By JOSH WOOD
Gaza,(DRAH.ps)-- As Syria’s civil war has increasingly encroached on Damascus and its environs in the past six months, tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees living in and around the capital have found their lives once more uprooted by conflict.
According to the United Nations, more than 56,000 Palestinians living in Syria, mostly from the Damascus region, have fled into neighboring Lebanon, joining nearly half a million Syrian refugees as well as an already established Palestinian refugee community estimated to be between 260,000 and 400,000 strong.
Already overcrowded, the dismal Burj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in South Beirut is receiving some of the inflow. Established in 1948 to shelter the initial wave of Palestinians displaced by the creation of the state of Israel, the camp is now home to tens of thousands packed into a slum measuring about one square kilometer, or a third of a square mile.
Along the camp’s main street, one of the few wide enough for cars to pass, armed guards laze in front of faction buildings. From there, a twisting labyrinth of narrow alleyways lead into the heart of the camp. Puddles of sewage slush underfoot and overhead, tangled electricity cables hang so low that pedestrians must duck to avoid them.
During Lebanon’s brutal civil war, from 1975 to 1990, Beirut’s refugee camps became at times major battlefields. Many of Burj al-Barajneh’s buildings still bear the scars of bullets and shells.
With no room to expand the camp as its population grows, flimsily constructed floors have been added on top of older buildings, keeping some alleyways permanently shrouded in darkness.
A stark message, “2013 is the year of death” is spray-painted on a wall at the edge of the camp.
“The only open space we have in the camp is where we bury our dead,” said Ahmed Mustafa, a representative of a council of Palestinian factions that manages the camps in Lebanon.
“The situation in the camps is so overcrowded,” said Ann Dismorr, the highest representative in Lebanon for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the agency that handles the affairs of Palestinian refugees across the Middle East. “It was before, and now the total Palestinian refugee population has increased by 20 percent in a few months.”
“In the early days, we had Palestinians from Syria returning when they saw the conditions in the camps,” Mrs. Dismorr said in an interview this month.
But as the fighting between Syrian rebels and government forces intensified in Damascus, the Palestinians found themselves caught in the middle.
“We are being tortured by both sides,” said Mahmoud Hamide, a 39-year-old refugee from Yarmouk, Syria’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, several kilometers south of central Damascus.
One night in December, Mr. Hamide said, his wife Leenda Habbash, 35, was washing dishes in their small home, a rooftop apartment constructed of concrete blocks. Free Syrian Army units had taken up positions inside the camp and government forces were shelling the area. “We could not sleep at the time because of the heavy clashes and shelling,” he said.
At about 11 P.M., a shell came through the roof of the apartment, exploding in a room where their nine-month-old son, Ahmed, was asleep. The wall next to the baby collapsed and killed him. Mr. Hamide and his wife were wounded.
“My wife was in the hospital and kept asking about the baby,” Mr. Hamide said. “I kept telling her that the baby was fine and nothing happened.”
When Mr. Hamide’s wife eventually found out what had happened to their son, she was devastated. From the hospital, they fled to a village that had not yet been hit by violence and then across the border to Lebanon. Now, they live with eight other people in a cramped, moldy room in Burj al-Barajneh.
Shrapnel from the shell that killed his son cut through Mr. Hamide’s right hand, damaging the nerves. Like many men in the camp, he tries to make a living as a manual laborer but work is scarce and the injury has gotten in the way.
The family’s life now is very different from the one they had before.
“Yarmouk camp in Syria used to be like Hamra Street in Lebanon,” said Mrs. Habbash, referring to one of Beirut’s main thoroughfares known for its shops and cafes. “It was a city, not a camp.”
“But what can you do? This is our destiny and this is our luck.”
Others echo these sentiments: “Out of Palestinians living in camps in other Arab countries, we were the happiest,” said Majida al-Mahmoud Husseini, another refugee from Yarmouk. “We had an extremely good life before the war.”
Few Palestinians in Lebanon speak positively about conditions here. Relations between the Lebanese and Palestinian refugees have always been uneasy at best. Palestinian militias played a major role in the country’s civil war, a participation that led many Lebanese to view the community with disdain.
The legal rights of Palestinians are severely restricted in Lebanon. They are barred from most skilled professions and not allowed to own land. There is a widespread fear among many Lebanese that granting Palestinians greater rights could serve as a stepping stone towards naturalization, which could disrupt the country’s precariously balanced system of sectarian politics.
The disadvantaged situation of Palestinians in Lebanon has kept large numbers trapped in dire poverty.
Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps have also long been a battlefield for domestic and foreign groups looking to wield influence. A short walk through many camps will pass posters for the militant Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah; Palestinian jihadi groups like the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade; has-been communist parties; President Bashar al-Assad of Syria; Saad Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon; and many others. In some camps there are regular bouts of violence between the dizzying numbers of factions operating in them. With little else to do, young men join the militias.
The harshness of camp life means that many Palestinians who have arrived from Syria will return once the war ends, Mrs. Dismorr said.
“We believe that they want to return when the crisis is over — they have a very different set of rights and living standards in Syria,” she said.
But for now, the number of refugees is growing, and aid is the first priority.
Outside the umbrella of the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees, Palestinians arriving from Syria rely on aid from nongovernmental organizations, UNRWA and local factions. Long hobbled by shortages, UNRWA is providing some small cash payments to refugees for rent and expenses, but the organization can only afford such payments every several months.
As the Syrian war swells the ranks of the Middle East’s displaced people, Mrs. Dismorr urged that Palestinians caught in the conflict not be forgotten.
“We must not allow the Palestinians to yet again be marginalized and fall into the shadow,” she said.