Monday, October 22, 2007
Schools are still housing thousands, delaying classes
By Agence France Presse (AFP)
Agence France Press
BEDDAWI: Patience is wearing very thin among Lebanese whose children are unable to attend schools now being used to accommodate Palestinians after last summer's deadly clashes at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in the North. Hundreds of Palestinians from Nahr al-Bared were relocated to schools in the nearby town of Beddawi and another refugee camp there in May after fierce battles erupted between Fatah al-Islam militants and the Lebanese Army.
For the past five months, lines of laundry and piles of mattresses have taken the place of desks in the classrooms of eight schools.
The new academic year began at the start of October, but some 4,800 pupils are unable to continue their education in Beddawi town's eight state schools, said Hassan Akoumi, head of a parents' committee.
"Parents are exasperated. Some are even talking about going in to get the refugees out," said Anwar Kobaitri, a municipal official responsible for Beddawi's largest school, which registers about 1,300 students but now houses 500 refugees.
Parents have staged protests, twice blocking the main highway to Syria, and the rise in tension prompted the hasty evacuation of refugees from two schools in two days.
The conflict ended on September 2. Several hundred of the camp's pre-siege population of 31,000 began returning on October 10 to their homes, many of which have reportedly been vandalized and looted. The part of Nahr al-Bared known as the "old camp," which was the scene of the worst of the three months of fighting, has been reduced to rubble by shelling.
There are still about 300 families numbering some 1,000 people in six Beddawi schools in addition to others who were accommodated in two schools in Tripoli and five in the Beddawi refugee camp.
"I am relieved that we are leaving, but where do we go now?" asked a Palestinian woman in her 70s as she headed out of one school last week, balancing a pile of sponge mattresses on her head.
The school compound is littered with rubbish, and a heavy stench permeates the area.
"Your return is certain, reconstruction is guaranteed," reads a message posted outside one classroom by the Lebanese government in an effort to reassure the refugees that their stay in the school is temporary.
"They have promised us that all schools will be evacuated within 10 days," Beddawi Mayor Maged Ghemrawi said.
But the presence in the Beddawi camp of refugees from Nahr al-Bared has also triggered tension.
"When we first arrived here, everyone was so welcoming and friendly toward us," said Jumana Awad, 26. "But since then relations have nosedived."
Awad, who is eight months pregnant, has spent the past several months cooped up in a 30-square-meter classroom with about 60 other people.
"How can I take care of a baby in these conditions?" she asked, casting a pitiful look at another refugee's infant sleeping on a mattress, his face covered with flies. "We have been wearing the same clothes for five months and starve so we are able to feed our children," she added. "We freeze at night because our blankets are so thin."
Yet Awad said she also sympathized with the feelings of the frustrated Lebanese parents whose children are missing out on their lessons.
"Like us, they are victims of injustice," she said. "I don't think they will put up with us for much longer."