“The situation is much worse this year. My children have nothing; no food, no clothes, nothing!”

The compound crisis hitting Lebanon continues to impoverish families. Living conditions have changed dramatically for those who were already struggling, and refugees are amongst those suffering the most

UNICEF Lebanon
An alley in Burj El-Barajneh
16 June 2021

This is the story of four families of different nationalities living in southern Beirut’s Burj El Barajneh camp.   

I met Bayan and her children in their living room. She looks distraught, speaks anxiously, and shows desperation in her eyes. The heart of their home is a space with no windows and a wooden plank partially blocking the entrance; “it’s to prevent rats from getting inside”, she clarifies.   

Established in 1949 to host Palestinian refugees who poured into the area from Galilee in northern Palestine, Burj El Barajneh is now home to more than 40,000 people.

Life is not easy here. Living conditions are notoriously poor, and things have taken a turn for the worse in the last eighteen months.

Since the beginning of the war in Syria, the camp has hosted an increasing number of non-Palestinians, including vulnerable Lebanese nationals, Syrian refugees and refugees of other nationalities.

Findings from the most recent Housing and Population Census of Palestinian Camps and Gatherings indicate that less than 50% of the 40,000 individuals currently living in the camp are Palestinian.

Nevertheless, and regardless of nationality, all here experience how getting sufficient food, medicine, and clothing has become an increasingly hopeless task in this overpopulated camp.

Bayan brought her Palestinian family here from war-torn Syria. Today, she is facing the challenge of continuing to manage essential needs that she was easily able to cover for her five children – aged between two and twelve years old – until as recently as 2019.

“The situation is much worse this year”, she says, “my children have nothing, no food, no clothes, nothing!”. The limited earnings and support they receive from aid organizations and the community are not enough, and Bayan only wishes an end to see an end this nightmare.

“My dream for my children is for them to live a normal life, like other children. I want to see them have their basic needs covered… I want them to have food and get an education”.

“For food, my son brings leftovers from neighbour’s homes”

The camp’s narrow streets, crowned by an endless (and undoubtedly dangerous) clutter of electric wires, led us to Badra’s home. Syrian, she is here alone, and attempting to make a future for her nine children. With her youngest child now aged six, she decided to flee her country after “they”, she says without mentioning who “they” are, took her husband “because my daughter was wearing a red dress”.

Badra is suffering. She’s sick with a suspected tumor, and her family is not eating well. “For food, my son brings leftovers from neighbour’s homes”. We ask her when and what she eats, “after my children have eaten, I eat”, she responds.

Thanks to a proactive community, Burj El Barajneh’s streets appear clean, but underlying environmental health conditions are precarious, with damp and overcrowded shelters as well as poor infrastructure.

UNICEF Staff at Burj El-Barajneh

Jawaher, Palestinian, is the widow of a Lebanese. She moved to the camp with her three children after she lost her husband, where she was planning to open a small shop “to live in dignity and not rely on people’s aid, but this terrible crisis shattered my dream”.

Today, they depend on aid provided by organizations and the community. “I want my daughters not to have the same fate as me; I want them to finish their studies”, she insists.

Access to medicines and transportation fees are critical concerns that Abeer, a Palestinian mother of seven, shares with us from her balcony. “We are unable to buy as much as we could just two years ago”, she says. The family used to cover their expenses, with Abeer and her husband being joint breadwinners.

“My husband used to get temporary jobs, but with the crisis, it became complicated, and he also got sick recently. I grow plants and make ornaments from recycled items, but it’s been months since I’ve been able to sell anything”.

Today, it’s their twenty-year-old son who is providing for the family, with some support of Abeer’s mother in law too. At the same time, Abeer tries to limit family expenses to ensure food and medicines make it to the family table: “I stopped visiting my parents to save on transportation costs to help leave more money to buy food”.

Life has never been easy in this densely populated one-square kilometre of Beirut, and UNICEF has been supporting its families for decades now. We have also helped the people of Burj El Barajneh cope with the COVID-19 pandemic by providing disinfection and protection supplies, as well as awareness sessions and support to isolation centres and children who were directly or indirectly affected by the spread of the virus. 

UNICEF’s Palestinian Programme has traditionally focused on early childhood development; non-formal education; mental health including community-based child protection and psychosocial support; as well as water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services. Life skills programming, and technical and vocational education and training are also a focus of UNICEF’s work in the Palestinian camps to support youth development. Fraternity Association, Al Najdeh Association, Women’s Programme Association (WPA), Map, ARCPA, Welfare, TDH-I and Anera are partners helping UNICEF deliver results for children in these troubling times.

*The identity of some families in this story has been changed in respect of their request to protect their privacy.