Homs Palestinian camp, SYRIA — The screws continue to tighten on Palestinian and Syrian refugees fleeing for their lives and seeking safety in Lebanon. As the seemingly eternal governmental crisis in Lebanon escalates and various “warlord” veterans from the Lebanese civil war—who, thanks to their auto- arranged general amnesty in 1989 designed to thwart justice for an assortment of war crimes, have appointed themselves Lebanon “political lords” seek again to choose a President. Certain anti-Palestinian and pro-Zionist parties who continue Lebanon’s “cold civil war” do not miss an opportunity, for political purposes, to bash the Palestinian refugees still stuck in Lebanon.
The old bromide of “the Palestinians are seeking Lebanese naturalization and the sky is falling” is being trotted out again this month to incite sectarian fears in order to gain political leverage for various parties. One anti-Palestinian Lebanese President wannabe just had his former office staffer and now son-in-law appointed Foreign Minister. And the gentleman wasted no time blurting out with his family’s frequent anti-Palestinian mantras, the latest being “The Lebanese Constitutional forbids nationalization and naturalizing Palestinians would damage the country’s demography!” This headline-seeking red herring statement is completely off the wall and aimed solely at getting Christian votes for one right-wing faction as a knee-jerk reaction to last week’s political boom-let of attention snatched by his family’s Christian nemesis, militia leader Samir Geagea.
The Lebanese Forces leader shockingly got 48 out of the 86 votes needed to win in the first round of Parliamentary votes for President. The well-known truth is that, by design, Palestinian refugees who are treated here worse than anywhere in the world, including occupied Palestine, and allowed virtually no elementary civil rights, do not, never have, and likely never will, seek naturalization. Their focus continues to be Full Return to their country, Palestine. Claiming otherwise during this electoral season is what certain local “leaders” do, but its gibberish.
But the new Lebanese Foreign Minister is not alone in targeting Palestinian refugees this spring for political benefit. Lebanese General Security and the Ministry of Interior among others are joining the chorus and are actively playing their rabbit eared ‘Palestinian card.”
For example, last week’s amended Lebanese General Security measures deny entry to Palestinians fleeing for their lives, unless three new Kafkaesque conditions are met. As of now, Palestinians arriving at Masnaa crossing must have a “pre-authorization” from the Lebanese government, hold a residency permit in Lebanon, or be in transit, in which case they could be allowed 24 hours inside Lebanon and they must quickly travel onward. The first two conditions are virtually impossible to meet and no one is likely to be able to overcome these barriers.
Two days ago, the Lebanese government informed UNRWA that the measures might be “temporary and exceptions will be considered in due course if yet to be formulated humanitarian requirements are met.” But this is more nonsense. Last week a survey by this observer of more than 30 randomly selected Palestinians seeking to enter Lebanon from Syria at the Masnaa border crossing found that all were barred. Exactly two were allowed to travel to Beirut airport to catch their flight to Europe or elsewhere.
So what do these most recent Palestinian refugee bashing antics have to do with Rasha Halabi, a just-turned-18-year-old student who grew up in Homs Palestinian refugee camp?
A fair bit, as it turns out.
Rasha and thousands of Syrian and Palestinians students have been preparing for months for a tough and fast approaching June. This is the month of the vital Syrian Baccalaureate exams required on all Syrian and Palestinian high school students in order to enter university. Rasha’s first “BACC” exam will be administered on Sunday June I and her last one is on June 17.
Historically, Syria has had a strong education system which from kindergarten through university is free and internationally respected. Like everything in Syria these days, the “situation” has taken a heavy toll. Syria still has one of the highest literacy rates (90 + %) among the 197 UN member states according to UNICEF. Before March 2011, 4.8 million Syrian children – or 97% of primary school-age children and 67% of secondary school-age children – attended classes regularly; a UNICEF staffer informed this observer last month. But with more than 4,000 destroyed or damaged schools, half a million Syrian and Palestinian students who have had to flee Syria are not in school.
Despite all the problems facing Palestinian and Syrian students, examples of which include lack of security, mortars hitting Damascus and elsewhere, serious gaps in electricity, inflation, fear of what might happen at any moment, losing their homes, generally unemployed family members, some are claiming that the current crisis does not allow for the luxury of students taking the BACC this year. But Rasha and thousands of other students are studying hard and are determined to get good grades on next month’s BACC. Rasha’s mother Noor laid down some serious rules for her daughter’s exam preparation five months ago as a sort of New Year’s resolution. Until the exams are over she does not allow Rasha to go online, no Facebook stuff or email is allowed, Rasha’s mobile is in her mom’s purse, so consequently no “whatups”, SMS or chatting stuff, plus zero TV. Also Rasha is not allowed to hang out with friends. When Rassha is not in class she is to be in her room preparing for the BACC at her desk stacked with exam prep books and papers. As her mom explained to this observer, “This exam is Rasha’s future. It will determine what she becomes in life. She must do well!”
Unfortunately, after spending the past nearly six month preparing for her BACC and gaining some confidence about her prospects, as thousands of other Palestinians and Syria students have been doing, it does not appear that Rasha will be able to take her exam.
The reason is that four months ago her family was forced to flee to Lebanon to escape the shelling very near her home in Homs Palestinian camp. Her plan, as with thousands of other Palestinian students in Lebanon from Syria, was to return to Syria for the BACC and then to rejoin their families in Lebanon’s Ein el Helwe camp. Early this month, Palestinian students studying for the Syrian BACC have been told by Lebanese General Security and Masnaa border crossing staff, that when they cross the border to take their BACC exams they will not be allowed back into Lebanon. So these students’ options are limited. They can take the BACC and be stuck in Syria without their families or they can forgo the BACC and once more put their future on hold.
Some fairly intense meetings in Damascus this past week in between a volunteer with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com) and UNWRA’s department of education as well as the Syrian Ministry of Education has failed so far to negotiate a solution. An obvious one that is being advocated by the SSSP is to simply have Syrian officials administer the Syrian BACC in Lebanon to Palestinian and Syrian students stuck there. UNWRA is overwhelmed with many other problems and does not appear to be willing to get involved with this one despite many entreaties that it does so. The Syrian Ministry of Education promised to look into what could be done but time is getting very short and this observers’ calls this week are being answered with statements like “We are looking into the situation.” Understandably, Rasha and thousands of other students are feeling tremendous pressures to add to their many others. Rasha and her mom are sort of panicked at the moment.
The simplest solution to this latest humanitarian crisis would be for Lebanese General Security to issue a one-time exemption for Palestinian and Syrian students who fled for their lives to Lebanon allowing the students to return to Syria to take next month’s BACC and then return to Lebanon until conditions allow them to return to Syria and eventually to Palestine.
But time is short and refugees have few friends in Lebanon these days. A five minute phone call from the White House or Tehran to their respective surrogates could fix the problem for these students for whom the opportunity to educate themselves is a birthright.
Will one come? Or will the internet bloggers and civil society activists and advocates for Syria and Palestine be willing and able to convince the Lebanese government to grant a return travel visa to these refugees?
Time is short for Rasha, who is one tough smart kid committed to serving her country Palestine and Syria pending return to her village near Haifa. Her family learned two days ago that the University of Strasbourg in Strasbourg, Alsace, France, the second largest university is France will award her a full scholarship if she does well on the BACC. SSSP can also help a bit.
Hopefully Lebanon will relent and allow Palestinian and Syrian students to take next month’s vital Baccalaureate exams.