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What It's Like to Raise Kids in a Refugee Camp

Samaa fled the Syrian war for Lebanon's Shatila refugee camp, where she has lived for almost half a decade with her four children. She's one of thousands of women left stranded by the ongoing crisis in the Middle East.
April 22, 2016, 2:00pm
Stock image by Saptak Ganguly via Stocksy

"If we cross on that boat, the boat will sink, and my children will die. We are not good swimmers."

Samaa, 32, is sitting with her legs tucked underneath her on a red rug in a two-room apartment in Shatila refugee camp. "It is too dangerous, everybody knows that—that's why I'm still here."

She gestures around the dank, concrete box that passes as home for Samaa and her four children in the camp, just south of Beirut in Lebanon. Nobody would choose to live here. It smells damp, and outside her window is a rooftop strewn with rubbish a foot deep. "Come, take a picture of this," she says, getting up off her knees and showing me outside. "Take one and show people."


It's no paradise, but Samaa knows she is lucky to have left Syria. Despite the squalor of her surroundings, she is thankful to be in Beirut with her family. Others, she acknowledges, have not been so lucky.

Shatila is a compact camp. Founded in 1949 to house 3,000 Palestinian refugees, 22,000 people now live here. That number is growing, and the result is a hideous level of overcrowding. Floors are built on top of existing structures, creating apartment blocks up to eight storeys high. According to Amnesty International, one in five Lebanese residents is a Syrian refugee. As Assad continues to wage war in the east, Lebanon is bracing herself for another population spike.

It's a world away from the media reports of young men breaking down the door of Europe in Macedonia. Here, it feels as though women dominate. There are small children everywhere, caterwauling in the dark, dank streets. Women wait for their husbands to join them from Syria, or they wait for sons and nephews who have started the journey to Europe to call home.

I'm staying at the Children and Youth Center in the heart of the camp. Here, Abu Moujahad, a Palestinian who came to Shatila when he was one month old, has led the programme for years. His aim is to fight injustice against Palestinians, but also to provide children in the camp with as many opportunities as possible. It's difficult when funding has been cut and the camp fills with more Syrian refugees daily.

Shantila is home to an estimated 22,000 refugees. Photo by Eleanor Ross

Aida, a Palestinian refugee who works at the CYC, points out the buildings around us. They are so tall, and so many additions have been made to them, that sunlight barely reaches the paths below.

We duck as we walk. Fat cables snake down from the building's roofs and join the river of cables hanging just centimeters above head height. They swing across the paths like jungle vines. I just cross my fingers and hope we don't get electrocuted.


"Everything here is wet," she says. "It makes this situation very dangerous."

Power cuts are common in Shatila. As we climb to visit Samaa, Aida's neighbor, another one hits. Unlike central Beirut two miles away, the back-up generators here are weak. It could be hours until power returns.

Lebanon's stability is teteering on the edge. In the last few years, this Middle Eastern land roughly one-third the size of Massachusetts has welcomed two million refugees from neighboring Syria. Damascus is just 33.5 miles away, a journey that could be made in under an hour. The border with Syria frequently comes under attack from mortar fire, and to the south, hostilities continue with Israel.

Why do people choose to live here, I ask Aida and Abu Moujarad over thimblefuls of hot coffee. It is the strongest coffee I have ever drunk and I pretend to sip it, trying to ignore the grounds that stick in my throat. "We are a community of displaced people, but Shatila is united by how it is a cheap place to be. Whereas Beirut rent is very expensive—maybe $600 a month—in Shatila it's just $250 to $300 for a place. This usually includes all bills."

Overcrowding is a huge problem in the camp, with new flats constructed on top of existing building. Photo by Eleanor Ross

The camp can be a haven for those who have been displaced. Abu Moujarad explains that though he can physically move from the camp to the rest of Beirut, he does not feel welcome. "It feels like another world. Taxi drivers from the main areas of Beirut say it is unsafe to come here—it can feel like the country's divided and the population don't mix. Before the civil war religion didn't matter here, and now, it's all people talk about. God is busy with Lebanon!"

I's unsurprising that children find it hard to play in this airless, sunless maze. Outside the office, the street lights up as a teenager tests out a handgun. Sparks fly as the bullets graze the road.


However, Samaa is optimistic about the future. "I am not happy to be here, but I do what I can. Back in Syria I was a teacher, now I spend my days reading and cooking." When Samaa's children comes home, she does the best she can to educate them. The UN-funded schools in the camp are not good.

Aida, who is sitting next to me translating Samaa's story, explains that schools are fit to bursting. "Since the refugees from Syria have arrived there is just no space. You can see this from the buildings, but also the services here. The school here has lessons in the morning for the Palestinian children, and lessons in the afternoon for the Syrians but they are very full."

Samaa says: "I do what I can with my children. In the evenings we read and I help them with their studies." Aside from a well-used two- seater sofa, there is a just a rug and an almost-empty bookcase in the room. A thick white book filled with scrawled Arabic is open on the sofa. When she talks about teaching, her eyes flicker towards it.

Shatila is no place for children. On my first night, my 13-year-old guide Omar took me to a shop to buy some bread. On our way back, he nudged me and pointed at a small huddle of men outside a building. Omar made a sign with his fingers across his throat. "Daesh." He giggled. "Kill you. You." He pointed to me.

A young boy darts down a road lined with exposed electrical wires and rubbish. Photo by Eleanor Ross

ISIS sees Shatila has a fertile recruiting ground. According to refugee and human rights groups, it is taking advantage of the disillusionment within the camps and recruiting from mainly Sunni and Baathist areas. Tensions are rising—people live on top of each other and people feel no identity with the camp. Fights are commonplace. Different religions, cultures, and dialects can make it hard to see eye-to-eye.

Although Samaa remains positive, it doesn't mean she wants to stay. But she's cautious about how to leave. Everyone I spoke to in the camp knows somebody who perished on boat crossings to Europe, where refugees pile onto inflatable dinghies. Aida explains how most people here travel over land to Istanbul and then take a boat to Greece. That, or just head directly to Cyprus. "I cannot go to Europe by boat, but I would like to go to Canada by plane," says Samaa. "That way is safe but I have been here for four years now since the civil war in Syria started. We were one of the first groups of people out."


"The border is now closed," she explains. "My sister and her children are still in Syria and they're finding it difficult to leave, but they're trying to get to Jordan."

She's not the only person who still has family in Syria. I meet Lia* at the airport. She is clutching a white UN carrier bag with her name on it. She has broken away from a long line of shuffling people all holding the same bags, and is waiting in the departure lounge. I ask her if she knows where she is heading.

Her tongue trips over the unfamiliar word: "Montreal." I sense no flicker of excitement, so I ask how she's feeling about her journey. "The plane ride is so long," she says. "First we must go to Jordan, and then a 12 hour flight across the sea." She perks up when I tell her there should be films to watch on the plane.

"I'm very sad to leave Syria," Lia adds. "I've been living in a refugee camp in Lebanon for the last nine months, but my family are still in Syria. My mum and my dad, and all my uncles and aunts. She points to a younger girl. "I'm travelling with my sister."

Canada has resettled more than 25,000 refugees since 2015, and only Germany has a larger number of spaces available. Statistically speaking, it might not be long before Samaa sees herself at the airport with her children.

For now, she remains upbeat and cheerful. Lentil soup is bubbling on the stove for her children's lunch (their favorite, she tells me), and as I leave her flat I hear small footsteps racing up the concrete steps. Two girls, their cheeks flushed in the cold air, dash upstairs and push past me into the house.

"The girls are home!" she says. And for now, they are.

*Name has been changed