; there were problems everywhere. Food was difficult to find and it became expensive. We ate vegetables out of tin cans… and health care services became scarce”.
Both he and his daughter, Joumana, suffer from chronic diseases for which they need regular follow-up. They thought they would be able to get some help in Lebanon. However, what little they had in savings ran out, making continuous medical treatment hard to come by.
Atiem’s family is now reliant on help from aid agencies and the support provided by members of his wife's family, who are Palestine refugees living in Lebanon. They feel bad about the additional pressure they have put on their relatives and are embarrassed by their helpless state, a feeling previously foreign to them.
For many Palestine refugees in Syria, the difficult living conditions they face in neighbouring countries seem to make the choice of leaving as hard as the choice of remaining in a country beset by conflict and persistent lack of security.
Nowhere is safe
Another Palestine refugee I met in Jordan explained to me the depth of the insecurity felt by Palestine refugees in Syria: “I was in Ein El Hillweh camp in Lebanon during the Civil War in 1980. It was bad, but honestly it was not as bad as what we face in Syria now,” he said. “In Syria, there are no safe zones, no rules.”
He tells me that life there is especially dangerous for young men, with many being sent abroad by their families to protect them from the dangers of the on-going conflict. He has sent his son, who used to have a good job in Damascus, to Eastern Europe to protect him. Another Palestine refugee and friend of his also said that he has relocated his adolescent sons to a remote village for protection. People feel that non-combatant male youths are being targeted.
Palestine refugees currently displaced in other countries are a little more confident when they speak. Almaza, now taking refuge with other family members in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, also talks about the insecurity her family faced in Syria. “As Palestinians… nothing is safe for us,” she says. “I cannot go back because most young men who have left cannot return… Nowhere is safe,” her son, Mahmoud, elaborates.
Capturing the feelings of many Palestine refugees from Syria, a man who asked to remain anonymous says, “There is no hope because, as Palestinians in Syria, we feel that the world has abandoned us. It is watching from the sidelines!”
Like many Palestine refuges Almaza still has hope in the future. “I have five sons. Thank god they are alive! Now they need to go to work and rebuild their lives once more.”
“We will do it again,” says Khaled, another Palestine refugee taking refuge in the Beqaa Valley. This resilient and hard working population needs safety and chances at decent livelihoods to thrive.
Read the first instalment of notes from the field.
Support UNRWA’s emergency response in and around Syria.