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Shatila balcony, Beirut

From a balcony in the refugee camp Shatila, not far from the glittering Beirut, OmVärlden talked to Diakonia, Save the Children and Najdeh about the ongoing refugee crisis. 

Foto: Ylva J Bergman


Trapped in Shatila - Palestinian refugees in Lebanon

What is it like to grow up in Shatila as a Palestinian refugee with small possibilities for the future? How will the youth find hope and meaning and how are the new Palestinian refugees from Syria coping? Listen to a new podcast from OmVärlden.

“Every human being has the possibility to do something positive in their life, on a personal level”, says Leila El Ali, Asscociation Najdeh, in this podcast from Beirut, Lebanon, referring of course to the overshadowing structural problems of growing up in a refugee camp.

The world is facing the biggest humanitarian crises ever. Every minute six people are fleeing from a war, conflict or poverty. From a balcony in the Shatila refugee camp the online magazine OmVärlden discusses the challenges for refugees, and those born into statelessness, with Samar Abboud, Deputy Country Director for Save the Children, Rodolph Gebrael, Country Manager Diakonia Lebanon, and Leila El Ali, Asscociation Najdeh.

The daily life in Shatila is hard. The camp consists of narrow streets with tangled up electric wires overshadowing the streets. The houses are built close together, concrete shacks, narrow staircases and pools of water that makes it easy for mosquitos to nest. The houses are often without insulation, although improvements are made from time to time, and gets cold fast when the temprature drops.

A climpse of Shatila where wires and water tanks are connected, tightly packed and make people die from electrocution. Photo: Ylva J Bergman

Cold and dangerous in winter time

Overall it is a depressing sight and hard to imagine how life can be. During winter it is especially difficult. It gets cold, damp and dangerous.

“When winter comes many people die from electric shocks here. The water is leaking, the houses are freezing”, says Leila El Ali, and points to the bundle of wires everywhere, as we walk the dark alleys towards the balcony where this live pod will take place.

The refugee camp is just ten, fifteen minutes away from the luxoriuos Beirut skyline with exclusive penthouses, a city also full of fancy stores and expensive cars.

Shatila was established in 1949 by the International Committee of the Red Cross for the many Palestinians who fled from Israel when it was founded in 1948. Since then many more have been born into a permanent statelessness, without rights and hope for the future. The newly arrived refugees from Syria, of whom many also are Palestinians, are now facing a double burden of twice a refugee, and it has made the camp burst at its seam. 

“It is not easy to live in a place like Shatila, in less than a one square kilometer overcrowded area. Before the crisis the population was around 17 000, but now with the displaced people coming from Syria it is not less than 22 000. It is very difficult and not easy to motivate people, but you have to provide them with some hope”, says Leila El Ali. 

Lebanon is one of the countries that has taken in most refugees per capita, and at this point the estimate is 1,5 million, but everyone says the numbers are much higher.

Palestinians are not allowed to work in 20 professions

Even though conditions in Shatila are hard, life has to go on. There are small shops everywhere, organizations providing services, education and vocational training, work-shops of art and dancing classes are made for children. Motorbikes are noisily passing the narrow alley, the hair dresser pumping out music, and the children have dreams and hope just like anyone else.

Nevertheless the world and Lebanon treats them differently.

Palestinians are not allowed to work in 20 different professions, for example in the public sectors as lawyers, engineers or doctors, nor are they allowed to buy property.

“We have for example pressed for the right to work for nurses, through the nurses professional network we managed to get some exceptions where Palestinian nurses are now working. We see that in some hospitals Palestinian nurses were more welcome than in other hospitals”, says Rodolph Gebrael, Country Manager Diakonia Lebanon.

“The problem is that Palestinians are isolated in the refugee camps from the rest of the country, and there is a stereotype that stems from the civil war, that the Palestinians destroyed the country”, says Leila El Ali.

“This is even more compounded for refugees now coming from Syria, who are only allowed to work in three sectors which is agriculture, construction and the environment, which is mainly waste management. So not only are they restricted from these 20 professions, they are restricted from all professions except these three sectors. This makes it very difficult for them to be able to be resilient or survive and not become dependent on humanitarian aid”, says Samar Abboud, Deputy Country Director for Save the Children.

Around 450 000 Palestinians are registered refugees with UNWRA in Lebanon, the country which has the highest percentage of Palestine refugees living in abject poverty.

Families sometimes choose negative coping mechanism in order to surive, girls get married off at an early age, and boys start to work as children. Photo: OmVärlden

Dropping out of school

Education in the camp is also strained with the influx of new refugees as well as other poor people moving here.

“It is hard for the new Palestinians from Syria to catch up in the schools, and also the curriculum is different from what they are used to. Many drop out as well due to the need to provide income for their families, so sometimes children are engaged in child labor, which is something also Save The Children tries to work on”, says Samar Abboud, Deputy Country Director for Save the Children, and explains that some families resort to more negative coping mechanisms such as early marriages for their daughters in order for them to be safe in this environment.

“After 12 we can see a very high dropout rate for both boys and girls. Sometimes even boys more than girls, because they can access work opportunities more than girls”, says Samar Abboud.

The Lebanese school system also makes it harder to continue, she explains, since those who succeed until 12 are expected to go on to a higher level, however many of the Syrian and Palestinian Syrian refugees are 12 or older when they arrive.

Still an international school system for refugees would not solve the problem.

“We need to be careful not to encourage parallell systems or informal education. Because then refugees will find themselves in a situation where they have been to schools but not been accredited”, says Rodolph Gebrael.

An important factor to spur the refugees to continue in school is to advance their right to work in different sectors.

What should the international community do to change the statelessness for the Palestinians?

“I think it is good to work on the humanitarian aspects, to increase access to services, but the international community also needs to push and work for political solutions, for all refugee", says Rodolph Gebrael.

"The international community committed on the right to return for Palestinians based on the UN resolution 194. Otherwise the international community will keep on paying for this ongoing miserable situation of the Palestinian refugees, not only in Lebanon but also in the West bank, in Gaza, in Syria, in Jordan", says Leila Leila El Ali.

"It is a political issue, but it is also important for the palestinians to have a proper legal status that would allow them equal rights with everyone I think that is the only solution we can see", says Samar Abboud.

Ylva Bergman

From a balcony in Shatila: talks about the sitaution for the Palestinian refugees, southern Beirut, Lebanon. From left: Samar Abboud, Deputy Country Director for Save The Children, Rodolph Gebrael, Country Manager Diakonia Lebanon, and Leila El Ali, Asscociation Najedh, Ylva Bergman, Edito-in- Chief, OmVärlden. Foto: Natheer Halawani