Palestinian war refugees housed in ‘containers’

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon displaced by war more than three years ago live in temporary apartments that residents say are cramped, musty and bug- and rodent-infested. The U.N. relief agency is far short of the funding needed to rebuild. (Heather Murdock/Special to The Washington Times)Palestinian refugees in Lebanon displaced by war more than three years ago live in temporary apartments that residents say are cramped, musty and bug- and rodent-infested. The U.N. relief agency is far short of the funding needed to rebuild. (Heather Murdock/Special to The Washington Times)
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NAHR EL-BARED CAMP, Lebanon | The apartments are called “containers” or “barracks” and were built to be temporary housing for Palestinian refugees displaced by war more than three years ago. Some are made of concrete. Others are made of tin.

“We don’t see the sun here,” said Yazmine Khaleel, who has lived with her husband and four children in a one-room barrack since she fled the fighting. “They told me we would have nice temporary houses. It’s only a container.”

Ms. Khaleel is one of 30,000 former residents of the Nahr el-Bared camp who were displaced by battles between Fatah al-Islam militants and the Lebanese army in 2007. She relies on a small cash stipend and packages of food and medicine from the U.N. to survive, but said it’s not nearly enough to keep her children healthy in the musty barracks. According to the United Nations, even this aid could be stopped by the end of the month.

The U.N. says it has raised none of the $18.5 million needed to provide food, medicine and cash to displaced refugees from Nahr el-Bared in 2011. The reconstruction process also could grind to a halt because in the past three years, the agency has raised just 35 percent of the money needed to rebuild.

“We will not be able to know how many years we need to order to complete the project,” said Hoda Samra Souaiby, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which helps Palestinian refugees. “This is very much tied to the availability of funds.”

The agency is $208 million short of the funds needed to rebuild the camp, she said.

If the U.N. is unable to raise the money for emergency aid before the end of the month, 3,400 displaced families that receive $150 a month to help pay their rents will be cut off. “The whole relief operations will have to stop,” Mrs. Souaiby said.

In the barracks, residents say they were told the camp would be rebuilt by now. Most of the camp, however, remains in heaps of gray rubble, riddled with bullets from the 2007 battles that killed 400 people, including Lebanese soldiers, Islamic militants and civilians.

One section of the camp is expected to be ready to house some families early next year, but Ahmed Abueid, a house painter who lives in the barracks with his wife and seven sons, said he has little hope the project will ever be completed.

“We live here like prisoners,” Mr. Abueid said. “This life here is not good.”

Many of the apartments are cramped and leaky. Some are infested with mice and bugs. Mothers complain that their teenage daughters have to share rooms with their brothers, which is considered shameful in their society. There is never enough food or money to go around, they say, and work is scarce.

Palestinian construction workers employed by the companies that are rebuilding the camp say work on the project is frequently stopped when companies run out of money. When they do work, according to foreman Mahmoud Getawi, they are often paid late. When workers demand timely payments, he said, they usually are given the runaround.

“Everyone blames each other,” he said. “The contractors blame UNRWA, the UNRWA blames the [donor] countries. Everyone points the figure at the other one.”

Many of the refugees have no work. The U.N. estimates that 60 percent of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are unemployed or underemployed. Even though several generations of Palestinians are living in Lebanon, they are considered foreigners. Palestinians are banned from working in many professions, including medicine, engineering and law. They cannot buy or inherit property.

In August, the Lebanese parliament enacted a law that allows Palestinians to get special permits to work outside the camps. Since then, no permits have been issued and the employment situation remains unchanged.

Although the law appears to be ineffective, rights groups say it has sparked a national debate on the rights of Palestinians in Lebanon. Late last month, the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign-Lebanon and the Sabra Shatila Foundation, a Palestinian advocacy group, sent a letter to Pope Benedict XVI and Lebanon’s Maronite patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, asking them to encourage parliament to grant Palestinians full work and property rights.

The letter included a petition with 430,000 signatures, including those of prominent activists such as former President Jimmy Carter, former South African President Nelson Mandela and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, according to Foreign Policy magazine.

“Civil rights for Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees have been denied for too long,” the letter says. “These days are pregnant with potential new tragedies that nobody wishes upon anybody else.”

But some politicians in Lebanon say Palestinians should have access to human rights, but that does not include civil rights.

Fares Souaid, secretary general of the ruling March 14 political coalition, said Palestinians are not given access to Lebanese social security, schools and health care because the refugees prefer to be supported by the United Nations. If Palestinians are incorporated into Lebanese civil society, their claim that they have the right to return to Palestine will lose legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, he said.

Mr. Souaid said parliament members also have rejected calls for civil rights for Palestinians because they fear an upset in the delicate sectarian balance in Lebanese society. In the political sphere, he said, Palestinians have enemies in parliament because they fought in the 16-year civil war that ended in 1991 and left more than 100,000 people dead.

“The Palestinians in Lebanon during the civil war were part of the civil war,” Mr. Souaid said. “The [Palestine Liberation Organization] was supporting part of the Lebanese against another part of the Lebanese. When you speak about the Palestinian problem and the Palestinian refugee presence in Lebanon, there is a kind of hypersensibility.”

Many refugees from Nahr al-Bared say they have spent their entire lives in Lebanon and have no plans to return to a future Palestinian state. Their status as foreigners leaves the society almost entirely dependent on the U.N. for survival. “A doctor should have the right to work as a doctor,” said Mr. Getawi, the construction worker. “An engineer should have the right to work as an engineer.”

Other parents in the barracks, however, say they are too busy trying to provide their children with food and health care to be concerned with politics. Parents say the food aid they get every three months usually lasts for two weeks.

Fares Abdullah, who shares a single room in the barracks with his wife and four children, said three of his children have regular seizures and he cannot work because of a heart condition. The limited medical care offered by the U.N., he said, can do nothing for their illnesses.

“If someone breaks his leg here,” he said, “They give him a Panadol.”

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