Exhaustion is what comes to mind when thinking of the residents of Shatila and Burj Al Barajneh on the outskirts of Beirut. Like most Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, these two were established soon after the 1948 war that led to the creation of the state of Israel and the exodus of millions of Palestinians. The camps have always been overcrowded, and in the last 5 years, their populations skyrocketed as a result of a new exodus: Syrians and Palestinian Syrian refugees who fled the war next door.
I first reported from the camps in 2007. Even back then, they were cramped. Take Shatila for example. It was originally built for 3,000 to 5,000 people. By 2004, its population had swelled to about 20,000. Its infrastructure hasn’t evolved and its residents aren’t allowed to build any more housing units.
After the Syrian war, Shatila’s population doubled.
“I used to share the electric cable with my neighbour. Since the Syrians have arrived, I’ve had to share the cable with two other homes. Electricity cuts are more frequent now because of over usage. Sometimes the cables burn out;” explained Haifa Khatib, a 33-year-old Palestinian mother born and raised in Lebanon.
“Even young men can’t get married because all the houses are rented and if there are houses available then the rents will be very expensive. A young man won’t be able to provide for his family.”
The Palestinian Syrians and Syrians who’ve fled the war back home see it differently. We met Fadi Mansour, a 33-year-old former resident of Yarmouk refugee camp.
“A Palestinian in Lebanon might be banned from working in 70 professions but they can still work in manual labour. We aren't allowed to work in anything. They are allowed to study and get jobs and get ahead but we can't,” he explained.
“They have opportunities, they are born here and they can come and go because they have Palestinian identity cards. If we get work outside of the camp we wont be able to go if our residency permits expire. I have to pay $200 to maintain my residency permit.”
And this growing divide between these two refugee communities is exacerbated by the policies of charities. That’s according to Mahmoud Sallam, a 28-year-old resident native of Burj Al Baranjeh camp and a volunteer who works with children. He focuses on psychosocial development and community integration and says that international organizations and charities rarely run programmes that cover both populations. This is especially significant given how much the refugees rely on charities for support.
“The children who come from Syria are different from us, and their thinking is different from our thinking. What makes it more difficult is the fact that donors and organizations working on the ground are not working on the basis that we need to run joint programmes to help them integrate”, Mahmoud explained.