“My mom wants two loaves of bread, when my dad works again, we will repay you”
* Palestinian journalist
With four cardiac stents and his face covered with wrinkles, Rashid Ayoub is waiting for his turn among hundreds of people lining up carrying empty food bowls, to get a hot meal from the charity kitchen of “Majd Al-Kourum” Association in Shatila camp.
After working 27 years in a company that sells electrical appliances, the sudden measures of the Ministry of Labor against Palestinian workers in July 2019 changed the life of this 70-year old man. The company decided to dismiss the Palestinian workers without any end-of-service compensation. Rashid was among these workers. According to the 2017 general census, the daily paid workers account for 71.8 % of all Palestinian employees.
Jobless, Rachid is drowning in a sea of debts. His health worsened. His eldest son, the sole breadwinner in the family, continued to support him. But, due to the harsh economic crisis, he also was dismissed from his job without compensation as well. Cancer that is becoming prevalent in Shatila camp did not spare Rachid wife. Thus, new miseries emerged in addition to the search for medical treatment and medication for her. Rashid had to make a difficult decision by giving up some of his heart medications to pay for his wife’s treatment.
“I was ashamed of the pharmacy owner. My debt amounted to more than US$1,300. Even though he never asked me to reimburse,” says Rashid, “and after the second dose, my wife developed a heart condition, so we dropped this treatment and moved between the cardiologist and cancer specialist.”
His house, composed of two rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom, is worn out; the ceiling and walls are all cracked out. In addition, as is the case with most camp houses, high levels of humidity are predominant leading to a persistent bad smell, harmful to the lungs. For years, Rachid has been waiting for UNRWA to help repair the house.
Salih Ali al-Maamoul, age 40, is also waiting with his two sons; one of them suffers from a gland disorder condition that prevented him from growing normally. The high costs of treatment led the father and mother to give up their rented house and go and live each in the house of his/her parents in order to provide the treatment price for their child.
This situation lasted for three years, before the family could live together again under the same roof in a rented house, at a relatively cheap price. The father who works as a painter-craftsman is subject to seasonal unemployment, which leads to the accumulation of debts. The census supervised by the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee reveals that people with special needs among the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon reaches approximately 5.4 %.
If the unemployment rate was 19.4 % when conducting the census, this percentage has surely doubled during the past two years due to numerous factors, especially among the most vulnerable groups who lack legal protection, like the Palestinian refugees.
According to Yahya Sarris, responsible of the benevolent kitchen in Shatila camp, “Although we distribute about 2,000 hot meals twice a week, people need much more than that. Nearly 90% of the population today requires direct assistance to save them from this grave crisis,” that needs to be addressed by more than one party.”
The economic crisis is also beginning to cast a shadow on the educational and health realities, says Dr. Majdi Karim, director of the Shifa Association for Medical Services, who confirms “that a wide segment of Palestinian refugees are completely unable to secure the price of medicines, or bear the cost of hospitalization, or even consult doctors. Which drove the association to announce free health treatment days in the Palestinian camps.”
From the educational perspective, the last official Brevet results have been largely disappointing, which prompted the demand for a re-evaluation of the educational program atUNRWA agency. However, despite the criticism of the Palestinians towards UNRWA, some specialists did not rule out the direct impact of the economic crisis in the declining level of Palestinian students academic performance, without discharging UNRWA of its responsibilities.
The Palestinians are trying to manage their affairs in these circumstances through the help of the Palestinians diaspora, especially those living in the Scandinavian countries. Most charitable projects and community initiatives receive support from the Palestinians across the globe. However, these initiatives fall short of fulfilling the increasing needs for food, medicine and education services.
Wael Saad, researcher at the Zaytuna Center for Studies, believes that it is normal for the Palestinians living in Lebanon to be affected by the prevailing difficult economic crisis experienced. Yet, Palestinian’s suffering is multiplying and have greater impacts, including “the increased pressure on employers to limit work opportunities to Lebanese citizens, and thus dismiss Palestinian workers in an attempt by employers to reduce the number of their workers.”
According to him, “food insecurity is increasing, namely with many Palestinian breadwinners losing their jobs, and it is reflected in the living conditions of families thus leading to the increases of poverty and extreme poverty.”
Furthermore, he considers that the current crisis also threatens “social security. In light of the inability of the head of the family to provide for the basic needs of the family, it is understandable that family disputes will rise, resulting in more separations among couples and scattered families.”
He also warns that “the inability of young people, especially university graduates, to find suitable job opportunities might lead them to despair, which increases the chances of getting involved in countless problems, as well as threatening social stability within Palestinian communities in Lebanon.”
Saad calls for “putting pressure on the international community to launch an emergency campaign to collect funds to improve the social and health conditions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.” He does not exclude “the impacts of the economic conditions on the political and security reality if they are not quickly resolved, because the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon experienced a constant outflow through the migration of youth during the past decades, which according to the figures of the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee exceeded 180,000 Palestinians.; Targeting the refugees in the Palestinian countries, surrounding Palestine borders aims at liquidating the Palestinian cause, and their right of return as a political issue par excellence.
Hamza Bishtawi, Palestinian writer, describes the reality of the Palestinian camps in Lebanon as tragic due to the overpopulation, the deterioration in infrastructure, the decline in UNRWA services, and the economic crisis sweeping Lebanon. To stress on this issue, he recalls the example of this child knocking at her neighbors’ door saying, ‘My mother wants two loaves of bread, and when my dad works, we will return them.’ This clearly shows how the situation is affecting the refugees who are still chanting, “We do not want sardines nor flour, we want to return to Palestine.”
He adds, “Undoubtedly unemployment indicators will rise in light of the prevailing situation, deprivation at the work level, preventing the practice of free professions, and implementing measures set forth by the Ministry of Labor. In such circumstances, Palestinians must themselves strengthen social solidarity, and put pressure on UNRWA, the PLO and all factions, to carry out their duties in terms of providing the bare necessities of life on the nutritional and health levels.
Bishtawi believes that political and security tensions are currently low, but “should they occur in the future, the harshness of living in the camps, which does not provide a minimum level of decent living should be considered. This requires the Lebanese authorities to take responsibility by building relations with the camps on sound, solid and legal grounds, taking into consideration the right, justice and common interests of both peoples. The Lebanese State must clearly explain what the rights and duties of the Palestinians are in a way that enhances their determination and willpower to their right of return to their homeland.”
It is evident that the economic and humanitarian conditions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are quickly deteriorating. Lebanese and Palestinian relevant institutions must work through the formulation of a joint speech and action plan, including the establishment of dialogue, put pressure on the international community to assume its responsibilities, and on all concerned parties to start undertaking fieldwork in Palestinian camps and communities, and save the population from a possible social outburst.