BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – Mariam Othman came into the world just three months ago. Already she’s a refugee, living with more than 250 others in Beirut’s parched Sanayeh Gardens.

The baby lay quietly Friday on a blue and white crib, sweating under the scorching sun. Fellow refugees and her mother huddled around, fussing over her continuously.

More than a half-million people have been driven from their homes in the Shiite regions of south Lebanon and the southern Beirut suburbs by Israel’s aerial bombardment, according to the United Nations.

Thousands are sleeping rough in Beirut parks, crammed into schools or bunking with relatives and friends. At schools around the city, headscarfed mothers and children peeked out of windows from classrooms turned into sleeping quarters.

“I tried to stay at home, but then the bombs started falling really close. I couldn’t risk it any longer,” said Mohammed Othman, Mariam’s father, who fled his home in the south Beirut suburb of Dahiyah.

His eight other children are trapped in the deep south, where they were visiting their grandmother in the village of Kafra and can’t get out.

Refugees have had to hit the streets and public buildings because their main refuge in past wars is no longer an option. During previous exoduses, Shiites in the south fled to Dahiyah, but the crowded Beirut neighborhood dominated by Hezbollah has been turned to rubble by Israeli airstrikes.

In the Sanayeh Gardens, cadres of volunteers – mostly Hezbollah supporters, as well as activists from other political parties – handed out two meals a day, water and donated baby formula and diapers.

The number in the park swells from about 250 at night to double that number during the day, as refugees living with relatives or friends “come to spend time here to give their hosts some space,” said one volunteer, Sarjoun Kantar, a 23-year-old university student.

Beirut residents have brought mattresses to the park, but there are far from enough and many people bedded down on park benches or on the brown, scorched lawn.

“There are no more mattresses in Lebanon, it’s a big problem,” Kantar said.

Caressing baby Mariam, he said: “On her first day here she was badly bitten by mosquitoes and developed a diaper rash. We gave her a bath and look at her, she’s so quiet now.”

Samaa Jaber, dressed in brown with a matching Islamic headscarf, sat on a bench as her 6-year-old daughter Zeinab and 18-month-old son Fadel played at her feet. Her husband is a guerrilla fighter with the Shiite Muslim Amal movement that is fighting Israel along with Hezbollah.

“I took the children and came here today. He doesn’t know I did this, but I got too scared at home alone with them,” said the woman who traveled to the capital from the southern market town of Nabatiyeh.

Zeinab said she was happy about the adventure of sleeping in a park. “But I had no time to bring my clothes and toys. Do you have anything for me?” she asked.

At a public school near downtown Beirut, a truckload of thin foam rubber pads arrived to serve as mattresses.

Timur Goksel, the senior U.N. adviser in south Lebanon for 24 years, said nearly everyone in the region who could afford to leave has fled.

“There’s always a way if you have the money. Villages closer to the border may be totally abandoned. But the rest, where and how can they go?” he asked.

In Beirut’s wealthy Verdun neighborhood, 650 people crowded into a school. Some brought small televisions or gas camping stoves they used to heat pots of rice and beans donated by a nearby restaurant.

Dishwater splashed from a pan where a woman was washing dishes and flowed into a hallway where it turned to mud. In one classroom, a new mother sat on a mattress breast-feeding a newborn.

Nearby, Mariam Waked, 61, shared a mattress with her 85-year-old mother, Zahra, and her 41-year-old daughter, Wafa.

Zahra was hit by a car recently and broke a hip. Wafa is nearly deaf and crippled by a birth defect.

“I am going crazy, how can these two survive this much longer?” Mariam Waked asked, spreading out six packages of pills. “What if their medicine runs out?”

Her mother shushed her, saying the troubles will pass.

“We will be victorious, so be patient,” she said.


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