Ibtissam hardly turned her head towards us, her backseat passengers, as she talked hurriedly, stringing one sentence to the next as if she were mimicking the crawling trail of cars ahead of us. She was intent on cramming as much of her story as she could, in this short car ride. We listened in respectful bumpy silence while the hustle and bustle of Sabra Street weaved around us. I had conjured an image of what the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp would look like well before meeting her. I had expected the camps to be a walled prison, far removed from the heart of Beirut. Unfamiliar instincts falsely told me we would find its homes and buildings carved out of the Lebanese landscape, invisible to the local population. Its entrance would be reminiscent of the West Bank of Palestine with cars uneasily waiting in miles-long lines at checkpoints, engines spewing diesel fumes which thickened the dusty air. Disturbingly normalized scenes would await us. Heavily armed military officers would be peering into halted cars to make whimsical judgements of passengers, or perhaps singling them out in order to let them endlessly stand aside for further “screening”. Perhaps, I would need to show my passport? My friend Deya’, with whom I was travelling for the first time, had insisted that my US dollars and passport accompany me everywhere. I had forgotten what a stranger I was now, in the country of my birth.
But Sabra and Shatila was nothing like what I had imagined. The camp sat uncomfortably in the heart of the city, neither out of sight nor cordoned off to the public. Sabra Street looked like a makeshift street market of grocery shops and repair mechanics. Pedestrians manoeuvred around cheap plastic products and car parts which spilled onto the pavement from tiny booths lining the street as far as the eye could see. Many stores appeared shuttered with bags of cement, haphazardly piled in front of pockmarked and dented metal roll up doors. It seemed an eerie sign for an early afternoon weekday. The scene was a faint reminder of the old markets in Cairo where my Palestinian grandfather opened his grocery shop in the 1950’s after fleeing Palestine. They used to be vibrant and loud. The old men of the neighborhood gathered in cafes to share a Sheish Beish game of backgammon and a Turkish coffee. Housewives came for their groceries – and to catch a bit of the neighbor’s gossip. But the air, here, on Sabra Street felt so different. It was restless and thick with tension. Sorely lacking were the expected familiar sights of the elder generation, grandfathers tossing dice on checkered boards, but it was an old illusion of how things were supposed to be. On Sabra Street, no one smiled, not even the children.
As we drove by the endless rows of tiny mechanic shops, we caught glimpses of young men sipping coffee in the dimly lit workshops, cigarette stubs loosely resting between their fingers. Few were working. Passing another shop we saw an array of car bumpers stacked floor to ceiling. All the while, as if it were our journey’s soundtrack, Ibtissam continued her through-composed commentary in the car. We were getting closer to the camp now. A few old men in ragged thobes were relaxing on roughshod chairs behind their broken-down carts, selling fruits and more unneeded housewares. Graffiti clothed the badly maintained edifices dotting the outskirts of the camp. We continued on and soon an army outpost a good distance away came into view, but as we approached, the officers barely threw a wayward glance at us. We were neither questioned nor ID’ed. The car rolled by the checkpoint without pause or hesitation.
We had nearly arrived and the rest of our journey would be on foot. Ibtissam, herself a refugee working at one of the NGOs in Lebanon, now jumped out of the car as the camp’s narrow entrance was in view, and we dutifully followed. She had not finished telling us how her husband had disappeared in 1985, during the War of the Camps (Harb Al Moukhayamat) which had pitted PLO leader Arafat’s fighters against the Lebanese Amal party, then allied with Hafez Alassad of Syria. Alassad had sought to disarm the Palestinians for fear their presence in resistance would be perceived as wave-making troublemakers which would then attract the disproportionate wrath of a second invasion by Israel, akin to the brutal one in 1982. Many Palestinians were killed in this War of the Camps, and Ibtissam’s husband had been swallowed up in the anarchy of its ugly aftermath. Sadly, his body was never retrieved and his fate would remain a dark mystery for the two daughters he left her to raise. With a pension from UNRWA, at a pittance of $15 per month, to ease her troubles as a widow, she did her best to make ends meet. Her voice became increasingly agitated as she snowballed her list of frustrations – the refugee’s version of: “Don’t get me started” Still, she capped every indignity with “Alhamdullillah” (Thank God) as though everything she had experienced could have been a lot worse.
A Hariri-funded women’s clinic stood near the entrance, every seat occupied by sombre faced mothers, their children energetically spinning circles around them. A few men lingered outside on their cell phones. Posters of a defiant Rafic Hariri, the assassinated Prime MInister of Lebanon, were boldly displayed in the skies above Sabra Street. Those of his son, Saad Hariri, the imperilled present Prime Minister stood proudly alongside in an ominous sign of what the revolution of Lebanon was yet to decide.
We finally reached the crossroads between greater Beirut and the camp as we passed through its tunnelled opening. Ibtissam kept talking, still rushing through her words and grievances about life in the camp. She led us through a trash strewn alley past clusters of idle taxi drivers. There was no gate. No wall. No army or camp official to supervise our entry. In fact, it was just the opposite of what I had imagined.
It was my second time traveling to a refugee camp, the first being in Jordan as a teenager, more than 3 decades ago. I had accompanied my mother’s cousin, Laila Wahbeh, who had advocated tirelessly for Palestinians throughout her life. She had taken me to one of the camps in Amman, Jordan to check in on a young girl living in a windowless, bathroomless, spartan cement home with her father and siblings. The teenager had been crudely and abruptly cast into the role of family caregiver after losing her mother. Though not subtle, the precariousness of life in the refugee camps didn’t register through my young blissful oblivion, nor did the reality that this young girl would never enjoy the carefree vigor of her childhood. I remember, in my naivety, bringing her a box of chocolates as though I were a guest at a dinner party. She smiled and gracefully thanked me for them. Back home, Laila had often told her cousins, nephews and nieces as they sat around her generous kitchen table, that she preferred their visits to the camps, than the money and blankets they cared to send. She wanted them to see the direness in the camps, with their own eyes.
The weight of her words finally rang loudly to me during this trip.
When Deya’ launched the Leonard Education Organization ( LE.O ) a few years back, she carefully crafted its mission to locate and match scholarship funds in the US, to top achieving Palestinian students from the lowest rungs of the refugee community. She had spoken incessantly about the conditions of the camps and the need to prioritize a higher education for the youth. Nowhere was the old axiom that “ education is power” more repeated than in these camps. A single child’s attainment of a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree from a prestigious US university is like a lifeboat thrown to a passenger on a sinking ship. It has the power to restore dignity to their parents and hope to the siblings who are expected to follow their footsteps. More powerfully, it also lifts the family up financially. If just one child can break away from the generational chains that tie them to a menial living inside the camps, and start a career outside by leveraging their education, it can create a life saving economic lifeline out of the quagmire of poverty.
Before our trip, when Deya’ would speak of the overwhelming individual hardships of each student, I would listen, certain of her views but not wholly connected to their sufferings. It still felt distant for me. She had several Palestinian students whose families she wanted to visit while in Lebanon and the opportunity to join her had instantly pulled at me. I wanted to understand for myself the realities she spoke of and how her small, 2 person organization had grown in stride and speed to help the Palestinians of the refugee camps. Laila Wahbeh’s words, from over three decades before, urged me on.
The attraction to visit Lebanon was born too, out of nostalgia for the country of my birth. At the time, we had lost everything but what our suitcases could fill during the 1975 civil war. The rental apartment on Snoubra Street that my mother so desperately clung to had long fallen from her grip. I wanted to return if only to recapture memories of the old neighborhood we lived in.
Perhaps the old Yasmine tree in front of our apartment building had waited for me to smell its flowers again. Perhaps the old grocery store on the ground level was still open and its aisles were still stocked with shelves of imported biscuits and candy.
When Deya’ suggested I join her on one of her regular visits in November of 2019, I eagerly welcomed the offer with excitement, but we soon discovered we could not have picked a worse time. Lebanon was currently in the throes of a rapidly spreading revolution. In the spirit of adventurism, we decided we could pull it off. The news stories had been true, and it was not long before we felt the full effect of the social protests. The governement had shut down the banks and schools. Businesses that were open were hungry for the “greenback” and grateful to exchange it for the spiraling depreciation of the Lebanese pound. The city was eerily quiet. Deya’ pointed out that the traffic was flowing far too smoothly without the familiar cacophony of this city. Even taxi drivers, known for their wily recklessness, appeared tentatively tamer than usual. Though subtle, to my still unaccustomed eyes, I saw less the discomfort of the city, and more of the unfailing stoicism of the Beiruties.
There was so much to Beirut in that moment. Beiruities had not forgotten the civil war of 1975. Its many tragedies remained engraved in the minds of my generation and many were becoming at once pessimistic and nervous at the mere mention of demonstrations. The contagious energy of the youth and the euphoric declarations of: “We are ALL Lebanese”, weaved a precarious, if thin, sense of unity into a country that has long been divided along sectarian lines. The young appeared full of hope, chanting fearlessly: “ Kollon, Yaani Kollon” (“All of them means ALL of them!”), referring to their demands to oust and replace all those currently in power. The army was commended for staying out of the fray, though the situation seemed destined to take a perilous turn with every shot fired, and every barricade that went up along the main thoroughfares. The dark memories of the civil war, where a spark lit a fire, and a fire exploded into war, remained part of the collective trauma. The cautiousness that came with these memories was now being upended by the shouts of this young generation. They had simply had enough and were marching, full steam ahead, even if it meant a head-on collision. Prime Minister Saad Hariri had tendered his resignation in a gesture of surrender that many suspected of being a ruse and that nothing really would change. Deya’ and I would keep our heads down, and our eyes open.
Inspired by Deya’s enthusiastic defiance to go to Lebanon on one hand, and some contacts from a good friend, Ellen Siegel, on the other , I ignored the concerned gestures of friends and family, and finalized our plans. Ellen had served as a nurse in the Gaza Hospital of the Sabra and Shatila Camp in 1982, where she experienced the war’s atrocities first hand. Since then, she has worked tirelessly on behalf of the refugees. For this trip, she helped arrange a meeting with the administration of a NGO (located just outside the camp) which provides social services to the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. We first met Ibtissam inside those offices. She had been just wrapping up her day, and graciously offered to take us, on her way home, into the Sabra and Shatila camp to meet the NGO’s field officers on the inside.
The Sabra and Shatila camp is but one of 12 camps in Lebanon and just one of over 50 in the Levant. Lebanon, because of its proximity, had been a natural destination for Palestinians fleeing the 1948 Nakba when 800,000 terrorized and frightened, soon-to-be refugees, became displaced following the creation of Israel. To this day, more than 5 million Palestinians remain in refugee camps with many families expelled like buckshot, far and wide, trapped between camp and country.
In this light, it made sense to me why my Palestinain mother, born in Jerusalem, felt no qualms choosing Lebanon as her “adopted” home after the 1948 diaspora. Within hours of the British occupation pulling out of Palestine, an Israeli flag had been planted into the soil of my mother’s land, Palestine. Married to my father, a Lebanese, she was entitled to a Lebanese passport (Still highly contested by Lebanese born wives of Palestinian men, this Lebanese law permits a Lebanese man to pass nationality to his wife and children, but however, denies a Lebanese woman the right to do the same for her non-Lebanese spouse and children). My mother was among the “lucky” Palestinians in that sense. But she would never renounce her core Palestinian identity. To her, she considered it a forced and unnatural downgrade. It was her right, like the five million refugess of today, to call herself, and eventually be again, Palestinian. A Lebanese passport was just a reminder of her own parents’ painful losses.
Until her death, she was always Palestinian first and everything else second. As we moved over the years, she had lit up our many homes with all things Palestinian, from hand embroidered pillows to framed scenes of Old Jerusalem, from the family tree and a map of Palestine to the culinary secrets of Palestinian cuisine. This was one of the many bonds that had fused my friendship with Deya’. Deya’s mother had also tightly held on to her Palestinian identity with same steadfastedness as mine. It’s what all Palestinian mothers do in fact. Both mothers had left us with a legacy to remember them in different ways. Deya’ had chosen to establish LE.O to educate Palestinian students and I chose to write about my mother’s legacy.
It was no surprise that Lebanon was on the brink of an explosion. Its refugee camps have metastasized from makeshift tents, then to villages, then to self contained and wholly unsupported cities (camps), with vague and random infrastructures, relying completely on organizations like UNRWA and other NGOS to fund and administer their social services. Lebanon itself is now host to up to 500k Palestinian refugees. The camps are breaking at the seams with the new influx of over a million Syrians from the war in Syria. To add to the mix, Palestinians from the pre-war established Syrian refugee camps, are also now living inside these Lebanese camps with no where else to turn. Syrian refugees are straining an already exhausted economy, job market and school system. More alarming is the unenviable distinction Lebanon holds as the third largest debtor nation in the world.
With Lebanese banks reluctant to lend, half built homes are everywhere to be seen. A dearth of construction jobs and the inevitable drop in demand for unskilled labor (usually filled by Palestinian and more recently by Syrian refugees) is further widening the gap between the haves and have-nots. The brochures of one of the NGOs, Beit Atfal Alsomoud was telling. It shared statistics on the allocation of social services between the various groups in the camps by breaking down the percentages between:
- Palestian refugees of Lebanon
- Newly arrived Palestinian refugees from Syria
- Syrians displaced by war
- Poor Lebanese nationals
Several other nationalities who had fallen into a state of homelessness, made up yet another statistic.
The population of Sabra and Shatila has swelled to 20,000, according to camp administrators. It had more than doubled in population from 1949, when the camp was originally formed. With limited lateral space to house the growing population, Palestinians were building upwards, adding precarious new floors with hodge-podge building materials. The first generation had given birth to a second and a third. There were now four of five generations of Palestinians living in the squalor of the camps since 1949. The children of the 1949 exodus, now living here in these camps and whom had been waiting to return home, have since become grandmothers and grandfathers now living with their own grandchildren. All are still waiting for Palestine.
Deya’ and I followed Ibtissiman through the haphazard narrow alleys that criss crossed an endless and confusing maze of yet more dingy arteries. The sun’s rays struggled to pierce through the shadowed darkness to reach our footsteps. The direness of the camp and the restrictions of the human rights of the Palestinians were visually obvious, sprawled like graffiti in every crack and crevice. “We are living because there is a shortage of death”, Ibtissam had morbidly told us without emotion as she left. But sadly, I observed that it was hope itself so starkly in shortage for the Palestinians of the refugee camps. The physical walls seemed surmountable perhaps, but it was the institutionalized civil, financial and social obstacles that choked them.
By the end of our brief stay in Lebanon, we had visited Sabra and Shatila, Bourj Al Barajneh and the Bekaa Valley. Deya’ had successfully connected with the families of the Palestinian students she was sponsoring.
Laila Wahbeh’s words had come full circle, and so had Deya’s. Seeing is indeed believing. Every human right has been methodically stripped from the Palestinian refugee in Lebanon. The denial of the most basic of these rights has become institutionalized into the host government’s policies, much like the original Jim Crow era in the US. As I began to count the discrete denials of each human right for these refugees, I thought how slightly tolerable losing one or two might be. But it is the 7 decades of simultaneous addittive coalescence of all them that makes life so desperate for the Palestinian refugee. Though I tried to comprehend the collective weight of these losses, the following injustices seemed most to test the resilience of the Palestinian refugee psyche:
Right to Residency: The Palestinians of the refugee camps are precluded from choosing where they live. The right to select a property based on its safety, proximity to work, parks, or schools (if one can find any of these), is out. Lebanese housing laws do not allow Palestinians to lease or purchase properties in their own name. The choices are stark. Palestinian refugees have the singular choice of living “somewhere” in one of the 12 camps designated for refugees.
Many have chosen to live in the same camp of their forefathers in order to pool the family resources and build a modest home inside the camp. One of the students whose education Deya’ has supported lives inside the Bourj Al Barajneh Camp with his family. Over the decades, his father has managed to build a 3 story narrow home with his brothers, each family residing on one level. They now represent the 5th generation of Palestinians living on the same property, under the same conditions as their forefathers in 1949, with meager hope of breaking out of the endless cycle of poverty. Even the real estate, namely their homes, which is a benchmark family asset typically used to build generational wealth, lacks any value other than intrinsic. It can not generate equity despite any amount of “sweat equity” poured into it over decades through labors of love, or necessity.
Living in a home which you dont own, on land you dont own, and without the rights typically afforded to property possesion through a simple lease, and which can be destroyed at the whim of the government administration, is small repreive for the Palestinian refugee. Trying to improve your living conditions can be a catch 22. The Lebanese government is not keen to encourage construction, and building permits are hard to get approved. Neither the Lebanese government nor the NGOs provide the necessary resources to make the camps more habitable. In fact, they disallow Palestinians from venturing outside the camps for housing. Finally, Palestinians are often denied the right to live in certain parts of the country, without the appropriate permit from local authorities for fear they may disrupt the desired demographics of the area.
Right to a Healthy Environment: No one can miss the exposed wires dangling eerily like spider webs over pedestrian heads when traversing the dimly lit alleys of the camps. Every now and I then I felt a drop of water moisten my hair and I’d wonder where it came from on this sunny day. The wires would have reminded me of strings of festive ornamental lights, stretching between prestigious balconies, had it not been for the extreme danger it places on everyone living under them. Amplifying the danger, I later learned, were compromised water pipes that tauntingly leaked above these exposed wires and neatly explained the mysterious drops. While we walked, one of Deya’s prospective students pointed to the mangled mesh of utilities sticking precariously out of a particular building, like an abandoned nest of sorts. Its water pipes were protruding and leaking above tangled electric cables, which in turn loomed precariously over the internet box. All of these may or may not have been operational at the time due to extremely limited daily services. Every alley, an infrastructural afterthought, tensely twisted and turned abruptly to the left and then to the right under a trigger-ready utilities explosion.
It was no healthier or safer inside these homes. What the refugees earn in modesty, they lose in safety. Though space is gained by building upwards, it comes with a cost. The cement structures have grown so high over the years so as to block the sunlight to the alley below. Token “windows” in non-descript facades offer a faint reprieve. The homes are dark and sombre. Rain brings an unshakable moisture that seeps and molds into the walls. More suffocating is the shortage of electricity. With only 3 hours daily allowance of electricity, the camps often rely on generators which in turn release asthma causing fumes, or poisonous carbon dioxide into the small rooms. We even saw vendors peddling lumps of coal, like a medieval deja vu, as an alternative source of heat inside these cement walled homes in the camps. It can only serve to further erode the quality of air in their cramped spaces.
Right to Clean Water: The right to clean water perhaps struck me as the greatest of injustices. In the Bourj Al Barajneh camp which Deya’ and I had visited, her student’s family relied on salt water to bathe and wash. Clean water is only purchased, at a distance, and by the gallon at a price of 1000 Liras per gallon (approx 75 cents), a hefty amount for a family already living from hand to mouth. In the Sabra and Shatila camp, parents are obliged to make the difficult choice between milk for their infant children and clean water. The decision has always favored the latter and children are arriving weak and malnourished to school, according to the camp administrator.
Right to Citizenship and Dignity– Palestinians in these camps can not apply for citizenship regardless of the longevity of their residence. As mentioned above, there is one exception however for Palestinian women who have married Lebanese men. Like my mother, the Palestinian women and their children had the right to carry a Lebanese passport. But the same did not apply for Palestinian men married to Lebanese women. Their wives can not pass their citizenship on to their husbands , or even to children born out of that marriage. And though the Lebanese wife can lease or purchase a property in her name outside the camp, she would still require the financial means to do so. At face value, this could seem like a workable solution for the couple, but in reality it has a denigrating effect on the traditional patriarchal culture of this community. In many cases, she has instead chosen to live inside the camp with her Palestinian husband, and her “half” Lebanese children. Deya’ and I pondered what would happen if the couple were to divorce? Where would that leave the Palestinian husband. He would have no choice but to find his way to one of the 12 camps in Lebanon, with or without his children.
Right to Free movement: Lebanon lacks a robust public transportation system. It is known to be neither efficient nor far reaching. The revolution has only made travel more complex and expensive. Young Palestinians in the camps are growing reliant on motorbikes and scooters which frequently kicked past us at every corner. Most rely on the Lebanese taxi driver and the dare-devil maneuverings he has come to be known for. Taxis are fairly cheap in Beirut if you have an income. But to the Palestinians in the camp even the modest taxi fare to get to university, or a doctor’s appointment, requires planning and economizing. Long distances strategies can be more challenging. Cars are expensive to own, even more expensive to maintain and impossible to protect from petty thieves. For one of Deya’s families, the student’s sibling, an electrician, had somehow saved up and purchased a cherished motorbike which he sorely needed, in order to get to work. When his motorbike was stolen, some sadly enterprising thieves contacted him with ransom requirements. “Pay us the $100 and we will give back your bike”. This single anarchic act, threatened to rob him not only of his sole transport, but also of his ability to get to a job he was barely holding onto. Without a police department to investigate nor an insurance company to compensate him, the young man scraped together the funds to get his motorbike back.
Right to Work: “The right to work is a human right.”, a shopkeeper had emphatically told Deya’ and I. We had come across two septagarians sitting in front of a men’s clothing shop on Snoubra Street in Beirut. The shopowner was Lebanese and the other, a Palestinian retired lawyer married to a Lebanese. Both were in a reminiscing mood and sipping their afternoon Turkish coffee. Deya’ and I were on a mission to locate the old apartment building my family had lived in before hurriedly leaving in 1976. It did not take long until the subject turned to the reason for our trip, and predictably, to the state of the refugee camps. The two old men disagreed on many issues, but on this particular one they agreed; that the labor rights of Palestinian refugees had suffered an irreversible setback after 2000. “I love you from far and wide, but you are banned from working” (In Arabic: “Bahibek bin Ba’ed La Ba’ed, bess mamnou’e Al Shoughol”), the Lebanese shopkeeper had recited to us, dryly echoing the general way many Lebanese felt about Palestinian refugees. In fact I had heard this nostalgic quip quite a bit in Lebanon, coming from Palestinians and Lebanese alike. “The Arabs used to like us.”, others said more directly. It made me think how easy it is to blame victims for their hardships.
Palestinians can only hold low level menial jobs in Lebanon such as day laborers in construction or agriculture, where work permits are not strictly enforced. They are exempted from higher paying professions despite their academic achievements, education and experience. A Palestinian doctor from the refugee camp can not open a clinic outside the camp. Their clientele is therefore limited to poor camp residents, making it harder for them to build a practice, or to see a true economic benefit from years of study. The law asserts that Palestinians should not hold professions sought after by the Lebanese such as doctors and engineers, and most everything else. And still more despairingly evident, the Palestinian can be denied fair wages and fair treatment merely for speaking up. “You talk, you walk.”, the brother of Deya’s student had told us. His electrician brother had not been paid for four months. When he complained directly to his employer, it earned him instead the employer’s wrath and an immediate dismissal. It was not until the young man’s father interceded and pleaded with him, that the employer reversed his inhuman decision.
In an economy already encumbered by high inflation, and an unemployment rate that is further aggravated by the high influx of newly destitute Syrian refugees, one may on its face, empathize with the Lebanese government policies. But they seem unusually cruel for the long suffering Palestinians, now entering their 8th decade of displacement. As always, refugees are at the mercy of outside forces over which they have no control. The current Lebanese revolution has caused the economy to grind to a halt and has shut down many of their meager businesses while the war in Syria rages and floods Lebanon with even cheaper and more abundant Syrian labor.
Palestinian refugee families are being pushed daily, further down below an unheeded and ignored poverty line. The father of a student which Deya’s Leonard Education Organization supported, had opened a barber shop on the ground level of his narrow home to attempt to eke out a living. But with an abundance of barber shops in the camps, a $2.00/a cut price, and the luxury that a haircut represented, his business was dead. When we came to see him, his barber shop, which he had personally built and equipped, was closed. He had not seen much business for weeks. As Deya’ and I walked by the doctors and dentists clinics, we could see the same ghostly stillness through the windows. The lights were turned off and patient chairs in reception rooms were eerily empty. We never got to find out whether it was because the clinic could not rely on paying patients, or because it could not afford medical supplies, or simply because the doctor had to find an alternative source of income? More plausibly, it was a combination of all three.
Right to Fair Treatment: Law and order is meted out on ad hoc basis in the refugee camps from what we were told . There is no visible authority to police the camp or investigate crimes, though that is not to say that it did not exist. The Lebanese authorities prefer to turn an increasingly blind eye to the chaos within these camps, unless it seeps outside. Though the country’s internal security system liaises with Palestinian security forces, justice appears to live in the shadows of the alleys. As a result of this lack of authority, the camps are becoming sanctuaries for anyone needing shelter.
One elderly Palestinian described law and order in the camps this way : “In the past, conflicts between individuals were treated like family affairs where we could kiss and make up- Boussa, Boussa (kiss, kiss). But now… guns are in the picture and benign disagreements can quickly escalate if people do not keep their heads about them”. Petty crime, once resolved as a family matter with justice depending on the reasoning and tolerance of the two opposing parties, was now spiralling into violence. The Lebanese army is on official orders to steer clear from the camps.
Illicit drugs have also found their way into the camps, and their proliferation, as we know from the US’s own past, is the symptom, not the disease of low income communities plagued by dim employment prospects . In the Bourj Al Barajne’s camp, a group of futureless youths have come to see drugs as a necessary means to an end. With no hope to earn a living comes the underworld market of drugs, and with drugs comes crime, and with crime comes further disillusionment and family fragmentation. The vicious cycle of poverty continues to spin faster and faster out of control, aided by this horrible “fuel”. Parents keep vigilant eyes on their teenagers because both mercy and second chances are rare commodities for a refugee. Youthful rebellion has no time or place in these camps. During Deya’s student-family visit to Bourj Al Barajneh, the parents admitted to unabashedly “helicoptering” over their grown sons and daughters who continue to share the same crowded home. The worrying never stops and intensifies by 10 p.m if any family member has not made it back home.
Right to Health care: The issue of health care slipped into every conversation Deya’ and I held with a Palestinian refugee. Without a right to healthcare, let alone a right to good health, how can a Palestinian parent have a day’s peace of mind? Whether on the grounds of the camp, or outside of it, the refrain echoed the fragility of life: “ We are afraid if our children get sick, they won’t be treated even if they die on the streets!”, one taxi driver told us as he drove us away from the camp. UNRWA serves as the primary health care provider within. It provides ambulances and covers the cost of surgeries. Before 1982, the Gaza hospital, located inside the camp and staffed by foreign doctors and nurses, had provided life saving treatment to Palestinians. But the hospital had been repeatedly bombed during the many wars that befell the camp. Its skeletal walls have turned it into a ghetto style housing for homeless newcomers.
The Palestinian Authority’s responsibility for the health services of its refugee population seems lackadaisical and disconnected at best, having relegated its dispensation to UNRWA and other international organizations. Palestinian refugees cannot receive treatment in the local Lebanese hospitals without pre-approvals from UNRWA. A pregnant woman can be denied an emergency treatment if she did not have the proper authorization in place. When we visited the camp that day, one of the administrators explained how a 22 year old man had been fatally shot as he stood at the barber shop waiting his turn, just a few weeks earlier. The source of the stray bullet had later been conveniently attributed to nearby gang warfare, perhaps a drug deal gone sour, but no one knew or cared to investigate. His medical treatment would cost over eight million Lebanese pounds (approx $5,000), a sum he sorely lacked. With no willing hospital to treat him, and no one to subsidize his medical expenses, the young man succumbed to his injuries.
The camp administrator explained that “gang warfare” is considered insufficient justification for receiving subsidized healthcare. There could be no civil outrage, no large mourning processions. In Sabra and Shatila, this is just how things are. For the organizations that control the purse strings, his life had been simply not worth saving. In the perverted rationale of civil hospital administration pseudo-justice, he had essentially been found guilty for receiving the bullet which took his life.
In another example of healthcare injustice, a young man who had participated in the street demonstrations had, in his youthful daredoings and momentary judgement lapses, jumped between two buildings, but had missed the intended target and fallen instead, to the ground. He too died of his injuries in the hospital. This time, in an effort to coerce payment for its services, the hospital had actually treated him, but had now refused to release his body to an already destitute family, for his burial.
And then there was our visit with 60 year Mohamed, who towered over his 2 daughters and 5 granddaughters who shared his small living room. Though he looked strong and hardy on the surface, he had previously been bedridden for months and unable to work. He had contracted a debilitating disease in the camp which he referred to as a “Jarsoum”, a virus. The blisters first began festering in his mouth and spread to his body till he became so weak, he could no longer move. The Lebanese doctors had lacked the expertise to treat him and it was not until a specimen was sent to a French hospital that the disease was identified and he was finally treated. Neither Deya’ nor I were able to learn the true nature of his illness. Had the “virus” been contagious, we pondered, the camp’s crowded conditions could have fared tragically with a larger epidemic. His sickness’s name seemed less important to him than his survival. Mohamed was grateful for having been “saved”, of course, though he struggles to pay for the Prednisone whose purpose and side effects he also hardly understands. We walked out of the dark living room with more questions than answers, and without the same relief Mohamed felt at having been been rid of his “Jarsoum”.
Right to Free Speech: As a nationalist fervor gripped Lebanon with protests and declarations that “we are ALL lebanense”, it was clear to us that the revived collective sentiment of empowerment was not meant for Palestinians, who had lived there for decades. Though many demonstrators wear the Palestinian Kafiya, a now common emblem of resistance and revolution, the Palestinian voices of the camps are sorely lacking from the discourse on reform. For them, the revolution means the continuance of the status quo, mired in nowehere land.
Mohamed, a Palestinian student whose family Deya’ knew well and who was living in the Bekaa Valley, explained it this way: “If you join the demonstrators, you will be suspected of fomenting internal chaos. You would be asked on whose side you are on. “ He chose the wiser role of silent, distant spectator to a future he had no say in. That he was born and raised In Lebanon and that he was born to a Lebanese mother and a Palestinian father bore no importance. He was still Lebanon’s unwelcome guest – even as the nearby protest chants echoed: “We are ALL Lebanese!”
Right to Education– With all the denials of rights that Palestinian refugees have endured, perhaps this one gave me superficial comfort. Palestinians are theoretically entitled to a higher education. But alas, even that, is fraught with difficulties. While all Palestinians strove to educate their children as a pathway out of poverty, the hurdles are many. Lebanese high schools offering private scholarships have too large a pool of high achieving Palestinian refugee students to select from. Sadly, they lack the capacity to accept more than a mere handful. It was therefore no surprise how hard students strive to study even while they lack proper nourishment, access to clear water, and even electricity. At the university level, the highly corrupt “wasta” (“special connection”), was often a necessity for acceptance. Universities in other parts of the Arab World are usually off limits to Palestinian refugees though many have ended up in distant geographies like India, cut off from their families (that is, if the Palestinain Authority approves their scholarship). Palestinian students from Lebanon refugee camps also lack the luxury of changing their degrees even while the new degree can fill a need within the community.
High School drop-out rates are now on the rise in a new alarming trend. More students from the camps are dropping out to find odd jobs and help support their parents. UNRWA, while it provides schooling, lacks the resources and perhaps too, the will, to track or provide intervention for potential drop-outs, a hefty undertaking for a community with a growing youth population. Vocational schools are popping up as an alternative pathway inside the camps, to catch the high school dropouts in their social net. When the Palestinian Authority’s camp’s security agency began offering a salary of $200/month for a security officer position, many young men found the prospect of immediate income hard to resist. The short term easy income devalued the long term intrinsic value of a university diploma and placed in jeopardy, the power that a higher education instills in raising a community from poverty.
The Palestinian culture has always seen a college education as a tipping point for change. In the minds of all Palestinians and Arab communities at large, it reverses the tide of poverty. “We Palestinians, we like education”, said a student’s father, “…but there is no work”. The Lebanese revolution, described by many as a student movement because of its youthful driving force, was ringing hollow in the dark alleys of these refugee camps. No one was listening to the Palestinian students. Students returning to the camp after their years of study abroad, have struggled to re-adjust to the “normality” of life within the camp. One classmate known to Deya’s family chose to commit suicide after graduating rather than to return.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes double the humanity to understand a child born as a refugee. Deya’ has made it a point to visit the camps every year to stay connected to the entire family. These family visits help Deya’ understand her students holistically. She sits with the parents to learn for herself a perspective the student is often reluctant, if not embarrassed to share. The wellbeing of their parents and siblings are as much a key to the students’ success as the students themselves. The students’ foray outside the camps can be traumatic as well. Indeed simply living a normal life in the US, while the families they left behind suffer, can in of itself trigger feelings of intense guilt and depression. I have frequently watched Deya’ serve as surrogate parent to her students at odd hours of the day, trying to help them figure out their feelings so they can get to the nuts and bolts of dealing with classes or travel plans.
Everywhere we went in the camps there was a sense of abandonment and loneliness that Deya’s visit filled with a little hope. This reality is one only a few want to learn about. Other than the NGOs and their interns, only a handful of outsiders make the camps part of their routine. Many have cared about them from afar, and given what they could of time and money. But few care enough to make the camp a recurring destination.
Most poignant of our meetings was with the mother of another student Deya’ sponsors. The student was now pursuing his master’s degree in the US. The parents needed reassurance that their child was in good hands, in good health and in good spirits. More importantly, they wanted to know that their child was not alone. Her standard parental home visits are an emotional reinforcement of the trust between the parents and LE.O. During this visit, Deya’ had fostered the assurance that the student was doing well and this compounded the family’s hopes for their own future and peace of mind. It is an understandable hope, rooted in need for the collective welfare of the family, that their son remains dedicated to the path of education so that his entire family can reap any potential benefits. I saw firsthand how the act of uplifting one child, meant uplifting an entire household. And so it was with great understanding and sensitivity that Deya’ managed both the parents and the students’ expectations into proper perspective, while helping them retain much needed hope.
As we sat down for breakfast with the student’s mother, we tried not to betray a tinge of guilt at such a lovingly prepared spread of Mana’ich, the Lebanese speciality of pita bread and Zaatar; caramelized eggplants, from her cousin in the Yarmouk (a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria); Labne, olives, and tea with mint which is grown on rooftops. The breakfast reminded us of the unwavering culture of generosity righty attributed to Palestinians and Arabs. It is not unusual for the poorest to consider those less fortunate when it comes to giving. When a guest enters a Palestinians home, there can be no negotiation on the depth and warmth of the welcome, even if it means borrowing against absent resources to accomplish it. As we began our heartfelt culinary indulgence, the discussion soon turned to her eldest son, who was now hopefully advancing to a Master’s degree under LE.O assistance. The mother’s face beamed with pride at the mere mention of his name but it also betrayed the sea of hope she had poured into him. Deya’ explained some of the academic challenges the young man was facing and the mother’s eyes immediately brimmed with tears and then came a rush of questions: “What are his chances of acceptance? Is he going to be accepted? Are his grades not good enough?” Why the delay? Why?”. Her sweet smile had vanished and anxiety had dug into the soft creases around her eyes. The fear that her eldest son’s aspirations could be abruptly cut short had stifled both her voice and pride. That her son could have to return to the camp, back to a grungy existence that lives behind closed doors, was like a punch in the stomach to her. It wasn’t until Deya’ confidently reassured her that his challenges where par for the course, that the anxiety lifted as quickly as it had first overwhelmed her.
On another day, we were sitting down for dinner when Deya’ received a call from one of her students. It was close to midnight and the vibration of her phone shook with urgency. The student was in the middle of a meltdown. She had just learned that her family in Gaza had just been bombed in the latest military offensive by Israel and she felt helpless. She needed to talk to someone who could listen with a therapists’ ear and a mothers’ calm. She needed Deya’ to listen to her and to feel her anxiety without pretending to understand it, so she could make it to the next day. No one at school could understand what it was like not to have access to a peaceful night’s sleep or to worry daily whether your family in Gaza would make it to the next day. The students of the camps were also multidimensional and no one understood this better than Deya’. Along with talent and top performance, these students also came with the baggage of childhood trauma, family pressure, and their own fears and needs. Every part of them has to be studied, nurtured and healed.
Education is the only door left open for the Palestinian refugee. Lebanon’s society is meshed with clear threads of its invisible minorities, displaced by war and illegal land-grab. For the foreigner though, its hard to tell the Syrian from the Palestinian from the Lebanese if it wasn’t for their willingness to admit it. But for the locals, everyone knows who’s who. For every Palestinian we met, the sense of displacement, now on its 5th generation, etches all discourse. With so many of their rights ensnared in diplomatic chains and optimistic platitudes that give false hope, the Palestinian of the refugee camps appears destined to continue the cycle, entering their sixth and even seventh generation under the same miserable conditions. Newly born refugees in these camps will soon have stories of great grandfathers and great grandmothers who were themselves born here in these same camps, after their own parents had fled the terrorism they experienced when the British stood aside and handed Palestine to foreigners. Still, they must persist in their collective dream to return to their rightful place on this planet; a dream which will be unyieldingly handed down and adopted from the previous generation to their progeny. In this light, and with the promise of an imagined future, every camp parent wants a college education for their child, even in the midst of an apparent hopeless paradigm. Despite the uncertainty that might follow, it still offers the only potential ladder out of poverty. If just one child can leave the camp to study, there is always that tender hope that a diploma will yield a paying job somewhere in the world. Perhaps they can play a larger role and affect a global change in support of their collective return to home and dignity. Students, through LE.O, transform into much needed messengers of hope into the world outside. At a minimum, an education and subsequent job, could conceivably lift their parents’ heads above water, not only economically but also emotionally. Hope. It is a worthwhile gamble by any measure, and certainly for the families of LE.O’s students.
It was difficult to leave Lebanon fulfilled. So much of our journey’s story felt unrealized like the many half built homes that dotted the suburbs of Beirut. The reel of every story told by a Palestinian refugee seemed to be still turning, and each ending seemed too distant; Issam, the hairdresser’s assistant, a Palestinian refugee from Syria clings to the hope that his high performing children will become doctors and pharmacists. He says with a restrained smile that he still feels like a stranger in Lebanon. Samia, in the Bekaa valley, echoes his sentiments. “No one can call me a refugee, no one can kick me out of my house if I am in my country.” She longs to return to Palestine again, to belong again. The taxi driver who drove us around Beirut, telling us that he could not afford the $5000.00 to treat his injured and dying son, is another unfinished story. He will try to see if his brother, who made it out as a student to Germany, can help him financially. “It’s like we are negotiating in a war zone for each morsel of bread,” he exclaims bitterly. He recognizes the derision and lack of humanity that comes with being poor. These stories seem antithetical to our own American “War on Poverty”, which aims to eradicate poverty through education, social programs and employment opportunities. However, for the Palestinians in these camps, there is an invisible “War on the Poor”.
Ibtissam had long left us to our own devices, but her parting words stuck. She had been talking of her grandparents’ experience of soulless existence, when they first came to Sabra and Shatila. Far from small talk of sports game outcomes, recipes or Black Friday specials so typical of first time meetings back at home in Virginia, Ibtissam had a different reality to share: “My grandparents were here in body only. If you are ever forced out of your family home, go then and live under the trees of your country. Make a tent and live in it. I wish I could make a tent in Palestine, rather than live here”.