What do you think of when you hear the words, "Palestinian refugee camp"? Miles of open land covered in tents housing entire families crammed together, perhaps? Poverty stricken people standing for hours on end in long queues waiting for food handouts from UN units? Or maybe swarms of people around trucks with food aid being thrown down into their outstretched arms by relief workers? Whatever your particular image is, in Syria the truth is a far cry from it.
Cities of cramped quarters
While the images suggested above may be typical after natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes, or perhaps in war torn areas, this is not typical in the case of Palestinian refugees. The Palestinians were brought to Syria by nothing as unavoidable as a natural phenomenon. It was an entirely manmade catastrophe stemming from a Zionist ideal which has resulted in millions of Palestinian men, women and children growing up away from their homes and homeland; since 1948 hundreds of thousands have been condemned to live and die in refugee camps instead of their own villages and cities.
But what are these refugee camps like? I have visited three camps in Syria within the past week: Sbeineh Camp, Khan Eshieh Camp and Yarmouk (the largest "unofficial" camp in Syria). In the latter, the "camp" that I saw was a teeming urban centre within the city limits of Damascus. Some of the roads could have been in bustling Cairo or any other major Arab city. The streets were crammed with shops, cars, mosques and cafes. Other than a sign naming the camp at its main entrances, there was barely any way to tell where the camp began and where it ended. However, once you looked a little closer there were some signs to make you aware that you were indeed in a Palestinian refugee camp. For instance, walls are a fly-poster's dream, emblazoned with pictures of Palestinian leaders, mainly the late Yasser Arafat, Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Meshal. Graffiti covers the spots not filled with posters; slogans hailing Palestinian patriotism and support keep the eye engaged from one poster to the next. These reflect political affiliations, which we are told often cause trouble in the cramped camp where loyalties can divide whole families.
The fact that there were no tents to be seen is hardly surprising considering that the older residents of some of these camps have been here for 60 years now, since the 1948 Nakba. However, there is no doubt that these camps certainly started life as row after row of tents. Grandparents told us of the terrible conditions they had to endure when they were small children living in extended families with their grandparents. Exposure to the elements and a lack of basic necessities, including medical facilities, made life very difficult. Things have got better, of course, and while poverty and its attendant problems is still a major concern, many refugees here have worked hard to study, start up businesses and build more permanent structures on the exact spot where their tents once stood. The conditions within the camps in terms of sewage and hygiene are still a major problem, though.
The educational and employment conditions of the refugees
A frequent misconception about refugees – one that I certainly had was about the level of education and the types of jobs they have. I expected to meet people whose circumstances meant that they are unable to continue their education beyond the basic stage. How wrong I was. I met groups of highly educated individuals, including many with higher degrees and doctorates. Furthermore, I expected most people to be relying on charitable aid from organisations such as the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), but I met Palestinians who worked in good jobs within Syrian government Ministries. I was told that people are very grateful for the help that UNRWA has provided over the years, but the aid now seems to be limited to health and education and therefore there is not as much financial assistance as there was before.
However, I am well aware that the success of those individuals that I was lucky enough to meet is by no means true for all refugees here. For most, life is still extremely difficult, even for those with good jobs and an education. The vast majority of those living in the camps have extremely low paid jobs, if they have jobs at all. Many of the men are unemployed and this is changing the dynamic of traditional family roles, whereby Palestinian women are now finding themselves going out to work while their husbands stay at home all day.
The role of women
I expected to find the women in the camps fulfilling primarily basic domestic roles, and while many, if not most, certainly do, I met a group of women at the Zahr-Alhannon Centre (a traditional Palestinian sewing centre) who are the main breadwinners for their families. I was told that many men find it difficult to find work and so it is becoming increasingly common for the women to have to do so.
Another phenomenon I noticed in my few days in Syria was what seemed to be an above-average number of women wearing the niqab (full face veil). When I asked some of the women I met if my impression was correct, I was told that it was. It seems that within the camps, while the vast majority of women do not wear the niqab, a larger proportion of women wear it when compared to the general Syrian or wider Palestinian population. When I asked why this was the case I was told that a number of factors were at play here, including an emphasis on different religious tendencies, cultural dynamics and the possibility that it was used as some sort of protective measure to safeguard women. The latter may be due to serious concern for the safety of women in the camps where increased drug use and political unrest are worrying issues.
Different camps – Different Problems
It is important to note that while many of the problems are common, each camp has different levels of concern. While my description above outlines some of my observations of Yarmouk, for instance, other camps might be completely different. The population of each camp varies quite significantly. In Hama Camp, for example, UNWRA estimates that there are around 8263 refugees registered. However, this is extremely small when compared to the population of Yarmouk where there are an estimated 144,312 refugees registered with UNRWA. (UNRWA statistics only refer to officially registered refugees but there are many who are unregistered.) Even a factor such as population size will have an influence on the types of problems a camp is exposed to. In Yarmouk the cramped conditions for such a large number of people is extremely relevant. All Palestinian refugee camps have essentially stayed the same size since they were established, in 1948 or 1967, and so in order to accommodate a growing population the only option has been to build upwards. Additional storeys have been added to buildings, usually with few or no building regulations required; in many cases the extended buildings are a disaster waiting to happen. On top of that, the resultant overcrowding has led to all sorts of the problems normally associated with any overpopulated, crowded and largely poverty-stricken area.
I am very aware that my observations are particular to my own experiences and can only be termed a snapshot of the overall situation of Palestinian refugees in Syria; I know that the people I met are by no means representative of the wider population, nor are the areas I went to necessarily representative of every camp. Furthermore, I only visited three camps but there are nine official UNRWA camps in Syria and three unofficial camps. Nevertheless, I left Syria with a much clearer understanding of what it means to be a Palestinian living in a refugee camp in this country.
Every Palestinian I have spoken to throughout my journey was extremely grateful and complementary towards the Syrian government. They were all aware of how lucky they are that Syria has been a friend to Palestine by providing them with a safe haven for over 60 years, and they know how fortunate they are to be allowed to live outside the refugee camps if they wish. Unlike, say, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, who have extremely limited civil and political rights, they are free to live anywhere in Syria, where they are also treated on a par with Syrian citizens with virtually no difference in their legal rights and opportunities. When I asked why they opted to stay in the camps if conditions are so difficult, they usually referred to the importance of Palestinian unity and families staying together. Even when opportunities arise to leave Syria and go further afield, they are reluctant to do so, preferring instead to stay as close to Palestine, their homeland, as possible.
It is a bit of a cliché to talk of the resilience of the Palestinians but without exception those I spoke to during my brief stay all believe that one day they will return home to Palestine. When asked if this was merely a dream or if they truly believed that it might occur in their lifetime, they were resolute in the belief that it would happen. They see a massive injustice in the Palestinian situation and cannot believe that this will not one day by rectified; they have sworn never to give up hope. And why on earth should they?
For further information about the camps in Syria, visit http://www.un.org/unrwa/refugees/syria.html
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.