Mixed Fortunes for Palestinians

Many live in overcrowded refugee camps, but some have turned their makeshift homes into a prosperous town.

Mixed Fortunes for Palestinians

Many live in overcrowded refugee camps, but some have turned their makeshift homes into a prosperous town.

Tuesday, 19 May, 2009
Khalid Waleed, an art teacher, says he dreads returning home to Neirab at the end of each day.

“I wish I could stay in the classroom where there is heat during the winter and electricity to charge my cell phone,” he said, sadness apparent on his face.

“My living conditions have become almost unbearable.”

The 18,000 Palestinian residents of Neirab, one of Syria’s most densely populated and poorest refugee camps, have to put up with cramped houses, leaking roofs and rodent and insect infestations.

Neirab was established in the late Forties – on the site of army barracks used by allied forces in World War Two – for refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.

Most refugees living in Neirab, which is situated 13 kilometres east of the northern city of Aleppo, work in temporary jobs or as teachers in local schools.

Waleed, who works at an Aleppo school, says living in poor conditions has made him think twice about getting married and having a family. He says he would not want any children of his to endure what he has to.

“What kind of life would my future children have?” he asked. “There are no gardens or trees or good and safe roads in this camp.”

More than 400,000 Palestinian refugees live in Syria. In accordance with the 1965 Arab League agreement on the treatment of Palestinian refugees in Arab states, which asserts Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their homeland, they are not granted Syrian citizenship, say officials.

But Syria and Jordan are the only countries in the Middle East to grant Palestinian refugees full access to government services. In these countries, they have freedom of movement; are entitled to travel documents; do not require work permits; and are allowed to become government employees. The refugees also enjoy the same educational rights as citizens.

“Syria has become the temporary home of 1.5 million Iraqis and half a million Palestinians without benefiting from any help from [those] countries who were responsible for their misery,” said a spokesman for the Syrian embassy in London, Jihad Makdissi.

“Palestinians have exactly the same rights as Syrians, except for the right of vote [which they don’t qualify for] since their homeland is Palestine.”

He added that Palestinian refugee camps had water and electricity and their residents were free to move to any other place of their choice.

However, many complain that the camps they live in lack basic services.

While each house in Neirab has its own bathroom, without a proper sewage system, sanitation concerns persist.

Polluted water lies along the road leading to the camp, and poultry factory owners in Aleppo often toss their garbage on the roadside which leads to the main entrance.

Residents say that getting to and from Neirab can be difficult because cab drivers are reluctant to go there.

“Most drivers charge more when you tell them you want to go to the camp, as if you were going to a barren desert,” said Ahmed Abu Hasan, a father of three.

Although Hasan has a permanent job as a teacher, he is not satisfied. “A man needs entertainment, needs to smell clean air and to see clean fields across from his home,” he said.

The refugees complain that some people outside the camp look down on them.

“Some Aleppo residents don’t like having us as neighbours,” said Maysa al-Amir, a physics teacher, but she said she and her friends try to maintain a degree of dignity, and hope that conditions will improve.

“At least we do not forget Palestine,” said Maha Al-Nabulsi, an Arabic teacher and friend of Maysa. “We are determined to return to our original homes [during] our lifetimes.”

Most Palestinian refugee children living in camps near Aleppo study in schools funded by the United Nations Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, UNRWA, which also provides health, relief and social services.

Over the last 12 months, UNRWA and some governments have attempted to improve conditions in the camp by funding the Neirab Rehabilitation Project.

The first phase, which is expected to conclude in the coming months, is aimed at reducing overcrowding by constructing new housing in the nearby Ein al-Tal camp. The second phase, which began last summer, will look to continue improving living conditions.

In March, Masaki Kunieda, the Japanese ambassador to Syria, announced that his country would donate 4.3 million US dollars to assist the project. The funds will be used to construct a school, houses, roads, and outside spaces, as well as a community centre and other services.

The United Arab Emirates also donated money to improve conditions in the Ein al-Tal camp, where 300 new houses have been built.

If Neirab is considered to be the worst camp, inhabitants of the Yarmouk seem to have things better.

Yarmouk is home to the largest Palestinian refugee community in Syria, housing more than 100,000 people.

The camp, which lies eight km from the centre of the capital, resembles a small urban enclave with two main roads lined with shops and crammed with taxis, buses and bicycles.

Many Yarmouk residents hold down professional jobs, working as doctors, engineers and civil servants.

Yarmouk has prospered by being more self-sustaining, according to the owner of a number of small businesses and a clothing factory in the Damascus-based camp.

Over time, some residents became convinced that there was to be no imminent return to their homeland, and so focused on setting up businesses in the camp.

“Palestinians who went to work in the Gulf and returned to Syria in a good financial position started their own businesses,” said the businessman. “I started by turning some empty houses on my streets into small shops.”
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