It was nearly Christmas, and some 200 children ran and competed with one another in bright sunshine as their parents watched the playground and chatted.
The hosts of this holiday event were Palestinian Christian residents of a small, cramped refugee camp clinging to a rocky hillside here overlooking the Mediterranean Sea north of Beirut. For nearly 60 years, refugees who left the newly established state of Israel in 1948 have been living in the Dbayeh camp.
Their guests were mostly from a new wave of refugees in Lebanon: Syrians who have fled the bloody five-year conflict in neighboring Syria.
“We have been suffering a long time as refugees so we know what the Syrians are going through. Also, as Christians, we have a duty to help them with shelter, food, water, and education,” says Elias Habib, the Dbayeh camp’s representative to the Joint Christian Committee (JCC), one of the oldest organizations working with Palestinian refugees.
There are 12 officially recognized Palestinian camps scattered across Lebanon that are home to around 450,000 refugees, roughly 10 percent of Lebanon’s population. Dbayeh, which was established in 1956 to house Palestinians from the Galilee region in northern Israel, is one of the smallest, with an official population of 4,350. But those numbers have swelled in the past four years with the arrival of some 50 families from Syria who are living inside the camp and another 100 families living in the surrounding area.
There are just over 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon registered with the United Nations, although the true figure is believed to be much higher.
A cheap place to live
The Palestinian hosts in Dbayeh have had to cope not only with the additional numbers but also with religious differences, as the Syrians are overwhelmingly Muslim. Lebanon’s diverse mix of religious sects and sectarian political system means that almost everything is viewed through a sectarian prism.
“It was difficult at first as they were not used to us,” says Anoud Raslan, a mother of five children from Houla in Syria’s Homs province. “But it has been getting better. There are no problems with religion. We are both open to our religions.”
Raslan was among a group of residents from Houla who fled in May 2012 when pro-Syrian government Shabiha militiamen stormed the town and executed more than 100 people, most of them women and children.
“It was a very difficult journey. We were crawling on our stomachs under fire. It took four hours just to crawl across one road,” she says.
Ms. Raslan and her companions crossed into north Lebanon and eventually made their way to the Dbayeh camp.
“We were looking for the cheapest place to live and this is it,” she says.
Schooling is a challenge
Most of the refugees do not have official residency in Lebanon, which complicates their ability to obtain services, including enrolling their children in schools. Many Lebanese schools take in Syrian children in the afternoons once the Lebanese pupils have finished for the day. But those Syrians without official residency are forced to rely on charities to help educate their children.
“Life is very hard for us,” says Ameela, a mother of four children from Latakia in northwest Syria who declined to give her family name. “We cannot get the same education as we had in Syria. The schools always refuse our children because we don’t have residency.”
Dbayeh camp used to have a school run by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the body that handles refugees. But the school was forced to close in the early stages of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war and bureaucratic difficulties have prevented it from reopening.
The JCC runs a small school in the camp and has managed to enroll 94 Syrian students.
“It’s not much, but it’s better than leaving them in the streets with nothing to do,” says Habib.
'The Palestinians here understand'
The Christmas event last Saturday at the Dbayeh camp brought Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese youngsters together for a morning of activities and games in front of the derelict UNRWA school followed by the distribution of gifts. The event was sponsored by donations from students at Beirut’s Université Saint Joseph, some of whom were on hand in Dbayeh to guide the children through the games.
The parents, most of them women wearing headscarves, sat around the playground, watching their children and chatting together.
“The Palestinians here understand our suffering and that is why they have been good to us. They have been refugees for decades, but we have been away from our homes for only three years,” says Asline, a young woman from Latakia who declined to give her family name.
Most of the Syrian refugees in Dbayeh say they intend to return to their homes as soon as the situation in Syria calms down. But for some, the violence that has torn the country apart in the past five years has destroyed any chance of a future life in their former homes.
“We’re not thinking of going home,” says Raslan. “We want to go to Europe. We have given up on our country. The people have changed and it’s not a good place to go back to.”