The light is dank, sneaking down to ground level in streets barely wide enough for one car, between buildings, which have grown over the seventy years since Lebanon’s Shatila refugee camp was established, from two to six or seven stories. Myriad pipes and wires connecting electricity, water, sewerage and the Internet stream overhead and snake down the walls. Sometimes pipes burst, spewing water or sewage, or electricity lines snap, electrocuting people on their way down to the ground.
Our guide leads us along a nondescript alleyway and through a dark tunnel, illuminated only by the light of a tungsten bulb dangling above. I marvel that she knows where to go or on which door to knock.
We enter the lodgings of a Palestinian family, recently arrived from Syria. Their living quarters are more of a dungeon than a home – one main room, a tiny kitchen, a toilet with a small window that is now boarded up, and a door over which they put a wooden barrier to stop rats from entering. When they arrived five years ago, the room was available so the family agreed to pay 200,000 LBP (about $130) a month to rent it.
Sitting on the floor, Tahiya recounts how the family left Yarmouk, a Palestinian camp on the outskirts of Damascus, early in the war. Her daughter had been traumatized by a bomb explosion near their home, so the family decided to leave. “Our life was perfect in Damascus,” Tahiya recalls. “We had security, safety, our own house, everything was available and accessible.”
Initially, when her husband had suggested they leave because of the civil war, Tahiya had not objected. From what she had seen on the television, Lebanon seemed like a second Paris. “But we came here and now we’re living with rats, there are rats moving around all night, playing. We came out of heaven to hell.”
Shatila camp was established in southern Beirut to house Palestinians fleeing the newly created state of Israel. Under the Cairo Accord, which was signed between the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s leader, Yasser Arafat, and the Lebanese Army in 1969, the tiny camp remains outside official Lebanese state control. Instead, it is managed by a Popular Committee inside that camp that, together with the United National Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and other NGOs, provides security as well as a wide variety of health, educational, and social services for a population that has swelled to reach around 40,000 inhabitants, many of whom are newly arrived Palestinians from Syria.
Tahiya’s grandparents arrived in Syria in 1948, as refugees from Haifa. Her parents were born in Syria and, like so many other Palestinians, kept the keys to their ancestral home in the hope of one day returning. Her father and sister remain in Yarmouk, which was recently retaken by the Syrian government from ISIS. “I feel Syrian,” says Tahiya. “I never knew I was Palestinian until I came to Shatila. Here, in Lebanon, I learnt that as a Palestinian you have no rights.” Under Lebanese law, Palestinians, including those born in the country, cannot obtain Lebanese citizenship, own property, or work in a range of occupations. They also have no access to Lebanese social services, such as health care or education.
For the many Palestinians from Syria, who fled because of the civil war, the transition to life in Lebanon has been jarring. Compared to their experience in Syria, where they enjoyed almost equal access to services and rights as Syrians, the legalized discrimination in Lebanon has been shocking.
Despite the obstacles her family has encountered here, Tahiya is able to register with UNRWA, and is, therefore, able to send her children to the UNRWA-run school located just outside Shatila. Tahiya is happy that her daughter, Sunduz, and her son, Ali, enjoy school and are doing well. Ali likes playing football and Sunduz enjoys basketball. As we speak, Sunduz, 8, prepares to leave for afternoon classes. Ali, 12, accompanies her, as it is not safe to be out alone in Shatila.
It is very important to Tahiya that her children receive an education. She says, though, that many children are scarred by war and there can be disorder, even violence at the schools. Some children roam the streets with no interest or intention of even attending class. Others work, instead of going to school, in order to earn money for their families.
UNRWA, the UN agency dedicated to providing services and support to Palestinians whether they are from Palestine or Syria, is itself under tremendous strain. The United States government, UNRWA’s major donor, recently announced it was cutting funding to the agency. As a result, it is likely schools such as Sunduz and Ali’s will be some of the first to close—a disaster for families like Tahiya’s who believe in the opportunities education offers, not to mention the security implications it will have for the region.
While Tahiya would prefer to return to Syria, she says her family will remain in Shatila—in the dark with the rats—until the security situation improves. Occasionally, the family stays awake into the wee hours of the morning reminiscing about their light-filled house, a garden and big, white kitchen. Tahiya remembers days where her main concern was what food to cook, what to clean, and where to go out. For now though, the family is caught between a rock and a hard place, unable to return and struggling to remain in a place where life can often be unbearable.