This is Home Now: Stateless Palestinians in Beirut

When does being a refugee become permanent? While refugees connote a temporary state, I discovered generations of refugees in the Middle East. This chapter is devoted to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon whose displacement turns 70 this year.

Photographs from this chapter are taken in two urban refugee camps in Beirut: Mar Elias and Shatila (Chatila). Unlike the shelter sites operated by URDA, the refugee camps in the Lebanese capital are decades-old residential neighborhoods complete with apartment buildings. Gone are the tents and containers associated with new humanitarian disasters. 

To understand the lived experiences of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, I spoke with Fadi, a former camp director with the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, and Rasul*, a Palestinian-Syrian refugee living in Shatila. I was accompanied in Shatila by Huda*, a Palestinian-Lebanese refugee professional working in Beirut. 

The most extensive interview in this chapter is with Arevig*. Arevig’s interview was conducted through a translator provided by the American Lebanese Language Center. Although Arevig is not of Palestinian origin but is Armenian-Syrian, her struggle is representative of those of urban refugees. Arevig resettled in greater Beirut after fleeing Aleppo in 2012. Her interview sheds light on the services available to refugees from NGOs and civil society organizations in Beirut.

The stories of Rasul, Huda, and Arevig (all of whose names have been changed) bring up patterns between Palestinian and Syrian refugees. How Palestinian refugees are prevented from assimilating into Lebanese society is a warning for the current Syrian refugee crisis. Both stateless Palestinians and Syrian refugees fulfill the definition of protracted refugee situations. The greatest refugee crisis in the Middle East today is eerily similar to the largest historic refugee crisis in the Middle East.

Top: Boys walk in front of an arguileh rental store in Mar Elias Camp. “Arguileh” is the Lebanese term for shisha or hookah.

Bottom: Two women wearing burkas seen on the street of Mar Elias.

At the Union of Relief and Development Associates, I interviewed Fadi, a program manager who used to work for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). Fadi was the former UNRWA Director of the Ein el-Hilweh Camp, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, located in the southern city of Sidon. A Palestinian himself, Fadi was raised in Sidon and had lived in Lebanon for 37 years. According to Fadi, approximately 300,000 Palestinians were living in Lebanon in 2011 at the start of the Syrian civil war. There are now 174,000 Palestinians in Lebanon. The decrease in numbers is due to emigration—many have capitalized on migration to Europe alongside displaced Syrians. In fact, according to a 2017 census conducted by the Lebanese Central Administration of Statistics in partnership with the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, there are Palestinian camps in Lebanon where the majority of residents are non-Palestinian. At Shatila Camp, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, 29.7% of residents were Palestinian whereas almost double that figure (57.7%) were Syrian. The two other refugee camps in Beirut, Mar Elias and Burj Barajneh, also hold more Syrians than Palestinians. 

“Ah, so you understand. You and me, we are alike.”

The former director of the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon’s reply to me after I explained my interest in refugees from my background as an immigrant.

Although I walked into Mar Elias, the smallest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, on my own, I was cautioned to not be unescorted in Shatila. When I asked the Syrian receptionist of my Beirut hostel for advice in entering Shatila, he feared that I would lose my way, or worse, in Shatila’s labyrinthine streets. I was fortunate to be introduced to a Palestinian employee at the American Lebanese Language Center whose sister Huda was familiar with Shatila’s layout.

I visited Shatila Camp with Huda on a Wednesday morning. I learned that Huda’s family belonged to the first wave of Palestinian refugees displaced during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. When Huda’s father was four years old, he moved to the city of Saidon in south Lebanon. Yet, Huda was born in Lebanon with a refugee identity card instead of Lebanese citizenship. Her nationality restricts her career options, her ability to own property, and even her access to health services. Like Arevig, an Armenian-Syrian refugee in Beirut, Huda must pay out-of-pocket for private health providers or rely on NGOs.

Above:  Looking up above a street in Shatila Camp: a tangle of electrical wires and the flag of Palestine. 

Inside Shatila Camp, I met a 28-year old man named Rasul. Rasul was born to a Syrian father and a Palestinian mother in Syria. I met Rasul when Huda was showing me a wall pockmarked by bullet holes. A small crowd had gathered to watch me photograph a memorial where victims of the Shatila massacre were shot when an elderly woman came up to the crowd and me, raising her umbrella at us and accusing the Arab League leaders of spying for Israel. When I asked Huda to translate the woman’s shouting, Rasul overheard us and answered me in English. Huda asked Rasul if I could interview him.

Rasul told us that he moved to Shatila from Damascus in 2011. In Damascus, he worked as a traditional dancer and had studied accounting and English in university. While in Damascus, Rasul met and fell in love with a Swedish nurse who he then married. By the time civil war broke out in 2011, Rasul’s wife had returned to Sweden, and while their family reunification documents were processing, his wife died in a car accident. Rather than moving to Sweden, Rasul moved to Lebanon. After recounting his story, Rasul took us from his tea kiosk near the martyr’s wall to a burial chamber of the Shatila massacre victims. Inside the burial chamber, he pointed out a photograph of his uncle who had died during the massacre. Rasul embodied the living history of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps. His family had ties to Shatila camp, and he himself returned to Shatila after a turn of events in his life.

“That’s life.”

A 28-year old Palestinian-Syrian’s reply to me in Shatila Camp when I apologized after hearing that his  wife had passed away in a car accident. Her untimely death prevented him from reuniting with her in Sweden at the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

The Shatila and Sabra massacres occurred in 1982 when Israel-backed right-wing Christian militias killed 800 civilians within three days in Shatila camp and the Sabra neighborhood of Beirut. While I was photographing the wall below, an elderly woman approached me and yelled in Arabic that a family member of hers had died during the massacre. While the Arab-Israeli wars and the Shatila massacre are a distant memory for the West, I found history alive in Beirut’s refugee camps. The most visually striking images of Mar Elias and Shatila were not the narrow streets nor the tangles of electrical wires. I was struck by the political wall art, featuring paintings of Temple Mount in Jerusalem and posters of Palestinian icons like Yasser Arafat and Ahed Tamimi.

Top left: On a wall commemorating the Shatila massacre, an illustration of a child asks, “Tell them about our sacrifice, grandma”. The illustration of an elderly woman replies, “We won’t forget our sons who died for our homeland”. The grandma’s reply is followed by the dates of the Shatila and Sabra massacre (September 16, 1982) and the siege of Tel al-Zaatar (August 12, 1976).

Top right: A wreath placed on the Shatila massacre tomb by the “Palestinian National Liberation Movement”, the full name of Fatah in Arabic.

Bottom: An inscription of the Qu’ran on a wall in Shatila reads, “And do not walk upon the earth exultantly. Indeed, you will never tear the earth [apart], and you will never reach the mountains in height. All that – its evil is ever, in the sight of your Lord, detested” (Al-Isra 17:37-38).

On my last day in Beirut, I met Arevig, a 32-year old Armenian-Syrian hairdresser from Aleppo in her apartment in Naba’a in greater Beirut. Naba’a is a suburb of Burj Hammoud, a working-class town that borders Beirut to the east of the Beirut River. During the First World War, an Armenian community was established in Burj Hammoud by Armenian refugees who survived the Ottoman death marches from Anatolia. These same refugees from the Armenian genocide also settled in modern-day Syria. Today, Armenian-Syrians who have been displaced from Syria like Arevig resettle in the Armenian community in Lebanon.

Arevig left Syria in August 2012 with her mother. When an airstrike hit the home she shared with her parents in Aleppo, her mother suffered a nervous breakdown, causing her and her mother to move in with Arevig’s grandmother. As a Christian, Arevig described how Christian churches were bombed in Aleppo. Arevig’s father joined Arevig and her mother in Beirut later, but only after the border between Syria and Lebanon became restricted. Today, Arevig is the breadwinner for her sick parents. Although Arevig has a sister who can share the burden of caring for their parents, her sister married and had returned to Aleppo. Arevig’s sister lasted three months as a hairdresser in Lebanon.

When I walked into Arevig’s cramped apartment, I met her mother and father sitting in bed. After Arevig served my translator and I hot chocolate, Arevig related to my translator the illnesses afflicting her parents. Arevig’s mother feels guilt over a miscarriage that occurred before the birth of Arevig’s youngest sister, and has been mentally ill since delivering her sister. There are periods in which Arevig’s mother loses consciousness. Arevig’s father, on the other hand, has had problems in Lebanon with his heart, liver, and kidney. To budget for her parents’ health, Arevig confided that she lets her parents eat better than herself.

In a distressed voice, Arevig recounted to me the costs of her parents’ healthcare. It took two months for Arevig to save up enough money working as a hairdresser for her father to have his liver tested. Arevig was referred to a doctor by a wealthy client of the salon she worked at. The doctor’s test results showed that Arevig’s father’s liver was only operating at half capacity. Last January, her father underwent nine consecutive days without eating while bleeding from his nose and anus. On the ninth day, Arevig’s cousin drove her father to the emergency room of Rafik Hariri University Hospital near southern Beirut after smaller clinics and NGOs neglected to cover the estimated hospital costs. In the emergency room, Arevig was told that without upfront payments, her father’s illness could neither be tested nor would he be placed in the care of the right practitioner. Out of desperation in these nine days, Arevig’s family considered returning to Syria to access subsidized healthcare. Arevig’s family ultimately scrapped the idea to not risk losing asylum status in Lebanon. Returning to Syria would flag to the UN that Syria was safe enough for Arevig’s family and thus they would not need international protection.

Above: A boy and girl walk in front of graffiti that reads, “Straight Outta Mar Elias Camp”.

Arevig’s father believes that half of the Syrians in Lebanon are not registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a figure confirmed by Human Rights Watch. Arevig did not know that she could apply for refugee status during her first three months in Beirut. She was only informed of her rights by an Armenian community center. Lebanon’s treatment of Syrian refugees stands in contrast to the first reception conditions in Greece. As the migration story of Jamil, a Palestinian-Syrian refugee, will reveal, the European Union has mandated that asylum-seekers be told of their rights to asylum upon entry. This is compared to Lebanon where in May 2015 the Lebanese government discouraged the UNHCR from further registering Syrians as refugees. In the gaps left behind by the state, NGOs and civil society groups have taken over to provide refugee services.

Arevig criticized the UN and praised an Armenian political party in Lebanon for their assistance. Even as the UN covered a heart valve operation for her father that would have otherwise costed $400, the UN reduced the welfare payments going to her family. A UN inspector visited Arevig’s apartment in Burj Hammoud and noticed the furniture, which the inspector deemed as sufficient evidence that Arevig could do with an aid cut. Arevig denounced the UN’s decision because the inspector had only seen the state of her apartment and not the inside of her refrigerator. If her refrigerator had been examined, the UN inspector would discover a lack of healthy and fresh foods. Arevig believed she should be entitled to UN cash transfers to purchase meat and dairy. In order to receive food aid now, she takes Tuesdays off from work so that she can wait in line for meals at a church.

Left: A man wearing a red-and-white keffiyeh stands at the entrance of a Doctors Without Borders clinic in Shatila. 

Religious and ethnic civil society groups support refugees in Lebanon alongside international NGOs. While Arevig deplored the UN’s decision to cut funding from her family, she appreciated an Armenian party’s donation to send her mother to the hospital after her mother suffered a nervous breakdown. And with the support of an Armenian deputy in parliament, the Red Cross is able to charge 4,000 Lebanese pounds for Armenians to visit a clinic (the equivalent of $2.67 USD). This price is 12,000 Lebanese pounds ($8) for non-Armenians.

Finally, Arevig has also relied on the kindness of friends in the past. When she began working at the hair salon, a friend at the salon provided blankets, clothes, foods, and cleaning supplies to her family. After my interview ended, my translator inquired if there was some way for her to help Arevig. 

Like other refugees I’ve met in Greece, Arevig has tried to leave for more developed countries. She brought out a stack of papers that showed her family’s application for asylum in Australia. Their request had been denied. Her uncle suggested the family seek sponsorship in Canada, but Arevig’s mother did not have a Syrian passport. Passport registration would cost money as would translating birth and marriage certificates into English. Reaching Canada remains a dream for Arevig’s family. Canada remains an unattainable dream for poorer Syrian refugees who lack financial means or the connections for sponsorship. 

Arevig was my last interview before heading to the airport. Capping the hour-long interview, Arevig explained to my translator that she did not intend to tell me about her family so that I would feel pressured to donate money. I replied that as a university student I couldn’t do much, but that I hoped those who read my research could be compelled to act, financially or otherwise. Arevig’s face lightened and she wished me farewell, adding that I would always be welcome if I were to find myself in Beirut again.

Left: While leaving Mar Elias, my camera catches the attention of a boy with sores on his face.

Right: Children play with sand in a garbage-strewn field outside of Mar Elias.

“Please, I am Syrian.”

On my way to Mar Elias Camp from the westernmost end of Hamra Street, a main street in downtown Beirut, I met three teenage Syrian boys carrying shoe polish. I asked where one of them was from in Arabic, and he replied Daraa. Daraa is a poor city in southwestern Syria where Syria’s  Arab Spring started in March 2011. Historians trace the Syrian civil war’s roots to the Assad regime’s crackdown on peaceful protests in Daraa. When a friend of the boy from Daraa noticed us chatting, he approached me and asked for 1,000 Lebanese pounds (the equivalent of 66¢). After I refused, the 17-year old begged me in English saying “please”, he was Syrian. 

On the car ride to Rafic Hariri International Airport, I thought of Fadi’s words from my time with the Union for Relief and Development Associates. Fadi said that the long-term integration of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is unlikely as the Lebanese government views their stay as temporary. I wondered if Arevig planned to one day return to Syria when she left for Lebanon in 2012. I was reminded of the grandfather of Jamil, a Palestinian refugee I interviewed in Athens, who left Palestine in 1948. Jamil’s grandfather settled in Damascus in 1956 after giving up hope of returning to Palestine. It took eight years for Jamil’s grandfather after the First Arab-Israeli War to make up his mind to settle his roots in a host country. Could Syrian refugees today, seven years into the Syrian Civil War, also be beginning to lose hope of home?

Syrian refugees in Lebanon are facing a similar fate to that of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria 70 years ago. Palestinian and Syrian refugees seem to share the fate of reluctant integration. I was fortunate to have explored the case of Palestinian refugees while researching Syrian refugees. Between Arevig and Jamil—despite their differences in age, gender, religion, ethnicity, and nationality—are shared histories of generational displacement. Arevig is the descendant of Armenian refugees in Syria and I met her in Lebanon. Jamil is the descendant of Palestinian refugees in Syria and I met him in Greece. Through Arevig and Jamil, the contemporary Syrian refugee crisis can be placed in the context of a hundred years of forced migration in the Eastern Mediterranean.


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