Beirut, Lebanon – On the streets of Hamra, a neighborhood of Beirut where young Lebanese men in expensive sports cars make their presence known by playing loud music, Syrian accents are clearly heard. They come from the young mothers begging for money and food on the sidewalks who have fled the violence that has racked their country, in what initially began as a peaceful uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. Their children run and play in the streets of Hamra past well-heeled and fashionably-dressed Lebanese women. The Syrians have arrived, and they have brought their ills along with them.
Further to the city’s south in Beirut’s maze of Palestinian camps, a small but not insignificant effort to help fleeing Syrian refugees is taking place. A group of six volunteers from all over Syria have gathered to register new families arriving from Syria and to organize medical and food supplies. Today the vast majority of Syrians fleeing to Lebanon are Palestinians, and they have flooded Beirut’s Palestinian camps in search of assistance and housing from their fellow countrymen and women.
Heavy shelling and Syrian government operations in the Palestinian neighborhoods of Tadamoun, Yarmouk and Hajar Aswad in Damascus have forced thousands of families west to Lebanon. The Palestinians of Damascus, refugees living in squalor for decades, have been caught between the Syrian government’s forces and rebel fighters from the so-called Free Syrian Army in battles for control of Syria’s capital.
Mohammad, a Palestinian taxi driver who lived in the Yarmouk camp in south Damascus, says he left ten days ago. Like many here, he asked not to use his last name.
“The Free Army moved into our neighborhoods a few weeks ago. They knocked on peoples’ doors and told us not to be afraid, that they were there to protect us from Bashar’s army,” he told The Media Line, adding that the government’s army deals with civilians in a much less courteous way.
“I don’t know what has happened to my house now that no one is in it. Maybe I will never get it back, maybe we can never go back to where we lived,” he says.
Mohammad has come to this volunteers’ meeting house because his daughter has a skin condition and he needs to get her medicine. He sits with Leila, the group leader who registers him and tells him to come back in a couple of days.
“We have registered almost one thousand people in the past couple of months. The number of Palestinians coming from Damascus has swelled in the last few weeks because of the fighting in the camps there,” says Leila, a Syrian from Damascus who organizes an unofficial NGO and support network for Syrians fleeing the violence. She estimates there are a total of 5000 Palestinian refugees from Syria in Lebanon.
She is backed up by a group of six young Syrian men and women who are working to support refugees – particularly Palestinians – who also fled Syria. Some of them fear being drafted into the army.
“I never ask the people who come looking for help what their political affiliation is. Of course, I blame the regime for what is happening in Syria, but if there are Syrians coming here and looking for help then it doesn’t matter who they support,” Leila told The Media Line. She asked that her real name not be published because of the sensitive nature of her activities.
Other activists with her clearly state they oppose the regime. Walid, from the eastern city of Deir Ez Zour, says outright that he wants the regime to fall.
With no official papers from the Lebanese government allowing them to operate, these Syrians claim they are not activists but humanitarian workers assisting their countrymen with food and medical supplies. “We have set up a bank account and we are getting a lot of help from donations especially from Syrian expats in Europe and elsewhere,” says Leila.
Passing through wet alleyways where residents place wooden boards at their house entrances to keep out rats, we are taken to see a family that has just arrived from Deraa, a southern Syrian town where the revolt’s first demonstrations took place. Inside is a young man, his wife and three infants. The children are asleep with nothing separating their bodies from the concrete floor save a thin bed sheet. Having just arrived, they have almost nothing: no fridge, no beds, no TV, just a few blankets to sleep on. Their house is cramped and hot. There is no air conditioning.
They are afraid to talk to us about what has happened in Deraa and why they came to Lebanon. Like many fresh from leaving Syria, they are too fearful to speak their minds.
Afterwards, our guide tells us they are paying a staggering $500 per month for their two-room home. This couple is young and green, and is clearly being taken advantage of by Lebanese landlords.
Back at the meeting and distribution house, a family has just arrived from Aleppo and is looking to register in order to receive milk supplies for their children.
“We have no interest in politics, we are not with the Syrian government or the Free Army,” Jamaleh Mayyar, 33, from the Salahadinne district of the city, today a rebel stronghold tells The Media Line.
“We want to be safe and we want peace, life was much better before the revolution. There was bread and electricity. Now we are refugees in a strange country,” she adds.
For the humanitarian workers, the increasing number of Palestinian refugees means more exposure and a greater risk of coming up on the authorities’ radar.
“It [the project] has become much bigger than we ever imagined. We are afraid of people in the camps – pro-Syrian regime people – hearing about us and reporting us to the authorities,” says Leila.
But as we sit in the meeting house late at night and after the Syrian volunteers have left to dispatch medical aid to recently arrived Syrian Palestinians in the Shatila camp, Leila’s friend, a Lebanese Palestinian, receives a call. She tells us it is from someone in Fatah who is willing to provide security for her and the volunteers who help her. Earlier, two men arrived at the meeting house to meet Leila. They are from the camp’s governing authority and want to meet her. Word is already spreading fast, and supporters of the Syrian regime are everywhere.
On August 1, 14 Syrians were deported back to Syria by Lebanese authorities. Lebanon’s General Security department claimed the Syrians were involved in committing criminal acts, but human rights organizations believe otherwise. “Even if they are criminals and they committed crimes in Lebanon, their deportation is not legal, given the situation in Syria,” Syrian activist Maan Abdel Salam told a Lebanese news agency last week.
“There is no one here in Beirut to help us,” says Mohammad, the Palestinian taxi driver from Damascus.
“I’ve been walking in circles from embassy to the UN to other embassies; I’m going round in circles looking for medical supplies. Each place sends me to the next. It is a waste of time.”