The steps you have to climb to reach the Syrian women’s workshop are narrow and crammed with people politely edging their way around each other. Women and children flock around the first floor’s Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facilities, desperate to see a doctor or continue upstairs for other NGOs in search of social workers, distressed by their precarious limbo. Shatila, a refuge meant to resemble a “longer-term” humanitarian shelter for Lebanese Palestinian refugees, is in many ways a place where Palestinians and Syrians have come to merely “exist”, rather than live.
In the school next door, waiting for the translator, I see a child, quickly moving past me, smiling, with only one leg to support himself. Many Syrians in the camp suffer from war injuries or accidents. Minutes later, the door to the school office opens and a woman appears. She has come for assistance, terrified for the fate of her children as her husband beat them brutally. I was later told that these are daily sights for schools in Shatila.
Fleeing the once-beautiful country of Syria, most people have faced displacement for years before ending up in Shatila. Challenged by the appalling living conditions here, where the Lebanese winter drought is felt the hardest and electricity is sparse. Their life completely transforms to being loosely held together by an intricate but fragile web of informal social and economic systems. Housing many newcomers, people grow increasingly desperate as the facilities of Shatila are now under more pressurise than ever.
Zadia, a Syrian mother of four, left the anti-government town of Akra as the missiles were getting too close. “I fled without my husband, who had to leave me a month earlier because the government came to the area to recruit men for the army,” she says. “My sisters, brothers and cousins are now stuck in Syria because they worked for the government and quit, so they can’t cross the border. I don’t know where they are!”
Rana, a Sunni woman from a Shia-dominated suburb of Damascus, explained to me how the constant displacement has disrupted her life and made her miserable. Three years ago, she started her move from relative to relative, through Syria, in areas thought to be able to secure her safety for a few days at a time. “I used to think it would be safer, but now looking back; for five months my situation just went from bad to worse. It was difficult for me to get gas, water and fuel,” she says.
“My situation was ugly, every time I had to start over again; re-enrolling my four kids in schools every three weeks.” Finally, she decided to move to Lebanon; unaware of what the road ahead held in store for her. When Rana fled Syria, she faced a lot of problems at the checkpoints. “Being from Daraa [where the revolution started] the passport gave us problems; at the checkpoints they would look down at us; as if we were the cause of this trouble.” The army took her IDs at the checkpoints to “review them” as the government needed to make sure they were not ‘associated’ with rebels.
“Now we all live in one room with a joining one we name a ‘kitchen’, but it is nothing like a kitchen.” All the money she has is spent on paying the rent; none is left to buy clothes or any extra support for her children.
Nadia, a Syrian mother of six was stopped for hours at every checkpoint on her journey here. Her son was 16 years old at that time and as such, was supposed to do his military service. The family is also from Daraa, which caused additional suspicion and brought about more questions about their “associations”. Nadia could never tell the army she was going leaving Syria, because they would never let her flee. “Even at the border checkpoint; the Lebanese army made us wait for at least five hours before crossing,” she says.
Protection and Discrimination
Many people experience discrimination, especially from informal and formal authorities such as landlords. This normally manifests itself in acts of asking for rent in advance; or pushing or threatening them out of their accommodation. “Discrimination is normalised,” Rana explains. The other day the man responsible for running water came to her house and asked for money in advance, when she refused to pay, he replied: “You Syrians are always unreliable.”
“I’m angry,” Nadia, another Syrian woman says. I met Nadia in the workshop; she looked at me with an intense stare. “There is no protection for us – no rights!” She continues: “I live in Nabatieh [town in Southern Lebanon] we are not safe and want to leave, but [there is] nowhere to go and claim this right of protection,” she explains.
On Sunday, Nadia went to Ramlet Al-Baida, a public beach in Beirut’s poor southern suburbs, so her children could play and was approached by about 15 young Lebanese men. “They looked at us and asked in a degrading way whether we were Syrian, because – as they said – we don’t like Syrians here.” As she left the site she saw a Syrian man being brutally beaten up by the same group. “I took out my phone to film it, but they took the phone. Today I heard that he died from the beatings; I saw this in front of my eyes!”
Nadia recounts how a Lebanese woman driving her car through the camp stopped suddenly as a crowd of people were walking behind her. “When I asked her why; she said to ‘let the cows pass first’,” Nadia says, looking at me with disbelief. “Every day we experience this! We get it [discrimination] from both from Lebanese and Palestinian-Lebanese.”
Nadia’s husband recently lost his job and, with six children, she says: “There is no future, we have no money.”
Numbing the Pain
Another major issue in the camp, which existed before the influx of Syrian refugee, is the lucrative business of anti-depressants and painkillers. An extraordinary amount is sold daily according to local sources. The pain-numbing drugs treat symptoms and not the cause. Many people here struggle with being relegated to poor life conditions; many have come from beautiful homes in the Syrian mountains or idyllic farms. Their new living conditions have almost wiped out any ambitions they once had.
Clutching her handkerchief, Zadi explains how she too suffers from depression. “I have nobody I know here, no relation to my neighbours.” She says she is unwilling to take medicines which are readily available and require no effort to obtain. In Shatila adults and children buy all sorts of painkillers and anti-depressants without prescription, often resulting in cases of overdoses or severe side-effects.
I was informed by locals that the camp’s “chemists” [the owners of the pharmacies] had started capitalising on the refugees’ misery with their careless and reckless use of “laboratories” behind the counter. “Drugs are created with no testing and sold left and right,” a Shatila citizen tells me.
Refugees have long sacrificed their bodies in order to survive the harsh conditions they live in. Earlier this year, MEMO brought a story of the booming market in kidney and cornea sales in the camp. Many young people and children, all desperate to help their families, are lured into underground surgeries.
Disheartened by the total baffled looks I receive in response to my questions about their hopes and dreams for the future, I gave up asking Shatila’s citizens about this. Their level of misery and desperation is testament to a perspective that can only realistically reach next month’s rent.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.