Ten kilometres north of Israel lies Rashidieh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Tyre, Lebanon. Originally built by the French in 1936 for Armenian refugees, the "new" Rashidieh was built in 1963 by UNRWA to accommodate Palestinian refugees who were evacuated from Baalbek. And now, Rashidieh has become home to a new group of refugees – Palestinians who used to live in Syria.
Arriving at the camp, the refugees have escaped the violence in Syria, but their lives are far from serene. "Palestinians in Syria lived in excellent conditions, there was no differentiation between the Palestinians and the ethnic Syrians… a Palestinian in Syria is able to work in the same professions as a Syrian, one can have his own company, one can be a doctor, one can pursue any career he desires. There was no differentiation in all aspects: social, economic and political between the Palestinian refugees and Syrians… but here in Lebanon, Palestinians are treated much, much worse," says Ghazzi, the official responsible for monitoring and dealing with all the Syrian refugees in Tyre.
"I was born a refugee, and I've lived my whole life as a refugee. I studied hard at an UNRWA school and got my high school diploma from the government, after which I became a civil engineering assistant. But the Palestinians living here in Lebanon would not have gotten the same opportunities I did in Syria," Ghazzi explains.
Ghazzi's words ring true; Palestinians living in the camp as well as those living throughout the country are entirely at the mercy of the Lebanese government and army, and subject to rules and regulations that Lebanese citizens are free from. For example, Palestinians in Lebanon are legally barred from owning any property or entering certain occupations, from hairdressing to civil service including as part of the security service.
For Palestinian refugees who lived in Syria, this second-class lifestyle is alien.
Life in Syria was a million times better than here. We had everything we wanted, I had two houses!
says Nabila Abu Juwaid, who moved from Syria to Rashidieh six years ago with her husband and children. Nabila and her family live in a small house rented from Palestinians who have left the camp, as is the case with most of the refugees who have escaped war-torn Syria. UNRWA helps they cover their rent every month.
Nabila shows me around the house, which is barely furnished and too small for a family of eight. Live wires and cables dangle precariously from the filthy walls, and the box-like rooms resemble prison cells. "This is no way for children to grow up, no way for anyone to live," she tells me.
"When we first arrived here in Lebanon it was winter, and the weather was bad. My children thought the thunder was rockets and bombs and wouldn't stop crying," Nabila recalls. "We lived in Al-Yarmouk camp in Syria… one day the camp was bombed and eight children who lived near our house were killed. Luckily, none of our family was hurt, but the minute the rocket hit our house and our home was destroyed, I decided it was time to leave Syria."
Nabila chose to move to Rashidieh because her husband had family who had already fled Syria and settled in the camp.
The worst part is we are not even welcome here. The people here hate us, as if we are not Palestinian just like them.
Nabila's friend, Farhat, explains how refugees are highly taxed throughout their stay in the camp. "We have to pay for the renewal of our refugee visas every three months," refugees must pay for any official document, including marriage and birth certificates.
"Once, I had gone to the city [a one hour bus journey across Lebanon] to renew my refugee status. When I arrived back at the camp I was told that my refugee number was not showing on their system, and I was not allowed back in. I was ordered to wait on the side like a criminal, feeling ashamed and worried and scared and humiliated all at once. They ordered me to go back to the city to check what the problem was. With no way of going back to the city, I began to cry and many passers-by who knew me stopped to ask what was going on. It was so embarrassing. After many hours, another soldier re-checked my refugee number and found it on the system. It turned out that the first soldier just hadn't checked properly…why are we treated like criminals? What is our crime? To have been forced out of our peaceful lives and homes…?"
Farhat's story is not unique. The only entrance to Rashidieh is heavily guarded by armed soldiers who check every vehicle on entry. If you do not display your Palestinian ID card, official permission to enter, or if there are any complications with your refugee number, you are denied access into the camp.
In mid-October Lebanese President Michel Aoun urged refugees from Syria to return to "calm" areas, but the Palestinian refugees I spoke to do not believe the country is safe enough for them to return.
"It's never going to be safe there," both the ladies agree. "And besides, we don't want Syria. We don't want Lebanon either. We want Palestine. We want to go back to our home, to Palestine."
Ghazzi holds the same views. "Even if some areas are safe, everything is destroyed. There is no economy, no services, no way to make a living, so what would be the point of moving back?"
Ninety-eight-year-old Noukha Taha, who moved to Rashidieh at the age of 14 after fleeing Baalbek, says that in spite of living in Lebanon almost all her life she has few rights, or decent living standards.
"This is not a life. We have no right to build decent homes or even refurbish our homes; we have no jobs and no right to work outside the camp; we are given only basic medicines, like painkillers, by UNRWA…for old people like me who need more medicines than this, it's not enough to relieve us of our illnesses…we are given no option but to buy from pharmacies outside of the camp, which are too expensive for us to pay for ourselves."
Although Noukha does not wish for the Syrians to be sent back to war-torn Syria, she believes Palestinian refugees from Syrian are given more money, allowances and coupons to spend on rent, food and amenities. Ghazzi assures me this is not the case; all of them receive the same aid.
Dr. Adam, who works with NGOs to provide aid to Syrian refugees in south Lebanon, however says there's some truth in Noukha's claims. "Syrian refugees have fled from atrocities and deserve all the help they can get, but as they receive more help thanks to the NGOs and charities, they are able to sell their coupons and surplus supplies in order to make more money on top of what they earn from their jobs. This is how so many of them have managed to make enough money to move on to Europe; this is why the Palestinian refugees of Lebanon feel that they are being treated less fairly… hence the conflict between the two."
Despite all the conflicts between the refugees, they all agree on one thing: the only solution for them to be able to return to Palestine, their homeland.
"We want Palestine. The land of our fathers and our grandfathers. The Holy Land. This is the return we are dreaming of, and as long as we are alive we will never forget our land, our home. We will not forget Palestine. Even if the war ends, even if it becomes safe again, even if we return to Syria, our final destination will always be Palestine," Ghazzi explains.