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The conflict in Syria is sending a staggering number of refugees into neighboring countries. Turkey, Jordan, even Iraq, are building tent cities. While Lebanon is also seeing thousands of refugees, it has yet to build such camps. It's already home to more than a dozen teeming squalid camps built for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled the war that followed Israel's creation in 1948. Well, now, in a strange twist of fate, Syrians fleeing their own war are seeking shelter there. NPR's Kelly McEvers has that story from Beirut.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: They are some of the oldest, most densely populated refugee camps in the world, the notorious Palestinian camps of Lebanon. Palestinians fled here in 1948, thinking they'd go back home in a few weeks or months. It's now been more than six decades and still they live in squalor.

Now we're going into a building. The hallway is strewn with trash. There's leaking water, you know, exposed wires everywhere.

This building is one of many that make up the Sabra camp. The building used to be a hospital. In 1982, during the infamous massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese militiamen with the complicity of Israeli commanders, bodies filled the morgue here. Now the buildings are basically a vertical slum, more like a high-rise housing project in Chicago than a haven for refugees.

So now we're on top of the building and, you know, this is like really makeshift situations, like, where people have just sort of built up on the roof, places out of concrete block, metal doors.

One of these places is a room that used to serve as a kind of dorm for dozens of Palestinian day laborers. Now it's home to a Syrian woman and seven children who just arrived three days before. The Syrian army has been shelling their hometown in southern Syria. The mother, who doesn't want to give her name, says she came to these camps because her husband used to work in Beirut as a day laborer and lived here with other workers. Now the workers have moved out and the family has moved in.

Syrian families here in the camps don't register with the U.N. or other agencies or seek formal assistance. Instead, they try to lay low and pay their own rent, which is cheaper than renting a regular apartment in Beirut. And they rely on a small group of Syrian activists who collect money, buy food, divide it up into plastic bags and deliver those bags to the neediest families.

Sardines, tuna, cheese...

Syrian activist Rami Sleiman says his group has registered about 450 Syrian families here in the Palestinian camps. He says Syrians are drawn to this place because they believe Palestinians understand their suffering.

RAMI SLEIMAN: The Syrians or the refugees feel so comfortable about that. If I just have, like, one lira, it means that everyone have one lira, and we should, like, manage ourselves.

MCEVERS: It's not always so communal though. Activists say they hear a lot of complaints from Palestinians. Why give food and toys to the Syrian kids when my kids need help, too? So, most of the Syrians say they just keep to themselves, even when the conditions become unbearable.

So we're in a second building now, and there is no electricity. And there's no other way to describe it except to say that it reeks of sewage. I think it's just dripping down the stairs here.

Upstairs on the 8th floor, another Syrian woman says she and her kids have had colds for weeks.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: But, she says, what can we do? To be poor and to ask for help in the Arab world is to bring shame to your family. That's why Syrians fleeing tanks, bombs, and airstrikes say they would rather live privately in squalor than publicly in a tent full of other Syrian refugees. Dana Sleiman of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says it's about two things: fear and dignity. Fear that Syrian government agents, who operate freely in Lebanon, could seek revenge against Syrians living openly with other Syrians. And dignity about how a good Arab family is supposed to live.

DANA SLEIMAN: It's very difficult to be displaced from your own home, where you have everything, and suddenly have nothing and admit that you have nothing and admit that you're dependent.

MCEVERS: Sleiman says some 60,000 Syrians are now registered or awaiting registry as official refugees in Lebanon. But the unofficial refugees, like the ones living in the Palestinian camps, are difficult to count, she says, and difficult to serve. Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut.

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