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A familiar fate

Mahmoud Toufik Jaber

From Damascus, Syria

now in

Bekaa Valley, Lebanon

Left Syria February 2013

Mahmoud Toufik Jaber and his family live in the dark, cold basement of a mosque here in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley after being forced from their home in Damascus in February by the daily bombings.

It is a familiar routine for Jaber. He is 68, and he has been a refugee since he was 3.

Jaber is Palestinian, a man without a country who has been forced from his home at least four times. He was born in Haifa, in what was then Palestine, in 1945. He was forced to move in 1948, when he was 3, during the creation of Israel and the Arab-Israeli War.

His family took him to Syria, and he has been bounced from one camp to another ever since, at least three times. His last home in Syria was the Yarmouk district of Damascus, a heavily Palestinian area that has been virtually destroyed in the fighting.

"My home is Palestine, but for the time being, our home is in Syria," he says, shifting under the heavy blankets in his single, metal-framed bed in the chilly basement. "If things settle down, we would prefer to live in Syria, even if it's in a tent."

More than 5 million Palestinian refugees live in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank — people dislocated by wars in 1948, 1967 and 1973, as well as their descendants born in the camps.

Before the Syrian war, U.N. officials say, there were 529,000 Palestinian refugees living in Syria. The war has displaced more than half of them, and at least 64,000 have fled to other countries, including more than 49,000 to Lebanon.

For Jaber and other older Palestinians, it is the latest forced move in a lifetime of being shuffled around. He says he is grateful to Lebanon for letting him in. But because Lebanon offers Palestinians fewer rights than Syria does - he no longer has the right to work, or to subsidized medical care - Jaber says this move has been the hardest of his life.

"My family and I have no money anymore. We have been spending our savings for more than a year, and we have nothing left," he says. "We can't own anything here. In Syria, we can own real estate and have jobs. But here we are lost."

After he arrived in Lebanon, doctors told him he needed open-heart surgery. It would have cost him thousands of dollars, which he didn't have. So he says he decided to chance a return to Syria, despite the war, to have surgery at a Damascus hospital. He says it cost him a little more than $200, the rest - another few hundred dollars - was covered by the United Nations.

Three days after the surgery, he says, he boarded a bus and made the three-hour trip back to Lebanon. He lifts his shirt to show a huge scar splitting his chest, and another long scar on his left leg where doctors removed veins to use in his bypass surgery.

When he first arrived in Lebanon, he tried to find space in the Wavel camp, one of the 12 camps Lebanon maintains for nearly 300,000 Palestinian refugees.

The camp opened in 1950 on the site of an old French military barracks. Refugees moved into the barracks and set up tents on the grounds. Over the decades, the tents turned into one-story wooden shacks, then concrete buildings. The camp is now a tight, noisy warren of buildings four or five stories tall - a permanent presence in the heart of town.

It is tough to find space, so Jaber, his wife, their son and daughter-in-law and their three small children live in a corner of the mosque basement partitioned off by blankets hung from the 15-foot ceiling.

"I cry every day," says Jaber's wife, Afaf Fadel Mawed.

Jaber grunts softly as he shifts in his bed.

"Every day that passes is harder and harder," he says. "We have no hope left."

Every day, about 3,000 Syrians leave the country.

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