Palestinians in Lebanon: 'It's like living in a prison'

Trump's controversial Jerusalem decision has compounded the misery of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

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    Hassan Salem, 12, works at a mechanic's shop seven days a week, 10 hours a day, to help his family survive [Lisa Khoury/Al Jazeera]
    Hassan Salem, 12, works at a mechanic's shop seven days a week, 10 hours a day, to help his family survive [Lisa Khoury/Al Jazeera]

    Beddawi, Lebanon - Mahmoud Mashwra was 12 when he left school to sell candy on the street.

    Mashwra, whose family fled Israeli oppression in the Palestinian territories years ago in hopes of a better life in Lebanon, instead found a dismal economy, international aid shortages and discrimination against Palestinians. He began working full-time to help his family survive.

    "I thought, I'll go back to school when I go back to Palestine," Mashwra, now 16, told Al Jazeera.

    But that hope has dimmed in the wake of US President Donald Trump's statement this month recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Palestinians view East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, and the US proclamation - despite being roundly condemned by the international community - has dealt a blow to the estimated 280,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, many of whom hope to one day return home to Palestine.

    Struggling to survive

    Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are treated as second-class residents, restricted from working in most fields, banned from owning property, forced to live in run-down camps and barred from formal education.

    Mohamad Jabbar makes $10 a day at his butcher shop, just a tenth of what he could earn if Lebanese authorities allowed him to operate outside the military-guarded camp in Beddawi.

    "It's like living in a prison," Jabbar said. "The government controls where I live and where I work."

    Palestinians cannot own businesses in Lebanon and are banned from most decent-paying professions, including medicine and law. An estimated two-thirds live in poverty. The government will not give citizenship rights to Palestinian refugees, for fear it could make them stay forever.

    "This is a cruel and false hypothesis," Bassam Khawaja, a Beirut-based spokesperson for Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera. "Nothing prevents Lebanon from respecting Palestinians' basic human rights while withholding permanent residency or citizenship. But instead, generations have grown up in limbo, without basic protections."

    Mohamad Jabbar makes as little as $10 a day at his butcher shop, just a tenth of what he could earn if Palestinians were allowed to open businesses outside camps [Lisa Khoury/Al Jazeera]

    Today, Palestinians are competing with nearly two million Syrian refugees in Lebanon for jobs and aid.

    "The vast majority of international humanitarian aid coming into Lebanon is focused on the Syrian refugee crisis, which means we are overlooking the long-standing human rights violations that Palestinians have faced here for decades," Khawaja said. 

    The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) deals with aid for Palestinians, while the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) covers Syrians - and the difference in the aid provided is stark. UNHCR gives 150,000 Syrians in Lebanon $175 a month per family; UNRWA, however, can only give 61,000 Palestinians $10 for each family member every three months, spokespersons told Al Jazeera. Both agencies say they target whoever is considered the most vulnerable. 

    Unlike Lebanese citizens, Palestinians cannot obtain free treatment at hospitals. They are also barred from most public schools. UNRWA has opened 67 schools and 27 clinics in Lebanon, but the clinics are only for general check-ups, while refugees with serious illnesses, such as cancer, must seek help from other NGOs. 

    Ripped from childhood

    Twelve-year-old Hassan Salem is covered in grease after finishing a 10-hour shift at the local mechanic's shop, as he does every day. At the end of the week, he will get $3.33, all of which goes to his family.

    "Of course I want to send my son to school," his mother, Lena Deeb, told Al Jazeera. "But I can't. If he doesn't work, we won't eat."

    Nearly 20 percent Palestinians between the ages of six and 15 - and 30 percent of those aged 16 to 18 - are out of school in Lebanon, often because they are forced to work when their parents cannot. More than 30 percent of Palestinians leave school due to low achievement

    Ali and his friends plan to attend more protests against Trump's statement on Jerusalem [Lisa Khoury/Al Jazeera]

    "The schools are so bad, I didn't see a point in going any more," said Ali, a 17-year-old Palestinian refugee who asked to withhold his last name. "I was 14 when I left, and I could barely read or write."

    Nineteen-year-old Mahmoud Mustafa dropped out three years ago. Asked what his dream job is, he laughs: "We're refugees, we can't dream here. We're just worried about living today."

    'Death to America'

    Rami Saaf becomes anxious when he is at work - not because he may have to borrow food from his neighbours again to feed his family, but because his kids could be electrocuting themselves at home. 

    The 34-year-old lives in the Beddawi camp, where raw sewage and water leak onto wires outside his front door. The last time his nine-year-old son touched a wire, he landed in hospital.

    Lebanon has 12 refugee camps to house the generations of Palestinians pushed from their homes after the 1948 founding of Israel. Many lack basic services, such as electricity, sewage and waste disposal networks. Seventy-eight percent of households complain of dampness, 62 percent suffer from water leakage, and 52 percent have poor ventilation, according to a UNRWA study.

    But this camp is all Saaf knows. Growing up, his dad sold candy on the street, and Saaf never went to school. Instead, he roamed the camp looking for work, which he still does today.

    He always dreamed that one day, he would be able to give his kids a better life in Palestine.

    "After what Trump said, it's like we died," Saaf said. "We lost hope. I'm sad for the future of my kids. I don't want to have any more kids, because I'll just destroy their future."

    Thousands of Palestinians have held demonstrations across Lebanon over the past week, including one in Beirut on Sunday that turned violent. Protesters threw rocks and set rubbish cans on fire outside of the US embassy, while Lebanese security forces fired tear gas and water cannon into the crowd.

    At another protest in the capital on Monday, demonstrators chanted: "Death to America! Death to Israel!"

    "We don't accept Trump's decision," Ali said. "So we will fight."

    Rami Saaf and his nine-year-old son, Jihad, stand outside their home, where water leaks onto wires [Lisa Khoury/Al Jazeera]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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