Building lives: the charity that gives Lebanon’s hidden refugees a home
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On a Beirut rooftop, 15-year-old Lara al-Khaled pores over a textbook, reading about the sinking of the Titanic.
“I feel sad for the man but I’m happy the woman lives,” she says gleefully in English, referring to the lovers whose story appears in her book, before rattling off facts about the doomed voyage in Syrian-accented Arabic: four days at sea, about three hours to sink.
Exercise books lie open on the floor where she is helping her four siblings with their homework. Light streams through an open window. Down below stretch dim, crowded streets, where the air is thick with diesel fumes from motor scooters and the stench of rotting rubbish. Up here in her family’s tidy rented flat, the curious and resourceful girl who wants to become a nurse seems a world away.
Lara is Syrian. Her family escaped their country’s civil war six years ago, seeking refuge in Lebanon. Their adopted neighbourhood is a kind of landmark to the wars that have ravaged this region, created by the people who survived them. This is Shatila, a refugee camp in Beirut’s southern suburbs that has existed for almost 70 years.
The labyrinthine slum has been built over decades by people fleeing conflict and poverty; a century of migration that has shaped Lebanon — a small country bordered by Syria and Israel — like a geological force.
Armenians fled here in the early 20th century, then Palestinians started to arrive in 1948, when the creation of Israel displaced hundreds of thousands across the border. Syrians are the latest to seek shelter, fleeing from a civil war that is entering its eighth year.
Lebanon, with a population of 4.5 million, now has an additional estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees and more than 250,000 Palestinians, giving it the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. There are 12 other Palestinian refugee camps across the country, mostly embedded within poor neighbourhoods. I visited one other in Beirut, called Burj al-Barajneh, and there is an additional smaller camp in the capital called Mar Elias.
Shatila is on prime real estate, in the middle of the city, yet is largely hidden from Lebanese society. “If you live in municipal Beirut, the camps are invisible to you,” says Mona Harb, professor of urban studies and politics at the American University of Beirut. The Lebanese government does not exist here. Aid agencies provide services, though they increasingly struggle for funding.
The camp is acutely overcrowded. At least 14,000 people live there, nearly nine times the 1992 population. Encircled by other neighbourhoods, Shatila’s roughly 1 sq km footprint cannot grow to accommodate newcomers. The cemetery is running out of plots. It is common for a six-storey building, with four rooms per floor, to hold 24 families.
Residents build upwards, adding a floor here, a joining passage between buildings there, an extra room on a roof — like Lara’s — until the concrete layer-cakes reach as high as seven storeys and lean ever closer to each other, blocking out the sun. There is no planning and no enforcement of building regulations, despite the fact that Lebanon lies on an earthquake faultline.
Lara’s family study, eat and sleep in their one-room home. It’s baking hot in summer and wind-whipped in winter, but on the roof at least the children see the sky. The room is spotlessly tidy; the children are neat and clean, playing with a little chicken they caught on the street and brought up here as a pet.
Their place was not so together when they moved in. With money and engineering help from Habitat for Humanity, an international housing aid charity, Lara’s father, Musif, has plugged leaks, painted walls, put in a proper toilet and fixed their electricity supply. “Now it’s great,” he says.
In Lebanon, the charity has mended and improved 260 homes in the past year, helping Syrians, Palestinians and impoverished Lebanese. Since 2001, it has helped more than 4,500 families in the country. Its aim is to make the most meagre accommodation safer and more dignified.
With a budget of up to $1,500 per home, it either pays the tenants to make improvements themselves or helps them find labour and materials. Work ranges from installing windows and doors to putting in plumbing and fixing leaking roofs.
Habitat’s team in Lebanon is small, only 24 people, and is made up of engineers, social workers, evaluators and accountants. Richard Cook, the Middle East director, says the number could grow, depending on the money it can raise. “It’s a constant struggle to get the right amount of funding,” he explains.
Money has been particularly scarce in the past two years, with the continuing Syrian crisis and all manner of other disasters, man-made and natural, competing for humanitarian aid dollars. “It’s really been a case of gradual fatigue from donors,” adds Cook, a chartered surveyor by trade who spent 27 years working in the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. The charity is seeking institutional donors, such as governments, to expand what it can do.
No tour of Shatila is complete without a visit to the camp’s unexpected treasure trove. Behind a flimsy iron door in an alley is a one-room museum created by a man named Mohammed Eessa. Refugees donate artefacts from Palestine — rusted farm tools, crockery, a model galleon — turning this room into a symbol of resistance through memory.
Eessa arrived in Lebanon as a baby, one of the many Palestinians displaced in 1948 in what is called the nakba (catastrophe). His family headed to south Lebanon. Around the same time, Palestinian refugees pitched tents on an open plot close to Beirut that would become Shatila.
Such camps mostly sprung up where there was demand for cheap labour. Sprouting squat concrete houses, they became staging grounds for Palestinian armed resistance. The Lebanese government withdrew jurisdiction over the camps in 1969, the same year Eessa left to study in Spain.
In 1975, Lebanon’s tense sectarian balance dissolved into fighting between Christian groups, Druze, Sunni Muslims, Palestinians — all internally factionalised. In the civil war that followed, refugee camps became battlegrounds. Twice displaced inside Lebanon by fighting, Eessa’s mother finally ended her journey in Shatila. He says he moved to the camp in 1979, hoping one day to return to Palestine. There they survived the 1982 massacre and three years of fighting that reduced much of the camp to rubble.
Although initially intended as temporary shelters, camps such as Shatila have become permanent slums. Some families have lived here for generations. Professor Nasser Yassin, director of research for public policy and international affairs at Beirut’s American University, says people cling to the word “camp” because it supports an impression of temporariness. For many Palestinians, the camp “embodies and crystallises that we’re going back to our place, our homeland”.
That hope, however, is fading. The peace process has stalled. A rightwing Israeli government continues to sanction Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The Trump administration has recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and cut funding to the UN aid organisation dedicated to supporting Palestinian refugees.
Palestinians in Lebanon are barred from at least 39 professions including law and medicine, and even from buying property. These policies push them into society’s shadows, deterring them from being able to think of Lebanon as home. Hopelessness permeates Palestinian society in Shatila, says Eessa, who is now 70. “When I was a child, all the families wanted their children to study. Now, no.” Shatila, he says, has become “unliveable”.
This is partly where Habitat for Humanity aims to make a difference: by making the most basic accommodation more homely, and by offering assistance to people who feel disempowered and abandoned. In the absence of the state, the charity also tries to make the camps safer. In Shatila, tangled vines of cables and plumbing pipes snake overhead, with water dripping through live electric wires that lurch downwards when they get too heavy.
Habitat staff separate wires from pipes, installing trays to keep them apart, letting in light. A simple solution, but they don’t have the funding to complete a large area yet. Threat of electrocution runs throughout the camps, with multiple deaths reported every year. This year, Ali Eessa, a 26-year-old Palestinian plumber (no relation of Mohammed), was electrocuted by dangerous wiring in Shatila and killed. He was about to propose to his girlfriend.
As I walk around the camp with Habitat’s Richard Cook, we come across a chunk of concrete, about 1 sq ft, lying on a street. Cook looks up to the crumbling third-floor staircase it fell from. The rusty struts of the building’s skeleton are exposed. He winces. “The concrete is made using salty water,” he explains. The structures are corroding from the inside. In his decades of working in Palestinian camps, Cook says: “I’ve never seen conditions as bad as they are today.”
Electricity and falling concrete are not Shatila’s only dangers. Like many of the Palestinian refugee camps, which became battlegrounds during Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, Shatila has seen terrible violence. In 1982, it was the site of one of the Middle East’s worst 20th-century atrocities, when thousands of Palestinians and Shia Lebanese in the camp and surrounding streets were murdered by Christian militants. An Israeli commission later accused occupying Israeli forces, along with the militants, of indirect responsibility for the massacre.
Many residents have lived through trauma. Sausan Ali al-Sayyed, a young Palestinian shopkeeper who was born in Lebanon, hops over stagnant pools of water and mounds of rubbish, which sometimes contain needles, to reach her home. Tomorrow will be her 33rd birthday.
Asked how she plans to celebrate, al-Sayyed lets out a grim laugh. Her abusive ex-husband was Lebanese. She left him after eight years, but not before he knocked out all her top teeth. The dark first-floor apartment she lives in belonged to her brother, who was killed when terrorist group Isis bombed the Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp in November 2015. Now al-Sayyed pays rent to her brother’s three orphaned children.
Before Habitat for Humanity helped her fix the place, it had no proper doors or windows. Mistaking her corner of the alley for a trash heap, people would hurl rubbish in. Rats bit her. “Poverty is not something to be ashamed of, but what can I do, I’m on my own,” she sighs. People smoke marijuana outside her window, and there is little she can do to prevent them. “No matter how strong I am, I’m afraid for my daughter, not for me,” al-Sayyed says. Her daughter is five and a half.
In 2013, 65 years after Palestinians first arrived, hundreds of frightened Syrians started crossing the Syrian-Lebanese border. Lebanon’s government responded by debating what to call them. The word laji’in (refugees) carried international commitments that the Lebanese government was unwilling to shoulder (Lebanon has not signed UN treaties that protect refugee rights) and officials argued that they should use a different term.
Haytham al-Sayyad, a Ministry of Social Affairs employee who attended the government meetings, says he suggested dioof (visitors). Eventually the government chose the word naziheen, meaning displaced. Usually this refers to people within their own country, denoting temporariness.
No one, according to al-Sayyad, thought the Syrians would stay more than three months. With an MBA in marketing, he accidentally ended up becoming refugee co-ordinator for Beirut and the south, spending months shepherding Syrians across the Masnaa border crossing.
“Of course the policy is extremely informed by the Palestinian refugee experience in Lebanon,” explains Harb. “In 1948 there was a sense [of], ‘We’re hosting them . . . ’ People provided their own private land to put up tents . . . convinced it would be a matter of weeks, months, and then they would go back.” The reality of what followed — including the civil war in 1975 — left many Lebanese politicians with a deep ambivalence about how to respond to future arrivals.
Crucially, Lebanon’s governance system is based on sectarian power sharing. Christians and minority groups fear they are becoming outnumbered by growing Sunni and Shia Muslim populations. Both Palestinian and Syrian refugees are predominantly Sunni, while poorer Lebanese people are largely Shia.
Lebanon’s political elites are so afraid of acknowledging that the Christian to Muslim ratio is no longer 50:50 that the government has not taken a census since 1932. Fearing that new Syrian refugee camps would become a replica Shatila, Lebanon refused to authorise any.
Some Syrians did end up in makeshift camps but the rest disappeared into Lebanon’s informal housing. Many live alongside Palestinian refugees in shanty towns; some rent basic houses in rural areas; wealthy Syrians buy in downtown Beirut, where the average apartment costs $1m.
Lebanon had an affordable housing crisis before the arrival of Syrian refugees. The plots of land on which the Palestinian camps stand are what Mona Fawaz, urbanisation scholar, calls “a precious reserve of affordable housing”.
Abu Marwan, a Palestinian real estate broker in Shatila, sits outside a café and explains the area’s informal housing economy. He makes his living managing properties inside Shatila, collecting rents, making deals for landlords living elsewhere in Beirut, and taking a cut. But he, too, is a refugee from Syria, having fled with his children six years ago from Damascus’s Palestinian camp, Yarmouk, which now lies in ruins after years under siege and bombardment.
“Since Syrians came, the rent increased. There’s a lot of taking advantage,” explains Abu Marwan. A Palestinian NGO worker in the camp estimates there has been a $50 to $100 a month increase. “It’s because people don’t have proper paperwork,” says Abu Marwan.
Thanks to Lebanon’s vague and fast-changing refugee policies, many Syrians there are undocumented. Depending on how you look at it, landlords charge a premium for default risk or cynically exploit the vulnerable. NGO cash, helping the worst-off refugee families, may have inflated prices too.
For landlords, these basic shelters are an investment. Abu Marwan estimates a Shatila apartment costs $20,000 to buy. The market appears active: signs stuck up near fuse boxes advertise apartments for sale and rooms for rent. Just one room can fetch $200 a month.
To save money, families are packed in tightly. Abu Marwan points down the street to a two-bed home housing 22 Syrians. “Some people don’t have money for bread,” he says. “I go back to the landlord and ask if they can push it, and I try to get contributions from the shops.”
A 35-year-old Syrian woman in an apartment managed by Abu Marwan says she is always worried about paying rent, about $250 a month. Her two-room-plus-kitchen home has a curtain for a door, no shower, no windows, no beds — just thin mattresses in the main room. Sewage bubbles up the drains. Yet her sister plans to join them, which will bring the total number of children in the flat to 10. “Don’t come back to Aleppo,” her family told the woman. “If you do, you’ll die of starvation.”
Russia, backing Syria’s Assad government, has tried to paint Syria as safe and shift international negotiations towards Syrian refugees returning. Some Lebanese politicians have enthusiastically supported this.
Rhetoric against refugees has turned harsh. But the UN and other western countries maintain the country is still too dangerous. Lebanon’s refugees affairs minister alleged last month that at least 20 refugees who returned from Lebanon to Syria had been killed by the regime.
“Syrian workers rebuilt Lebanon in the 1990s,” says Yassin, explaining that Syrians crossed the porous border and provided cheap labour after Lebanon’s civil war. “We didn’t see them . . . But now the Syrians are in our face.” Syrian women clad in black beg in Beirut traffic; Syrian children rifle through bins, salvaging scrap metal. Their visibility has stoked anti-refugee sentiment in Lebanon, he says sadly.
In most cases, it is the poorest Lebanese, not wealthy politicians, who have taken refugees into their communities. “It’s not the middle-class partygoers,” says Yassin. “People who complain most are not those necessarily feeling the burden.” Some 87 per cent of registered Syrian refugees and 67 per cent of the poorest Lebanese live together in the 251 areas of Lebanon most vulnerable to poverty. An estimated 32 per cent of Lebanese live in poverty.
An ongoing economic downturn has put many Lebanese out of a job. One engineer at Habitat joined the NGO after he found there were no more shopping malls to work on. Construction is also where many refugees find illicit employment, but Syrians have limited rights to work and no recourse to law if they suffer abuse. Many are trapped in debt, and the increasingly difficult circumstances have pushed a number of refugees back to Syria (it is unclear how many).
Back in Lara’s building, her father Musif climbs the steep stairs to the sixth floor. A wiry man with a lined face, he is working today, hauling buckets of wet cement through the streets. His hands are so calloused he can barely feel anything, he says. In Syria’s Hama province, he worked as a driver. Lara’s mother, who did not work before, now cooks at a restaurant in Beirut.
Having a properly functioning home can’t solve all the family’s problems. Rent for their room is about $175 a month, not including electricity. One day’s labour earns Musif roughly $15 and, three months ago, the UN stopped the family’s food aid. He worries about his daughters walking home from school after dark. His youngest son, Ahmad, seven, who was born in Lebanon just after they arrived, has no papers and therefore cannot go to nursery.
Shatila bustles with activity; people hawking radishes or cooking pizza; a lullaby escaping from a nursery school. But at night time the atmosphere can change. With so many people lacking options for proper work, and a strong desire to block out the present, the camp is rife with drugs and crime.
Although Musif wants to return to Syria, he is afraid to take his children back. He says they are still affected by the bombing they saw, and the frontline with rebel-held Idlib is not far from their village.
Shatila has its problems, but they feel they are safer there than they would be in Syria. “It’s all right here [in Shatila],” Musif says. “There are some disturbances, but there are also people who helped us.”
Chloe Cornish is the FT’s Middle East correspondent
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