Palestinians anxiously await return to Lebanon

Fadi Khalil and his family eat in an empty classroom. (Alex Warren/IRIN)

DAMASCUS - On an ordinary August afternoon, the Al-Quds school on the outskirts of Damascus would be empty, its pupils enjoying their summer break. But this year it is playing host to dozens of Palestinian families who fled the conflict in Lebanon.

As thousands of Lebanese refugees return home from Syria, the Palestinians here remain cautious.

“We will wait a few days to see what the situation is. It’s too early to go back yet,” said Fadi Hussein Khalil, who is staying at Al-Quds with 22 members of his extended family.

The conflict began on 12 July after the armed wing of the political party Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers, and Israel responded a large-scale offensive and a blockade. With a United Nations-brokered ceasefire in place since Monday morning, several hundred thousand Lebanese refugees have been streaming back to their homes in Lebanon.

An estimated 1,740 Palestinians living in Lebanon crossed the border to Syria to escape the fighting, and some 400 have returned to Lebanon so far, according to Lina Meri, deputy officer of the UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) in the Damascus area.

“In the beginning, some refugees were sheltered in private houses,” said Meri. “But as the war went on, and they realised they needed longer term accommodation, they came to the schools.”

UNRWA, an agency dedicated entirely to aid Palestinians, helps to support the estimated 440,000 Palestinian refugees normally resident in Syria. UNRWA runs schools for the Palestinian community and has agreed to open them to house refugees.

The Al-Quds school lies in the crowded Yarmouk area, a suburb dominated by a Palestinian population of 140,000 which has swelled with new arrivals.

With laundry hanging in the bike sheds and desks and chairs piled up in the playground to make way for families, the school has been turned into a refuge.

While Syria has been generous, Khalil said, conditions are not suitable. “We’re unhappy, depressed, there are so many people in this one place. We have to walk a long way just to use the bathroom and wait hours to wash our clothes,” he said.

His six children play among themselves on the floor of the classroom, trying to stave off boredom and do something other than quarrel.

“They should be on their summer holiday now,” Khalil said. “But instead they’re back in a school - that’s the last place they want to be.”

While these young Palestinians were born in Lebanon, their parents were not, and it’s the second or, for some, the third time they’ve been uprooted due to conflict. Originally from the coastal city of Haifa, the family now call Baalbeck home, some 60km east of Beirut.

The family is not the only one waiting anxiously to go home from Syria.

“We’re currently housing 294 people, or 54 families,” said Mohamed Ali, the school’s headmaster. “The vast majority are Palestinians, although we do have one or two Lebanese families. I feel happy to have helped out in these difficult circumstances, but I’m sad because of what’s happened to them.”

Sitting in his office, the wall adorned by a map of the 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, Ali said that most of the newcomers’ needs, including food, clothes and medical care, have been met by donations from the local community and charitable organisations, as well as support provided by UNRWA.

Many of the Palestinians had made long and dangerous journeys from badly affected areas of Lebanon, which house some 350,000 to 400,000 Palestinian refugees in total. In Lebanon most live in camps, restricted by an official status that prevents them from taking up formal employment or being able to vote.

In Syria, the General Authority for Palestinian Arab Refugees (GAPAR), part of the Ministry for Labour and Public Works, looks after the interests of resident Palestinians. They enjoy a more privileged status here and are allowed to work, own houses, vote, and even assume government offices up to the title of Deputy Minister.

For headmaster Ali, the worry now is what will happen in early September if the refugees stay on when the school is set to reopen.

“In two or three weeks’ time, all the children are due to come back,” he says. “But we can’t open the school if all these people are still here. The government has to take a decision on what to do - they know the schools are still full of Lebanese and Palestinians.”

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