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For Palestinians leaving Syria, their displacement is compounding decades of statelessness.
WAVEL REFUGEE CAMP, Lebanon — Musa Ali Talusi was just 10 years old when he left his home in the Palestinian village of Lubiyeh for Syria, in the war that led to Israel’s creation in 1948.
Last year, he was 76 when he fled the war in Syria.
“We heard a rocket hit the building,” Talusi said of his family’s home in the Yarmouk refugee camp, a neighborhood that hosts Palestinian refugees on the edge of the Syrian capital, Damascus. The rocket peppered his bed with shrapnel.
“If we had been there, we would have been dead,” he said.
Talusi moved to his son’s house — also in Yarmouk — for a couple of weeks before deciding to leave Syria altogether. Now, he is one of more than 54,000 Palestinian refugees who have departed Syria for the safety of Lebanon since the beginning of the 2011 uprising.
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As Syria's civil war rages on, more than a million refugees have made their way to neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, deepening a worrying humanitarian crisis in the area. For Palestinians leaving Syria, their displacement is compounding decades of statelessness and pushing them into countries where, for decades, they were not welcome. In Lebanon, they are squeezing the meager resources of cash-strapped aid agencies here.
“In Syria, we had houses, jobs, food, money,” said Talusi, who now shares a room with seven members of his family in Lebanon’s impoverished Wavel refugee camp. About seven miles from the Syrian border, Wavel has hosted Palestinian refugees for more than 60 years.
“Here, everything is expensive, and we are forbidden from working” by the Lebanese government, he said.
Palestinians like Talusi make-up a small portion of the half-million refugees that have fled Syria for Lebanon, so far. But their plight here is unique.
Already the region’s stateless outcasts, Palestinian refugees are even more vulnerable as their camps become battlegrounds inside Syria.
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Because there were over 400,000 Palestinians already living in this tiny Mediterranean nation of just 4 million — whom many Lebanese still blame for stoking the country’s civil war three decades ago — the government here has hesitated to allow Palestinians from Syria to set up new camps on Lebanese soil.
Unlike the Syrian nationals also displaced by the war, Palestinians here are not eligible for assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN’s refugee agency.
Palestinians, 700,000 of whom were displaced in 1947-1948, are excluded from the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. They fall outside the UNHCR’s mandate as long as United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), another UN organization established solely to assist the Palestinians who fled their homes in what is now Israel, operates in the area.
UNRWA provides families with cash and access to medical and education services, but has a significantly smaller budget and is less prepared to respond to newly displaced people.
The organization has made several cash handouts to new Palestinian refugees, but they have been irregular and insufficient, both recipients and the UN say.
“The Palestinians are a vulnerable group,” UNRWA spokesperson in Lebanon, Hoda Samra, said. UNRWA gives families roughly $150 every four to six weeks. “We know the amount of money we are giving out is not enough,” she said.
According to UK-based Oxfam International, a non-profit group helping with emergency relief for refugees in Syria, the number one challenge right now is getting immediate shelter for the displaced.
A year ago, 3,500 Palestinian refugees and their descendants that had been in Lebanon for years lived at the Wavel camp. But today, after heavy fighting between opposition and government troops reached Damascus last August, a new wave of displaced from Syria has tripled the camp’s population.
Some stay with friends or family, and others rent rooms — at roughly $150 per month — inside the camp. But those without funds or familial connections have nowhere to go.
Right now, some 60 Palestinian families are squatting at a cemetery near the camp after the municipality gave them permission. Humanitarian Relief for Development, a local non-profit, built temporary shelters, basic toilets, and cooking facilities at a park nearby.
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Standing in front of her own cinderblock shelter, just meters from a row of gravestones, 29-year-old Sarah, who asked that her real name not be used, said she feared for her life when she fled her home in the Yarmouk camp in January.
“The Free Syrian Army said they want to give us freedom,” she said, recounting how the armed rebels took control of parts of the camp last year.
Instead, “they gave us freedom from our homes."
Eventually, she left the camp with her husband and two children.
As a community, Palestinians have largely stayed out of the fighting that has engulfed Syria.
Under the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, Palestinians in Syria enjoyed some of the same rights as Syrian citizens, unlike in other countries in the region. Some see Assad as a champion of the Palestinian cause, others identify with those Syrians battling what they say is a ruthless dictator.
But the politics may matter little to Sarah and her fellow refugees, whom Oxfam and other aid agencies worry will contract gastrointestinal or skin diseases in the upcoming summer months.
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These groups, too, are struggling to raise funds to assist the growing number of uprooted Palestinians who are essentially falling through the cracks.
Ali Taha runs the Children of Al Jaleel Center in Wavel camp. In the last year, his organization has morphed from a children’s education group to an emergency provider of humanitarian assistance like food, gas, shelter and clothes.
He says the statelessness and poverty of Palestinians around the region means they suffer excessively from any unrest.
“Always, the Palestinians everywhere pay the price of conflict and crisis,” he said.