Palestinians lose more than most in Syrian exodus

Palestinians lose more than most in Syrian exodus
Peacekeepers of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) patrol along the Lebanese-Israeli border on August 23, 2013 in Kfar Kila.

AIN AL-HELWEH, Lebanon - Palestinians Mahmoud and Ahmed fled Syria last month for Egypt, where they paid smugglers to bring them to Europe.

Once at sea, they were robbed at knifepoint and herded onto an overloaded boat that sank, pitching over 100 into the sea.

The brothers made it back to shore while others drowned, then to be deported in days from a volatile Egypt where anti-Palestinian sentiment runs high. Now at the Lebanese camp of Ain al-Helweh, they face as Palestinians restrictions on their lives far more severe than any other refugees from Syria.

A people all too familiar with refugee life, Palestinians have lost out more than most in the exodus from Syria.

"They grabbed the women and children and tossed us onto the boats like they were tossing rocks or some other worthless thing," said Mahmoud, 23, who asked that his family name not be used.

"There was no way to turn back." "They pulled knives on us and took our money and mobile phones and stripped the gold off the women."

The war has forced some 50,000 Palestinians to flee Syria, a country where they had enjoyed some of the most favourable treatment in all of the Arab world.

The number is a sliver of the 700,000 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but enough to strain overcrowded and volatile camps and stir memories of Lebanon's own civil war; a conflict some see rooted in the arrival of armed Palestinian factions in the decades after Israel's foundation in 1948.

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Noufa Sallem, a 55-year-old Palestinian from Syria, fled to Ain al-Helweh, Lebanon's largest camp, about a year ago after shelling gutted her family's four-storey home in Damascus.

She and two of her sons settled in a dirt lot in a tent of plastic sheeting and wooden planks, around the corner from a neighbourhood run by a faction of radical Islamists.

Sallem's husband, a teacher with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, founded in 1949 to help Arabs fleeing Israel, died of a heart attack before they left Damascus.

Then in September she found out her third son, who stayed in Syria because he had not done his military service, had been killed. She had not spoken to him since fleeing and learned about his death through a news website.

"Everything is gone. Everything that could be burned was burned, everything that could be destroyed was destroyed," Sallem said, seated at a small wooden table outside her tent.

Palestinians face a particularly hard time in Lebanon because they are barred from working in over 70 professions and are subject to major restrictions on property ownership and access to state services.

The coastal country of 4 million people also faces its own crippling political disputes and an economy hammered by the loss of tourism and business because of Syria's civil war.

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