Children Flee the Fighting

Families with children have been caught in the crossfire between the radical Islamist Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. Christina Förch reports on the efforts of local and German NGOs to cope with the humanitarian crisis

Children in Nahr al-Bared (photo: Christina Förch)
An estimated 13,000 Palestinians - among them many children - used a break in the fighting to flee their homes

​​20 May 2007 was another grim day in the tragic history of Palestinian refugees. Fighting erupted in the Nahr el Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon after the relatively unknown Palestinian splinter group Fatah al-Islam attacked nearby Lebanese army posts.

Twenty-seven Lebanese soldiers died in the first day of fighting. Fatah al-Islam had been using the camp as a hideout and reportedly as a training ground for mercenaries from a number of Arab countries.

Shortly thereafter, the Lebanese army began shelling Fatah al-Islam positions within the refugee camp with tank and mortar fire. The militants had barricaded themselves inside residential buildings, and army artillery shells hit people's homes and buildings used by non-profit organizations.

NGOs under fire

One of these organizations is the Lebanese-Palestinian organization "Beit Adfal Assumoud" (House of the Brave Children). During the first few days of fighting, the center was hit twice by shells and the third floor, which included a dental clinic, was completely destroyed.

Children in Nahr al-Bared (photo: Christina Förch)
Donations allow 91 children in a number of different camps to attend a kindergarten

​​This amounts to a major setback for the German Association for Refugee Children in Lebanon, which supports projects run by its Lebanese-Palestinian affiliated organization "Beit Adfal Assumoud".

The Germans had intended to finance a new floor in the social center. Plans had called for the establishment of a social center and a small vocational training school. Instead of investing in the future, donations will now have to be spent on repairing the damaged building.

"All our staff are safe," says Abdallah Baraki. "And given the circumstances, our children are all right." Baraki comes from Nahr al-Bared and heads the "Beit Adfal Assumoud" organization.

Germans sponsor children in Lebanon

When he says "our children" he doesn't mean his biological family. Baraki refers to the children who are financially and socially supported by "Beit Adfal Assumoud" and the German association.

People in Germany are sponsoring a total of 14 children from needy families in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. Throughout the country there are currently 96 sponsorships, and these donations allow 91 children in a number of different camps to attend a kindergarten. Many of the children have lost one of their parents, or the breadwinners at home are unable to work and support their families.

Thanks to a monthly contribution, these children are regularly provided with financial support. The smallest among them receive daycare services from qualified childcare workers and a glass of milk every day.

photo: AP
On the run: Two refugees of the Nahr el Bared refugee camp in northern lebanon

​​The association for refugee children partially funds the salaries of social workers and kindergarten teachers, and sometimes pays for their training. This is just one of the many small projects run by the association.

"It's really a disgrace that these refugee children can't even get a glass of milk each day without donations from Germany," says one of the association's sponsors.

Refugees forced from their homes

Children always bear the brunt of armed conflicts – as witnessed once again by the current clashes between Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army. Ahmed el Ali is one of the sponsored children. At the age of 14, the boy has already lost his father.

Now, two days after the fighting began, he finds himself a refugee on the run again. Along with his mother and siblings, he and an estimated 13,000 other Palestinians used a break in the fighting to flee their homes.

Most refugees have made their way to the nearby Badawi camp, roughly 12 kilometers from the Nahr al-Bared camp. In their haste to reach safety, they had no time to pack anything and arrived with only the clothes on their backs.

Normally, there are 12,000 Palestinian refugees living in Badawi, but people fleeing the fighting in Nahr al-Bared have doubled the camp's population. Newcomers have been provided with shelter in schools and mosques. Some of them – like Baraki – are staying with relatives and friends.

photo: AP
The Lebanese army shell a position allegedly being used by a militant sniper in the besieged Nahr el-Bared refugee camp

​​"During the first night, there were 50 of us in a two-room apartment," says the head of the NGO. But at least they were in safety. Baraki's home is on the outskirts of Nahr al-Bared, where the fighting was the most intense during the first few days.

All the refugees from Nahr al-Bared are in the same dire situation, and the children know perfectly well why they are here. They say that they hate Fatah al-Islam, who they blame for their current predicament. But they are also extremely angry with the Lebanese army for destroying their homes.

"We want to go home," say many of the refugee children – despite the ongoing fighting. In addition to losing their ancestral homeland in Palestine, they now fear that they will be unable to return to their modest homes in the refugee camp.

Psychological help for trauma victims

Despite the traumatic experience of being fired upon and fleeing the fighting, the next day Baraki stood in the office of "Beit Adfal Assumoud" in Badawi, gathered his own staff, colleagues from Badawi, and volunteers together, and started to organize food and housing for the refugees – and above all ensure adequate care for the children. Dedicated and hardworking activists like these have no time to waste on gloom and despair.

And these aid workers have their work cut out for them. Most of the Palestinians refugees from Nahr al-Bared who have lost their homes once again are traumatized. "They suffer from stress, depression and shock," explains Baraki. "Some of them still believe that they are in Nahr al-Bared."

Christina Förch

© 2007

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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