For the last 30 years Ali Mohammed Hindawi, aged 84, has lived alone in a rusty tin shack in south Lebanon, without water, electricity or a toilet, sleeping among chickens, flies and litter, and separated from his family by displacement and poverty.
“What do I think about at night? I think about my situation, that this is not a life for me,” said the frail old man, barely able to sit up after weathering another winter of freezing temperatures and downpours. “It is the life of a dog. All I want is to spend my last few years in a good way.”
Hindawi is one of tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon who live in unofficial “gatherings”, collections of homes built without official permission and left largely unserviced, by either the Lebanese state, the Palestinian Authority (PA) or the UN Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA.
Driven from his home by Israeli troops who overran northern Galilee in 1948, the young Hindawi crossed into Lebanon and settled in an UNRWA tent, set up in the Kafr Bada area of south Lebanon, near Qasmiyeh river.
Many of these tents later grew into officially recognised refugee camps, with fixed boundaries and services provided by UNRWA. But for refugees like Hindawi – or Zahra Saeed and her family of 13 children living across the river in the Qasmiyeh “gathering” – no such certainties exist.
“There has been no real interest in the `gatherings’, only in the camps,” said Ghazi al-Hassan, secretary of the Palestinian Popular Committee in Kafr Bada. “Now there’s a limit to the PA’s budget so they send very little here.”
Without a mandate to operate outside the 12 official refugee camps in Lebanon, home to around half the 400,000 Palestinians, UNRWA only makes food deliveries to Kafr Bada and other “gatherings” once every three months. With a budget of just US$100 a month, al-Hassan’s Popular Committee can do little more than collect rubbish and pay transport costs.
NGOs such as the Lebanese Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD) try to fill the gap in the dozens of “gatherings” across the country.
Hindawi – like the partially blind Mariam Dyabissa, a 94-year-old Palestinian refugee who shares her tin hut in Qasmiyeh with her mentally ill son – relies on kindly neighbours to bring him food, wash and dress him and light the fire at night.
The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is now conducting the first comprehensive household survey of Palestinian gatherings in Lebanon, which include areas adjacent to UNRWA camps. In the northern Nahr al-Bared camp, largely destroyed in fighting two years ago, reconstruction in the adjacent areas has been hampered by the absence of a clear mandate for any one agency to lead efforts inside Palestinian “gatherings”.
“Nahr al-Bared highlighted the issue. Lots of people think the Palestinians live in camps. They don’t know there are tens of thousands living in `gatherings’ in very mixed circumstances,” said Richard Evans, NRC Lebanon programme manager for shelter and rehabilitation in the Palestinian `gatherings’. “We feel there is a humanitarian need. These people are not getting adequate services.”
In 2005, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) made a needs assessment of 39 “gatherings”, defined as having a minimum of 25 households. It found that the right to work and own property was the refugees’ main need. In the Qasmiyeh “gathering”, Zahra Saeed said she had received an eviction notice from the local court every six months for the last 10 years, Palestinians being banned from owning property in Lebanon.
NRC Lebanon, whose report is due out in June, is hoping to secure $2-$3 million which it said would allow them to upgrade the homes of around 250 families living in “gatherings” in south Lebanon.
For Ali Hindawi, that could mean spending his last days with at least a weatherproof concrete wall and door. But that may be little comfort in a life of such hardship. “If I feel happy or sad it doesn’t matter,” he said. “No one cares about me.”