Refugees in Shatila camp pushed to the brink amid aid crisis

Lebanon - Shatila refugee camp (File)

Federica Marsi & Kareem Chehaveb

Al-Jazeera  /  December 6, 2021

As Lebanon plunges deeper into one of the world’s worst economic meltdowns, Palestinian refugee agency sounds alarm about major funding gap.

Beirut, Lebanon Walking confidently through the maze of narrow streets in Lebanon’s Shatila refugee camp, social worker Sanaa Kaiss smiled back as she was greeted by nods of the head and raised hands.

Kaiss, with the grassroots Association Najdeh, has worked in the Palestinian encampment in the southwest of Beirut for almost 25 years, but never lived through a crisis as worrying as the current one.

 “In the morning, one can afford something and by the afternoon one no longer can because the price has gone up,” Kaiss explained.

As Lebanon plunged deeper into one of the world’s worst economic meltdowns, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) last week sounded the alarm about a major funding gap that could further cut access to basic services for about 200,000 Palestinian refugees.

The United Kingdom alone cut more than half its funding to UNRWA from 42.5 million pounds ($56.5m) in 2020 to 20.8 million ($27.6) this past year, while Gulf states that once contributed $200m in 2018 only provided $20m this year.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini called it an “existential crisis” and warned the funding shortage could dramatically reduce access to education and basic healthcare services, including a COVID-19 vaccination program.

The Lebanese government is not involved in the camps’ affairs but relies on the UN and humanitarian organizations to deliver basic services.

During a visit to Shatila last month, Olivier De Schutter – UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights – said camps in Beirut “suffer from a chronically decaying infrastructure as a result of competing sources of basic service delivery”.

“These communities have been living in the camps for at least three generations, and they deserve better – their right to work, own property, education,” De Schutter told Al-Jazeera.

As part of Association Najdeh, Kaiss makes the rounds in the camp, bringing whatever little support the organization can afford. Nowadays, she finds herself comforting families who lived through conflict and displacement and have now been made vulnerable again by Lebanon’s compounding crises.

Beirut blast fallout

Originally from the Gaza Strip, Hani Sharab, 39, had been able to provide a comfortable life for his wife and four children in Shatila before Beirut’s port explosion shuttered businesses already teetering on the brink of financial collapse.

Prior to the collapse of the Lebanese pound two years ago, he earned the equivalent of $1,500 a month working as a cleaner on an hourly basis for real estate giant Solidere, a private company formed to rebuild Beirut’s historic downtown area after the 15-year-long civil war ended in 1990.

Solidere turned bullet-riddled buildings into dashy offices and boutique shops, where Sharab used to work until the polished streets became the site of anti-government demonstrations in October 2019.

On August 4, 2020, when a large blast rocked Beirut’s port and the city’s densely populated residential neighbourhoods, the renovated waterfront district was once again a pile of twisted metal and debris.

Sharab still goes into work every day but the number of hours he is offered is not enough to make ends meet, he said.

The father-of-four now makes under 2,500,000 Lebanese pounds a month, the equivalent of less than $108, according to the unofficial exchange rate. Monthly expenditures for electricity and drinking water alone take up half of his salary.

The price of food items has increased almost tenfold since October 2019, when 10,000 pounds was officially worth $6.63 and could buy necessities such as milk, chicken, rice and vegetables. Today, 10,000 pounds is worth less than $1 on the black market and barely buys one kilogramme of tomatoes and one kilogramme of oranges.

Rain leaking in through the roof was staining and cracking the living room walls, but home repairs have become a luxury they can no longer afford.

Nazha, Sharab’s wife, said she went to UNRWA to plead for aid, but was unable to secure assistance beyond education for one of their children.

Five years ago, the Canadian embassy gave Sharab an opportunity to resettle his family, which he turned down and now looks back to with deep regret. “I told them I didn’t want to leave Lebanon,” he said. “Now I would go wherever they take me.”

Soaring demand for help

The power was out at Rim Ali’s small flat on the fourth floor of a worn building. She, her husband, and five children lived in the Damascus suburb of Jobar before fleeing war-torn Syria in 2013.

“When we first arrived, we had no place to stay,” Ali told Al Jazeera. Families in the camp would host them before they found the three-room flat they currently live in. They survived on aid from UNRWA, charities and Palestinian factions.

Eight years after escaping the fighting in Syria, Lebanon’s crippling economic crisis is now threatening the family’s hard-won stability.

“The cost of private electricity goes up almost by the day, and it’s become a huge burden,” she said, adding power has become more expensive than rent. “We also have loans to pay.”

The pound has lost more than 90 percent of its value, causing a spike in inflation. Three-quarters of the country now lives in poverty, according to UN estimates. UNRWA has had to adjust cash assistance because of shrinking budgets, while other charities struggle to cope with the soaring demand for aid.

Ali, the family’s breadwinner, relies on whatever short-term work she can find for an income.

She recently was involved by an NGO in a project employing women to stitch ecofriendly cloth sanitary pads, of which she produces more than 100 every week. She took pride in the craft, decorating them with colourful flowers and patterns.

The third room of her apartment became her workshop with several sewing machines. She spent her nights working when her kids were asleep, provided she had electricity to power the machines.

“I’m working bit by bit to be able to cover my children’s expenses and secure a college education for them. That’s what every mother lives for,” she said.

Her eldest son, Moayyad, 24, cannot find work. Her 63-year-old husband travelled to Istanbul to attempt to reach Europe, but has been unable to secure the money to continue his trip as his health worsens.

On top of soaring bills, Ali also wires money to him for rent and food. “Whatever I can save, even just $50, I send it over to him,” she said.

Ali hoped more organizations will fund projects that offer a more sustainable livelihood. “It’s critical,” she said.

Federica Marsi & Kareem Chehaveb – editors