‘‘We go from catastrophe to catastrophe, from refugee camp to refugee camp, but at least we are alive,’’ Umm Sami said in Ein el-Hilweh, Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, near the southern port city of Sidon. She and her sons, who are all in their 20s and university graduates, fled Yarmouk with only the clothes on their backs, leaving behind a two-bedroom apartment and jobs that paid the bills.
Now, they are jobless in Lebanon, officially barred from legal employment, and left to live off help from relatives and handouts from the camp’s mosques.
Ein en-Hilweh normally houses 65,000 people, but since mid-December, when a flood of refugees from Yarmouk started arriving, the population has steadily grown by several hundred a day, putting a further strain on resources.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he asked U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon last month to seek Israeli permission to bring Palestinians caught in Syria’s civil war to their homeland. Last week, he said that Israel agreed to allow 150,000 Palestinians refugees from Syrian into the West Bank and Gaza — as long as they relinquished the right of return to what is now Israel. Abbas said he refused.
With no end to the Syria conflict in sight, residents of Ein el-Hilweh have started building a camp within a refugee camp for their compatriots escaping the violence across the border.
They've converted the camp’s children’s library into housing for dozens of families. Reading rooms, offices, hallways and even bathrooms have been partitioned with makeshift walls, boards and even blankets as families try to carve out space to cook, eat and sleep.
In the library’s front yard, a new structure is being built to house at least 10 more families.
‘‘We do what we can to help and find them a home, because they are not going back to Syria soon,’’ said Sheik Jamal Khatab, who oversees the registration of refugees and distribution of aid.
The biggest challenge facing the Palestinian refugees, Khatab said, is not to be dragged into the Syrian civil war — on either side. He also warned that the hardship awaiting Palestinians after the war ends will be tougher than the one they have been living as stateless people.
‘‘It’s in our interest not to interfere in this conflict, even though the Syrian regime is a tyrannical regime,’’ he said. ‘‘We are not Syrians, and any side that will win this war will consider us enemies.’’
Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad contributed to this report.