Sobha Salem Qasim, 67, on the rooftop of her house in Rashidieh camp, southern Lebanon, 23/06/2022 (A. Medina, Syria Direct)
RASHIDIEH – Sobha Salem Qasim was twelve years old when her family was expelled from Palestine. It was 1967. She was one of 300,000 Palestinians displaced during the Six-Day War between Israel and Arab countries.
Her family sought refuge in Syria, where Sobha grew up feeling the Yarmouk camp, in southern Damascus, was home. But a decade ago, as war engulfed Syria, then-57-year-old Sobha fled her home again.
Now 67, Sobha lives with her family in southern Lebanon, in the Palestinian refugee camp of Rashidieh. Surrounded by fertile agricultural fields, the Mediterranean Sea and a Lebanese army checkpoint, the camp sits 23 kilometers north of the border with Israel. From the coast, on a clear day, she can glimpse on the horizon the land she was born in, but cannot return to.
Waves of exile and memory are contained within Rashidieh. A few remaining houses built in 1936 tell the story of Armenians who fled genocide and were the first to find safety in this camp. Palestinian flags hung and painted in Rashidieh’s streets point to the plight of people forced out of their homes in historic Palestine in 1948 and 1967. And in Sobha’s living room, nostalgia for Yarmouk camp in Damascus hangs over the camp’s newest residents, Palestinian refugees from Syria. Twice displaced and unable to feel at ease in Lebanon, Sobha lives in her memories of home.
On a hot and humid June afternoon, Sobha sat in her living room with her son Khaled Mahmoud, and her granddaughter Ines. On the bare walls, Sobha and Khaled smiled in a recent photo taken in Lebanon.
Sobha has no photos of her childhood in Palestine. Her entire family was expelled in 1967 from Tiberias, adistrict in northern Palestine that, after the 1948 war in which half of Palestinians were displaced, was part of the 78 percent of historic Palestine that fell within Israeli borders. “I don’t have many memories from Palestine, it feels like a dream,” Sobha said. “We were children. We would play, eat—other than that, I don’t remember.”
But if her memories of Palestine are fading, the ones of Yarmouk camp, Syria’s largest pre-war Palestinian community, known as “Little Palestine,” are very much alive, sustained by a deep nostalgia. “In Yarmouk, we lived like in heaven,” she said, smiling.
In 2012, before the Yarmouk camp was besieged by the Syrian regime the following year, Sobha and her family fled to Lebanon. “We thought that after two or three months we could go back to Yarmouk. It has been ten years, and we are still here,” her son Khaled said.
Upon their arrival to Lebanon, a relative told them about Rashidieh, and they moved into this Palestinian camp, which hosts around 560 of the 29,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria in the country.
Rashidieh: 86 years of displacement
A boy rides his bike next to a mural commemorating the Palestinian right of return in Rashidieh camp, 23/06/2022 (A. Medina, Syria Direct)
In 1936, seven years before Lebanon’s independence, French Mandate authorities built Rashidieh camp to host Armenians fleeing genocide under Ottoman rule.
Twelve years later, in 1948, Zionist militias expelled 750,000 Palestinians from their homes in the war that led to the founding of Israel, in what Palestinians call the Nakba, the catastrophe. Many Palestinians fled to neighboring Lebanon, among them the family of Samir Sharari.
Samir, 53, was born in Rashidieh. He works for Naba, an association advocating for children’s educational rights in the camp. In 1948, his family fled Alma, their village in northern Palestine, and took exile in a Lebanese town near the border. “At the beginning, people thought it was a question of weeks, then months. When they realized the return wasn’t close, camps were built,” Samir said.
Samir’s family moved away from the border, to a camp in Baalbek, northern Lebanon. But in the 1950s, Lebanese authorities started relocating Palestinian refugees to camps in the south. In 1963, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)—the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees—built an extension to Rashidieh to host Palestinian families like Samir’s.
During the Lebanese civil war from 1975-1990, the camp was shelled several times by the Israeli army, leading to the destruction of 600 shelters.
Samir’s family fled Rashidieh and moved to Tel al-Zaatar camp in 1976, only to witness the massacre the same year of 1,600 people during a siege by Christian militias and Syrian troops. “I was five years old. I remember seeing the shelling, many people died,” Samir said. His family fled to Saudi Arabia, and returned to Rashidieh at the end of the war in 1990.
Eventually, the Armenians and Palestinian Christians moved out of Rashidieh. Today, its straight streets are lined with greenery, Palestinian flags, signs commemorating the 74th anniversary of the Nakba, and a recent poster of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot and killed in the West Bank by Israeli forces in May.
Rashidieh is not as overcrowded as other Palestinian camps located within Lebanese cities. Here, the buildings don’t exceed three floors, and the sky is easily visible. A mostly unused Armenian church and a few original shelters from 1936 still stand.
After 2011, as the Syrian government’s violent repression of a popular uprising escalated, leading to a full-blown war, Rashidieh welcomed a new wave of displaced people: Palestinian refugees from Syria. Most came from Yarmouk, as well as Daraa province and the Sbeineh camp in Reef Dimashq.
Palestinian refugees from Syria fall under the mandate of UNRWA, which provides cash assistance, education, healthcare and protection services to 479,000 Palestinians in Lebanon.
One of the Palestinian refugees from Syria living in Rashidieh is 35-year-old Suha Hamid, who arrived in 2014 after fleeing West Ghouta, outside Damascus. “We left before the siege. Three days after we fled, our house was razed by shelling,” the mother of four explained. “My brother, my mother, my family—they all died in the war. I have no one left in Syria.”
Suha and her four children at their home in Rashidieh camp, 23/06/2022 (A. Medina, Syria Direct)
In 1948, Suha’s family, like Sobha’s in 1967, was expelled from Tiberias, in northern Palestine. She grew up in West Ghouta, where she married her husband, a Syrian. Today, they live together in Rashidieh with their four children and Suha’s sister, who is blind and requires constant medical attention.
When the family arrived in Rashidieh, they had nothing. “I didn’t have any furniture, I was just on the floor, the neighbors helped me to furnish it a bit,” she remembered.
When Suha thinks of home, she thinks of Syria. “Our house was there, life was better in Syria…when we came here, our lives felt shattered,” she said.
Memories of Syria, reality in Lebanon
In Syria, Palestinians had a relatively better status in comparison with other host countries like Lebanon. They could access public services, employment and property rights, with some limitations.
Out of 528,000 Palestinian refugees in pre-war Syria, around 120,000 fled the country since 2011 and 280,000 are internally displaced. Yarmouk camp’s population was decimated, falling from 160,000 people to barely 8,000 today.
Like Suha, Sobha has no family left in Syria. “Our house was completely destroyed, no one is left in Yarmouk,” she said. After a decade of displacement in Lebanon, nostalgia for Yarmouk permeates all conversations. “Everything was nice from Yarmouk—the food, the neighbors, the sweets—here they don’t know how to make sweets like we do in Syria,” she said, smiling.
“We miss all of Yarmouk camp…I miss the Syrian bread,” Khaled added. Ines, his teenage daughter born in Syria, came to Lebanon at a very young age but nostalgia also runs in her veins, like the rest of her family. “I was very young, I don’t remember Syria, but Syria is better than here,” she said.
For decades, Palestinians in Lebanon have been structurally marginalized: barred from dozens of professions and banned from owning property or accessing state services. “Syria was not like here, there was not as much discrimination,” concluded Sobha.
Unlike many refugees from Syria, the members of Sobha’s family have residency permits in Lebanon. Still, sometimes they feel trapped. “Every time we want to leave the camp, we request a permit from the Lebanese army,” Subha explained. “It’s like we live in prison. Every day I age one year. Yarmouk camp was not like this, it was a city,” Khaled said. He has not made the two-minute walk to the seafront in Rashidieh in seven years. “It is not like our sea in Latakia,” Sobha said.
Still, the family was relatively fortunate to come to Lebanon when they did, in the early years of the war in Syria. Since 2014, Lebanese authorities have placed restrictions for Palestinians from Syria to obtain residency papers. “Those PRS [Palestinian Refugees in Syria] who entered Lebanon after September 2016 are not eligible for residency,” explained Huda Samra, spokesperson at UNRWA. Palestinians from Syria are also occasionally affected by a 2019 Higher Defense Council decision to deport Syrians “who entered the country irregularly after 2019,” Samra added.
As of March 2021, 51 percent of Palestinian refugees from Syria did not have current legal residency in Lebanon, according to UNRWA data. For those who came before 2016, renewing residency is free of charge, but not all refugees have renewed it “due to associated costs, such as transport or photocopying in government buildings, and due to the irregular opening hours of governmental buildings,” Samra explained. Lack of up-to-date legal residency puts Palestinian refugees from Syria, like all Syrian refugees, at risk of deportation.
In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees from Syria tend to work in the cleaning industry, agriculture, construction, caretaking and guarding activities. Most work in the informal sector, and only two percent of Palestinian refugees from Syria have a work permit, according to UNRWA.
Khaled works sporadically in construction, and Sobha, in her late sixties, picks vegetables and fruits from the Jaftalak agricultural fields outside the camp and prepares them for market. Their rent and electricity bills run up to two million LBP ($68 at the parallel market rate) per month. The family also receives UNRWA’s monthly cash assistance of $25 per family member, a sum that is higher than UN cash assistance to Syrian refugees.
Although Suha is a Palestinian from Syria, because she is married to a Syrian citizen, the couple falls under the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) mandate. They receive 500,000 LBP ($16) per person each month. Their rent is 700,000 LBP ($ 24) and they have been unable to afford meat or eggs for a long time. “I have debts from the little grocery shops,” Suha said.
In 2021, 81 percent of Palestinian refugees from Syria’s households reported that they lacked food or money to buy food within the previous 30 days, and 77 percent were in debt, according to UNRWA.
Rashidieh camp hosts mostly Palestinians, including Palestinians from Syria, but there are a few exceptions. Mervat Mafaq and Malek Hamada are Syrian citizens who fled Daraa with their four children in 2019 after their house was shelled. “We didn’t have a place to stay in Syria so we came to Lebanon, and we were told this camp was quiet and nice,” Malek said.
Mervat Mafaq, Malek Hamada and their children in their living room in Rashidieh camp, 23/06/2022 (A. Medina, Syria Direct)
They have no residency permit, do not receive UNHCR cash assistance, and their children are not able to attend school due to a registration issue. “We don’t go outside the camp because we don’t have a residency permit. If they catch us, we could be deported,” Malek said.
Mervat works cleaning houses, and Malek works in the fields earning 50,000 LBP ($1.70) per day. Their 400,000 LBP rent ($13) is the cheapest in the camp: They live in an old, one-bedroom unit. “We can’t afford things like bread, vegetables, meat, eggs or milk,” Mervat said.
But while life is challenging in Lebanon, the family does not feel safe returning to Syria. “There’s no security in Syria and we have no house to return to,” Malak explained. Their only hope is to get resettlement outside Lebanon.
Resettlement is a wish their neighbor Suha shares. “Hopefully, I can travel to Europe. If you told me to go, I’d leave tomorrow morning,” she said.
Sobha is not optimistic. “I don’t have hope to go back to Syria,” she said. Unable to return to Palestine or Yarmouk, her family, too, dreams of finding a new life outside cash-strapped Lebanon, but the odds are slim. “Resettlement is only for Syrian refugees through the UN, but not for Palestinians,” Khaled lamented.
Palestinian refugees have a separate legal status from other refugees through an exclusion clause in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention that puts them in a unique situation, and they cannot be resettled.
Displaced from Palestine as a child, and from Syria as a grandmother, Sobha is now living out her second exile in Rashidieh, with Palestine in eyeshot and Syria’s Little Palestine—the place she calls home—behind her back.
For Ines, her granddaughter, displaced from Syria as a child, the story repeats itself: Home is a shared memory, passed down in stories, that lies somewhere just across the border, unreachable.