“On that day, I believe we survived only because God did not want us to die”

This story is part of a series of interviews with Palestinian refugees on the 39th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. See the series here.

Content warning: This interview contains potentially distressing details of violent attacks on civilians.

Abbas* is a 57-year-old Palestinian refugee from Jaffa. He owns a small home appliances shop in Shatila camp which, before Lebanon’s economic crisis, used to help him secure the basic needs of his five children. Abbas’s family came to Shatila camp in 1948 following the Nakba (meaning ‘catastrophe’ in Arabic). He considers himself very unfortunate because his grandfather chose to seek refuge in Lebanon. He thinks that living in Palestine – even if under occupation – is better than life in Lebanon.

“No one is buying anything from my shop anymore. No one has any money and everyone in the camp is struggling,” said Abbas. Restaurants and coffee shops used to buy plates and utensils from Abbas’ shop but, with hundreds of such businesses closing, demand has reduced significantly.

Abbas told us how his life has been hugely affected by the economic crisis and how he is struggling to make ends meet for his family. “My family eats the same meal of lentils or soup over many days as we can’t afford anything else. Occasionally I buy chicken for a cheap price from a shop in Sabra, although I am not sure that this chicken is safe to eat. We boil it very well to avoid getting sick,” he said.

Abbas suffered major health problems in the past that have left him living with a single functioning kidney. He underwent surgery but needed further surgery that costs $4,000. He was not able to secure his healthcare costs despite seeking the assistance of every charity he is aware of. He submitted his medical file and appealed for help from many local and international organisations, but to no avail. To make matters worse, Abbas’s grandson was recently diagnosed with cancer, so he is now trying to seek assistance for him with little success. “In Lebanon there is no proper healthcare, no medicines if someone gets sick, and no elderly care,” said Abbas.  

Abbas survived the Sabra and Shatila massacre and, later on, the ‘War of the Camps’, which saw heavy fighting between political groups and militias in Beirut’s Palestinian refugee camps. But he is not sure he will make it through this harsh economic crisis. “I was only 17 when the Sabra and Shatila massacre occurred. I was returning home with my friend when two militia members caught us close to Sabra street. They shouted at us to stop, but we knew that we would die if we don’t escape. So, we started running and we hid in an elderly person’s home in Beirut. On that day, I believe we survived only because God did not want us to die,” said Abbas.

“I was only 17 when the Sabra and Shatila massacre occurred. I was returning home with my friend when two militia members caught us close to Sabra street. They shouted at us to stop, but we knew that we would die if we don’t escape.”

During the ‘War of the Camps’ a few years later, Abbas was imprisoned, beaten up, and tortured by members of a militia. Even though he considers that living to tell these stories is a miracle, he wonders if the current conditions where he experiences humiliation on a daily basis are worth it.

Abbas calls on the international community to help Palestinian refugees as the Lebanese government does not want them in Lebanon. “They want to crush us. They want us to disappear,” he said. He wishes to be able to live with dignity with his family and hopes that people love and help one another to get through these difficult times. Abbas also hopes that his two eldest children successfully complete their university education. For him, education is extremely important; he does not mind being hungry and tolerating these humiliating conditions in order to ensure that his children complete their education and have a bright future.

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*Names have been changed to protect identities.

Photo: Ahmad Laila / Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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