The inspirational resilience of Palestinian refugees

Kate Mason, MAP's Development Officer in our UK office, writes on her first visit to Lebanon since she worked there for MAP three years ago:

 I first arrived in Lebanon to work for MAP back in 2013. At that time the Palestinian refugee camps were experiencing an influx of families arriving from Syria, fleeing the devastating attacks on the country’s largest camp, Yarmouk, the previous month. Over the course of that year, families continued to arrive, often after being displaced several times within Syria first, and eventually crossing the border to Lebanon as a last resort.

Parents and children arrived exhausted and bewildered by what they found in the Lebanese camps. The standard of life and freedoms for Palestinians in Syria before the war was vastly different from that in Lebanon. In Syria healthcare and education was free and accessible, and Palestinians worked in the highest positions as doctors, lawyers and business owners. In Lebanon the story is very different. Barred from working in most professions, from owning property or from accessing social services, Palestinians from Syria arrived in Lebanon to find their compatriots overwhelmingly living in poverty and isolation, with little opportunity to improve their situation.

The families I met and spoke to that year talked about the awful things they had witnessed in Syria, the terror of their journey to Lebanon, sadness at leaving behind everything and everyone they knew back home, and their shock at what they found in the Lebanese camps. Everything in their surroundings was new for them and their concern was to get settled as best they could and work out how they might begin to provide for their families once more.

Last month I visited Lebanon again for the first time since I left in December 2013. In the intervening years, the border was closed to Palestinian refugees trying to escape the war in Syria. While a small number of Palestinians have made it into the country, most have been turned away and forced to find whatever shelter they can elsewhere.

The Palestinian refugees from Syria I met this time had a different story to tell. The majority had been in Lebanon for two or three years now. Their bewilderment at the conditions in the camps, and relief at having fled Syria, has transformed to despair and hopelessness. For the most part, families are living in one room with their whole family. Most men have not been able to find work. Children have been unable to register at school. Women are cut off from their former support network of friends and family and are increasingly isolated, confined and with no one to turn to.

Many of the children we met had been born in Lebanon: a new generation of doubly-displaced Palestinians. When we asked one boy if he missed Syria he replied ‘I miss Palestine more’. Born in Damascus to a Palestinian family and now living in Beirut, he is the personification of this new, rootless generation. 

These Palestinians from Syria are increasingly facing the same problems which have been faced by the host community in Lebanon for decades: some of the highest levels of unemployment in the world (56% for Palestinians resident in Lebanon), food insecurity, and deteriorating living conditions as the population of the camps increases. The despair in the camps is palpable. Tens of thousands of people are trapped by their refugee status and lack of opportunity and it’s difficult to see a way out. Almost all Palestinians we spoke to – from Syria or Lebanon - had a family member or friend who had made the treacherous journey to Europe over the Mediterranean Sea.

So what can MAP do? The need in the camps might seem insurmountable, but the dignity, pride and resilience of the community should not be underestimated.

The need in the camps might seem insurmountable, but the dignity, pride and resilience of the community should not be underestimated

MAP works in partnership with a range of expert and inspiring local organisations who are passionate about making sure the residents in the camps can access the health and social services they need. It was a privilege and a pleasure to meet and hear the stories of the men and women who staff these projects: psychologists, doctors, midwives, social workers, physiotherapists, reproductive health and gender based violence specialists. They can see a way out, and they are working with thousands of men women and children who, overwhelmingly, leave their community centres able to see a way out too.

One lady’s words summed up the importance of this work for me. Selma* had escaped the war Syria with her family and was now living in Lebanon. A survivor of violence at the hands of her husband, she is now being supported by psychologists with expertise in this area in one of our partners’ centres (Association Najdeh).  We asked her what had been the most important thing she had got from the centre. She told us ““Now I feel free”. As we were about to leave she added: “I tell my all my friends: ‘come to the centre – you can be free!’”

Selma’s parting words seemed to me to be the essence of MAP’s work in Lebanon. For women like her, wrenched from their old lives, neighbourhoods, social and family networks, centres like Najdeh’s are often the only place they can turn to for support. We heard this sentiment echoed throughout the camps, whether by mothers who bring their children for physiotherapy at a MAP-supported centre for children with disabilities, or from kids who attend group activities in our psychosocial support programme. As well as the expert health care they receive, they also gain friendship, a new social network and the support of their peers. This is where the community’s remarkable resilience comes from: their ability to support each other despite overwhelming difficulties.

I left feeling inspired by the people we met and proud that MAP was able to make this work possible.


*All names have been changed to protect identity of those involved.


Featured image: Kate (second from right) visits a health clinic in Ein el Helweh Camp, South Lebanon

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