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Sbeineh Refugee Camp
Syria

Sbeineh Camp is one of twelve Palestinian refugee camps in Syria. The inhabitants were displaced when the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, but they returned when the Syrian army regained control of the surrounding area.

The Origins of the Camp

The camp was set up in 1948 near the town of Sbeineh, which lies about 14 kilometers south of Damascus on the main road to the town of Deraa. It had an area of three hectares, which was rented by the General Authority for Palestinian Arab Refugees (GAPAR), a Syrian government body. The camp is officially recognized by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

UNRWA Schools Street forms the eastern boundary of the camp, and Mu‘adh bin Jabal Mosque Street forms the western boundary. Muwasalat Street to the north links the camp to the surrounding towns. A relatively wide street called Camp Street marks the camp’s southern edge. The Hijaz railway line runs to the west of the camp. 

Refugees came to the camp in three waves. After the Nakba in 1948, hundreds of families arrived from towns and villages in northern Palestine: al-Khalisa, al-Salihiyya, Mallaha, Jahula, al-Zuq al-Fawqani, and al-Zuq al-Tahtani. Others arrived from the villages overlooking Lake Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee) such as Kafr Sabt, al-Shajara, Sha'ara, and Ma‘dhar. Most of them were from the Maghariba clan, descended from people from Algeria. The camp was set up with 704 tents.

In 1956, displaced people from the villages of Kirad al-Baqqara and Kirad al-Ghannama arrived. Another influx of refugees arrived after the war of 1967 and the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights. Thousands of Palestinian families came from the Golan, where they had taken refuge after they were displaced from the Palestinian villages of Khiyam al-Walid, Arab al-Shamalina, and al-Qudayriyya during the Nakba. Displaced Syrians from the villages of Na‘ran and al-Suluqiyya in the Golan Heights joined them, as well as other clans such as the Talawiyya, one of the largest Syrian clans in the town of al-Batiha. In 2009 there were about 21,150 people from 4,915 families in the Sbeineh camp.

When the first refugees arrived, they were settled in groups according to family and clan. The GAPAR named parts of the camp for the towns and villages from which the refugees had come, such as al-Shamalina, al-Nuwayriyya, Jerusalem, Safad, Bisan, and Tiberias.

Infrastructure and Urban Development

When the camp was set up, UNRWA gave a tent to each family. The sanitary facilities were communal and lay in the camp’s southern street, with separate facilities for men and women. Health and educational services were on the north side of the camp in a rented building that included a school and a clinic.

In 1972 the infrastructure improved when UNRWA built concrete dwellings separated by passages no more than one meter wide. The residents then started to expand their dwellings by adding a bedroom, a kitchen, or a bathroom, until eventually every family had its own bathroom, built at its own expense. Because of the increasing population, some residents knocked down the UNRWA-built houses and built larger ones to accommodate all family members. (The average family had eight members.) Then they started building vertically so that their children could get married and set up their own households.

Water initially came to the camp through standpoints outside the houses, and later the network was extended into the houses. In cooperation with the neighboring municipalities, UNRWA provided an electricity grid that reached all houses. UNRWA also provided trash disposal, built roads, and installed a sewage system to keep the camp clean and the residents safe.

Sbeineh Camp is supervised by GAPAR, which has an office there, along with one representing the Civil Registry Department. GAPAR is in charge of drinking water, sewage, paving and lighting the streets, and pumping water from two main wells into the public grid. UNRWA provides health and education services, emergency relief, local community development, small loans and protection.

Socioeconomic Conditions

The residents of Sbeineh Camp have retained their customs, traditions, and social solidarity in times of crisis. Because the streets are so narrow and the houses so close together, family situations and problems are apparent to all camp residents. When conflicts arise, these are usually solved though family leaders and elders.

Relations between Sbeineh Camp residents and the surrounding community are harmonious because of the extensive geographical overlap between the camp and the surrounding areas. Sbeineh Camp is seen as one of the main routes into these areas. Camp residents have married inhabitants of the neighboring areas and many friendships have arisen from working and going to school together. Many people go to shop in the camp’s inexpensive vegetable market and shopping center, leading to daily contact between the camp and visitors.  

Employment

The labor force in the camp has benefited from the presence of several factories and workshops nearby, such as the glass factory, the carpet factory, the Ghraoui biscuit factory, and the cable factory. In the 1970s an industrial zone, owned by the private sector, was set up close to the camp and dozens of workers from the camp found work there in different lines of business (e.g., plastics, electrical equipment, cleaning products). Some of them found jobs in the Housh Blass Industrial City and the factories in the Ghazal area, which are both nearby.

Some of the camp residents work in Syrian and UNRWA schools as teachers, and many engineers and doctors work in Syrian government ministries and hospitals. Some wealthy camp residents own land in Sbeineh and other areas.

Health

Several authorities provide health services to camp residents.

The Syrian Ministry of Health has three clinics providing free services to Syrians and Palestinians, covering all specializations. Palestinians can also access government hospital care in Damascus for free.

UNRWA has a clinic that provides the same services as in other camps. It was rebuilt in 2010 and handles about 250 patients a day. (Cuts in UNRWA’s budget has led to an austerity policy, and patients have to cover a high proportion of the costs of some complicated operations, such as heart surgery, sometimes as much as 80 percent.)

The Palestinian Red Crescent Society set up a clinic in 1980 that provides general healthcare.

The camp has several private clinics and hospitals, specializing in various branches of medicine. They charge a range of fees, but in general close to the prices set by the Syrian Health Ministry. Two private hospitals close to the camp, al-Hoda Hospital and the Mahjoub Hospital, offer general surgery and emergency care. Most of the health care workers in the camp are not camp residents.   

Education

UNRWA provides basic education in the camp; its six schools (elementary and preparatory) were attended by 3,766 students in the academic year 2020–21. The schools have been renovated and modernized through grants from the United Arab Emirates and the United States, but residents report that class size remains excessive. Four Syrian government schools located in the camp area provide free secondary education. If students do well enough on their secondary school exams, they can go to Syrian government universities or to private universities if they can afford the fees. 

Sbeineh Camp has produced a high proportion of university graduates with degrees in such fields as medicine, engineering, and economics. 

Political and Civil Society Groups in the Camp

The difficulties faced by camp residents have led to an increase in early marriages, child labor, drug abuse, and mental health problems. UNRWA, which needs more resources, and other institutions are trying to implement preventative programs and raise awareness. 

Before 2012, political and civil society groups were active; they ran social and cultural programs, and the camp residents took great interest in everything happening in occupied Palestine. Now, however, the repercussions of the war have had a major effect on the camp, as on other places. The number of such activities has declined, and there are now no centers in the camp to address the needs of youth and children.

Sbeineh Camp played a role in the Palestinian liberation movement, especially when the Palestinians had a large military presence in South Lebanon before 1982. Hundreds of camp resident joined the Palestinian groups and many of them died for the cause. Now the Palestinian organizations hold meetings only on national occasions and organize sports events that bring together many of the camp residents.

Several organizations, among them the Palestinian-Iranian Friendship Association, the Nour Foundation for Relief and Development, and the Jafra Foundation, organize lectures, seminars, and courses on various subjects, such as women's issues, education, and health.

Sbeineh Camp after 2012

Like all parts of Syria, the Sbeineh Camp and its residents have suffered the calamities of war, especially from displacement. People gradually started to move out of neighboring areas and camps when the conflict between militias and the Syrian army escalated. Some camp residents moved to Yarmouk Camp in Damascus and then moved again when militias took over the camp. Others stayed in the camp despite a constant sense of fear and alarm. In 2013 all remaining 22,600 residents of Sbeineh Camp moved out. Some families found shelter in UNRWA shelters for displaced people and some of those then moved on to neighboring countries or migrated to Europe. The Syrian government regained control of the camp in late 2013, but it kept the camp closed for about four years to clear the areas of landmines and tunnels.

In September 2017 the Syrian government allowed civilian residents of the camp to return to their houses. In 2018 all the UNRWA facilities were restored, including three schools, the environmental health office, the social workers’ office, the food distribution center, the health center, and the community center. UNRWA also transported water and removed rubble from the streets. According to the statistics, 16,000 people had returned by March 2021.

Security in the camp is maintained by the Syrian government.

Overall Chronology
E.g., 2024/06/30
E.g., 2024/06/30

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