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'You're living in a jungle and you have to survive': The reality of life in a refugee camp

Refugee camps in Lebanon are at breaking point but many people don’t want to leave their homes, instead choosing to improve them from inside.

Órla Ryan reports from Lebanon, where she travelled to in early March prior to the Covid-19 travel restrictions.

IMG_5499 Pro-Palestine graffiti in Burj el-Barajneh refugee camp. Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

LIFE IN A refugee camp is difficult – conditions are cramped and infrastructure and services are generally very poor.

The camps are no-go areas for many people, that often includes the police. But for hundreds of thousands of people in Lebanon, they’re also home.

A lot of residents would like to move out of the camps if they could afford to, but others want to stay.

Odai Hilal, who was born and raised in Shatila refugee camp in south Beirut, wishes conditions in the camp were better but doesn’t want to leave – it’s his home, his community. 

IMG_6024 Odai Hilal pictured in Shatila camp. Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

He explained: “It’s like you’re living in a jungle and you have to survive every moment. There are difficult conditions, for sure.

“Every day is stressful, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Speaking to in Shatila, the 32-year-old Palestinian said some of his friends and siblings have left the camp – his brother is in Texas, for example – but he’s staying put.

Being in the camp and the communal spirit that exists, in spite of all the hardships, becomes an integral part of many people’s identities.

While some individuals want to leave as soon as they can, others can’t imagine living anywhere else. It’s a way of life – often people’s parents and grandparents also grew up in the camp and they want their children to as well, despite their concerns. 

Odai normally arranges pilgrim tours to Saudi Arabia but his work has dried up because of the Covid-19 travel restrictions.

Many of his friends have qualifications but are unable to get employment. Palestinians are banned from working in several sectors in Lebanon and many emigrate because of this.

IMG_5505 Graffiti in Burj el-Barajneh camp. Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Odai’s wife is seven months pregnant with their first child, a son, and he’s worried about raising a child in the camp, saying drug use and violent crime have increased in recent years.

“I’m worried about myself, nevermind my son,” he said, but added that he wants to keep living in the camp and improve his community from inside.

I love this camp, I love this place. I hate the problems that are happening here but I found myself here, it raised me up.

“Everyone has a dream to live in a place where there is no violence, no drugs, no guns, safety for children to walk in the streets and have no one harm them in any way. That’s what everyone wants.”


Among those trying to improve life in refugee camps in Beirut and beyond are the employees of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) – the NGO offers free healthcare to refugees in camps like Shatila and the nearby Burj el-Barajneh camp, as well as other locations in Lebanon. 

IMG_5317 Dr Laura Rinchey and Mohammad Sunallah outside MSF’s family clinic in Burj el-Barajneh refugee camp. Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Both camps, like many others, were set up in 1948 in response to Palestinians fleeing after the Nakba, or “catastrophe”, which refers to the foundation of the State of Israel. At least 750,000 Palestinian refugees fled between 1947 and 1949.

Many came to Lebanon and some residents are the third or fourth generation of their family to live in the camps. 

The Shatila and Burj camps also accommodate a large number of Syrian refugees, people from countries such Iraq, Sudan and the Philippines, and vulnerable Lebanese residents, due to its relatively cheap rent.

MSF operates family planning and mental healthcare services in the camps, and a home-based care programme for patients with chronic diseases who have mobility problems.

_MG_5363 MSF nurse Amal Serhan treating patient Siham Hleyhel, who is Palestinian, at her home in the Burj el-Barajneh camp. Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Dr Laura Rinchey, who is originally from Northern Ireland, has been working with MSF for several years and has lived in Lebanon since 2017.

The NGO’s health centre in Burj helps women throughout their pregnancy and birth, referring on more complicated cases to the nearby Rafik Hariri University Hospital.

The clinic uses a midwifery-led model, a relatively new concept in Lebanon. Staff at the centre also encourage the father to be involved in the process by coming to appointments and being present at the birth – something not everyone agrees with.

IMG_5448 MSF patient Siham Hleyhel pictured with her daughter Almasa and granddaughter Manessa at her home in the Burj el-Barajneh camp. Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Rinchey said some patients and employees were initially “very reluctant” to accept this approach. She said perceptions started to change when a local sheikh accompanied his wife to appointments with her obstetrician and it “went really well”.

“There are little things like this where we battle quite hard to get the team on board. In the end, for the males coming in, we just said, ‘No more discussions, we’re going to do it.’ And then this one key patient and her husband [come along], that changed everybody’s mind.”

Rinchey said staff have tried to implement a number of initiatives – with mixed levels of success – adopting the attitude of “we just have to start and see where we can go with this”.

Men’s group 

One of the biggest achievements has been the establishment of a men’s activity group. In weekly sessions from November to January, men living in the camp attended workshops covering topics like family planning, anger management and parenting, as well as getting the opportunity to socialise by playing football and listening to music.

A second group recently started but planned events had to postponed amid the national Covid-19 lockdown. 

Screenshot 2020-04-10 at 13.28.52 South Beirut includes MSF's Burj el-Barajneh clinic, Shatila clinic and birth centre. MSF MSF

An issue for the Syrian people living in the camp in particular, Rinchey said, is a sense of losing the community life they were used to back home.

“They lost their land and their home, suddenly … but they lost that community sense as well,” she told

“They don’t know who to trust. You know, it’s very much you go into your house and close the door. There’s no room to socialise together and so there’s a loss of that support network.”

Rinchey noted that people living in refugee camps often don’t get to do simple things many of us take for granted like “having a coffee and being able to listen to music”. 

“They don’t have the money to go and have a cup of coffee, and you can’t stand in the street because it’s not really safe. So the fact that they could come and have a cup of coffee and a chat was really important.”

On one occasion, an MSF staff member brought a guitar and played music for the group, the first time many of the men had heard live music in years.

IMG_5497 Pro=Palestine graffiti in Burj el-Barajneh camp. Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Rena Timsa, field communications manager with MSF, added that running such a group for men in the camp is “pioneering”.

“The general culture, especially for Syrians but even for Lebanese and Palestinians too, is that men don’t usually express their feelings a lot or show their interest in things. They’re not usually encouraged to do that – to go and talk about how they feel or answer very intimate questions about their relationships with their wives. This is not very common.

“So the fact that we’re bringing them here, putting them in the same room, having them discuss these ideas, I think it’s very unique. And it’s something that should have a very good, long impact,” Timsa said.

‘The new kids on the block’

Mohammad Sunallah, the manager of MSF’s clinic in the Burj camp, said he and his colleagues are trying “to promote a new model of care”.

Sunallah said MSF cannot be involved in every aspect of people’s lives and, as such, MSF focuses on medical and psychological needs, as well as helping to improve people’s “resilience and coping mechanisms”.

Sunallah said part of the reason different nationalities in the camp don’t mix is due to negative stereotypes they have about each other.

Most of the families in the camps live below the poverty line and, as the population continues to grow in an area originally designed to accommodate a fraction of the current residents, tensions are rising.

IMG_6062 A pro-Palestine billboard in Shatila camp. Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Many refugees are restricted from working in certain sectors, and the ongoing economic recession and Covid-19 lockdown are making it almost impossible to get work. 

Those who do have jobs often work extremely long hours for very little pay. Some people blame refugees for ‘taking’ their jobs but they often aren’t there in the first place.

Rinchey points out that the same thing happens everywhere, including Ireland, telling us: “Any big inner city would have the same problem – it’s always the newest kids on the block who are the ones to blame for everything.”

Estimates vary but between 35,000 to 45,000 people live in the Burj camp – which covers about 1.5-square-kilometres.

Shatila is slightly smaller – about 1-square-kilometre and about 25,000 people live there. The cheapest rent in the camps would be about $200 (about €180) – usually for a property in poor condition with several people sharing a room.

IMG_20200312_184941_779 Masses of electrical wires are a common sight in Burj el-Barajneh and other refugee camps. Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Infrastructure and sanitation in the camps are generally quite poor, and many people don’t have access to clean water.

Sunallah noted that if you look up the camps online one of the first things you find is the that several people die each year after being electrocuted – masses of wires are visible everywhere you turn.

Drug dealers targeting young people

Farah Hindawi, an 18-year-old journalism and filmmaking student, has also lived in Shatila all her life.

She said there were, of course, difficulties growing up in the camp but she had a “really nice” childhood.

Her family is very involved in the local Scouts movement and she has many friends in the area.

She would like to go abroad to study or work in the future, but is happy in Beirut for now.

One of her biggest concerns in the camp is an increase in drug use and crime in recent years.

It’s fairly common for young people to drop out of school and many of these children or teenagers are targeted by drug gangs. 

IMG_6088 Farah Hindawi pictured in Shatila camp. Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Farah said dealers typically focus on young people who are not in school, offering them money or food to become involved in dealing. She said this is the only income source available to some people.

Drug use is a big problem, particularly in Shatila, Sunallah confirmed.

Marijuana, cocaine and heroin are among the most commonly used substances. People also misuse benzodiazepines and pain medication like Morphine and Tramadol.

Sunallah said there are “illegal pharmacists” but that some people get their benzos by threatening legitimate pharmacists.

Pharmacists have been warned not to do this but, as one previously told him, ‘When I have an armed guy asking for Diazepam (Valium), I will give him Diazepam in order to protect myself.’

Like many Palestinians in Lebanon, Farah received schooling via UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East). She is grateful to have made it to third level – knowing so many of her peers don’t get that chance – and wants to earn a master’s degree.

Her parents have always told her and her siblings that education is essential. Farah’s twin sister is studying anthropology via a scholarship in Bristol, and her two older brothers are studying psychology and computer science in Beirut. Farah said she’s “very worried” about the amount of young people in the area who aren’t getting an education, especially with “everything that’s happening in the country” in terms of the recession.

If she can’t get a job in Lebanon when she graduates, she plans to emigrate. When asked if she has a particular country in mind, Farah said: “I would like to go anywhere that treats me as a human being, a place that isn’t very racist with me, that’s the only thing I care about.”

US funding cut 

Mohammed Khaled, UNRWA’s chief area officer, told it’s very common for Palestinians to leave Lebanon for work or education – his own sons studied abroad and two of them live in Canada and the UK.

He understands and encourages the desire to travel but admits it is difficult to see his family spread out all over the world, rather than living in a state they could their own.

“We hope, we dream for the coming generations. Maybe one day, the (Palestinian) people who went abroad and grew up as English or Americans or Australians or Chilean, these generations will come home and do something.”

IMG_6014 Mohammed Khaled, UNRWA's chief area officer. Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Khaled’s father was among the many Palestinians for flee their homeland in 1948, settling in Lebanon where he worked as a teacher with the UNRWA for many years. 

In 2018, the US announced it was ending all funding to UNRWA. The agency was originally set up to take care of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and now supports over five million people in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, providing education, healthcare, social services and other support.

The US, historically the agency’s largest single donor, cut its contributions from $360 million (about €330 million) to $60 million (€55 million) in 2018, ceasing all funding in 2019.

US President Donald Trump has previously complained that the US received “no appreciation or respect” for the large sums of aid it provided to the region, and hit out at what he called Palestinians’ unwillingness to negotiate with Israel.

Khaled, who has worked with UNRWA for 30 years, stressed that he didn’t want to talk about politics, saying the agency is a humanitarian organisation and very grateful to the US for its support in the past.

However, he said he hoped the Trump administration would reverse the decision as Palestinians are “suffering” greatly because of it.

“We are a humanitarian organisation, we are doing our utmost to provide the best services to the people and we are educating people for their future. We hope that we can build two states for the Palestinians and for the Israelis. We want to live in peace.”

Khaled said the success of UNRWA is “vital” to Palestinians in the region, adding that it would be “a catastrophe” if the agency could no longer do its work.

‘Don’t look at me as a refugee, look at me as a human’

Farah said she feels a deep connection to her family’s homeland.

When asked if she considers herself to be Palestinian, Lebanese or a mix of the two, without missing a beat, she replied: “100% Palestinian”.

She said she hopes to go to Palestine one day but even if she can’t “I have to keep fighting for it”.

IMG_6060 Shatila camp. Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Farah said it’s true people from different backgrounds often don’t mix in and around the camp but this is less of an issue among people her age. She has made Lebanese and Syrian friends through her interest in theatre.

She’s part of a group which recently wrote a play where old versions of their characters visit their younger selves with advice.

“In each scene, one of us explains how we feel and the problem we are facing. So for me, I talked about the Palestinian issue, and I talked about why I want to travel. One of my friends, she talks about the revolution and the protests. Another friend talks about how society looks at a man when he dances, and the negative opinions they have about him.”

Farah said the play covers topics like religion and politics, and people of all ages will be able to relate to it.

“Any kid, any young person, any old person, they can find themselves in this play. And this means to us a lot. There are other people who don’t have this chance to talk about how they feel. So now we’re not just representing ourselves or one group, we’re representing everyone who has these problems.”

Farah said part of the reason she chose to study filmmaking is so she can continue to tell stories in a creative way. She said the word ‘refugee’ is often used in a negative way and she wants to change this.

Her main message is simple: “You don’t have to look at me as a refugee, look at me as a Palestinian, as a human being.”

This article is supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund. It is the final article in a three-part series on the reality of life for refugees in Lebanon, part one can be read here and part two can be read here.


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