Ahmed is an angry young man; a very angry young man. Unlike most 12 year-olds who are on the cusp of their teens with wild ambitions and high aspirations, he abandoned such grand expectations a long time ago.
Life has dealt him a series of cruel blows leaving him with a burning anger and no hope. In this he is not alone, for there are many feral children in the impoverished, desolate Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon where promises are plentiful but delivery is rare.
Easy prey to siren calls from ruthless gangs, these angry children are probably among the most vulnerable in the 12 UN-registered camps in the country, of which Ain Al-Hilweh outside the port city of Sidon is regarded as the most volatile and dangerous. Exploiting their lack of self-esteem and self-worth, it is easy to see how these youngsters can be turned into purveyors of hate and even terror by some of the gangs inside the ironically-named camp; Ain Al-Hilweh means “sweet, natural spring”.
As I sat in his family home, Ahmed’s mother told me her story. I was left engulfed by a suffocating feeling that here was someone who had known nothing but abandonment and misery throughout her life. I can understand why Umm Ahmed is suffering from depression given that her own dreams and aspirations have been unravelled in the notorious camp.
Depression does not appear to be recognised as an illness among Ain Al-Hilweh’s residents, although the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) introduced the Mental Health and Psycho Social Support initiative two years ago and says it is mainstreaming the service. Palestinian women are often praised for being among the strongest in the world for their enduring mental strength and ability to hold firm as the backbone of their families, but everyone has a limit; perhaps it’s time to stop trying to iconise these women who, clearly, are not indestructible.
Umm Ahmed certainly isn’t; she is fragile. Twice-married, with five children — three boys from the first marriage and two daughters from the second — neither man seems to want to accept responsibility for his children and every month she needs to find $35 to pay the rent. Home is a windowless basement reached through a narrow warren of alleyways; even the spindly candles that provide the little light are so weak that they barely flicker or penetrate the gloom. They are a metaphor for her miserable life.
Recognising her dire situation, the British charity Interpal has assigned Umm Ahmed a female social worker, but quite how she will be able to effect a turnaround in the 46 year-old’s life remains to be seen. It seems as though the charity is probably her last hope, and the social worker, who was born in the same camp, understands the pressures she faces. Her youngest daughter is 18 months-old. Starved of natural light and the stimulation of playing with toys (there are none in the home), the child is ill and in need of medical attention that costs money, but there is none available.
The finger of blame can point in many directions but the roots of all of this misery can be tracked back to the Nakba of 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel; as such, the international community must accept responsibility for the plight of Umm Ahmed and thousands like her. Indeed, millions of Palestinian lives have been disrupted and ruined as generation after generation wait for justice. The fact that they are still waiting after 67 years is a global scandal.
Umm Ahmed is just one of many women sitting in despair in the largest refugee camp in Lebanon. It was built originally to house Palestinians whom Zionist terror groups forced out of their homes in Amqa, Saffuriyah, Sha’ab, Taitaba, Manshieh, Al-Simireh, Al-Nahr, Safsaf, Hittin, Al-Ras Al-Ahmar, Al-Tira and Tarshiha. As much as the Israelis have tried to obliterate these towns and villages in northern Palestine — and more than 530 have been destroyed in an act of ethnic cleansing unprecedented in modern times — their memories have been kept alive by Palestinians over the generations.
Ain Al-Hilweh was set up near the city of Sidon in 1948 by the International Committee of the Red Cross to accommodate around 20,000 refugees. Today, there are 120,000 crammed into the same area of land; unable to build out, the people have had to build upwards, precariously so. As the war in neighbouring Syria escalates, so more and more refugees arrive every day.
The visiting delegation of British women of which I was part entered the camp with an armed escort for protection and security. The camp is said to be the hiding place of at least 5,000 men wanted by the Lebanese authorities for various crimes. By long-standing convention, the Lebanese army will not enter the Palestinian refugee camps, leaving the factions themselves to handle security in Ain Al-Hilweh, which is also home to several armed groups and rival factions; tensions are high and could (and sometimes do) ignite over the slightest incident. Just a few months ago, for example, several people were killed when clashes erupted between rival armed groups, including the Jund Al-Sham Islamists and members of Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas’s Fatah movement.
The rivalry between Islamist groups and Fatah is ongoing. Walking through the desperately overcrowded camp I could see the different flags and emblems pinned to posts as we passed each group’s turf. With its notoriety as a refuge for extremists and fugitives, and for the settling of scores between factions, in the middle of the toxic mix that is Ain Al-Hilweh live feral children like Ahmed.
I still don’t know why he is angry: it could be his parent’s divorce; it could be the poverty; it could be having to vie for his mother’s attention and love with his siblings; or it could be having to compete for sleeping space on the basement floor with the rest of the family. It could, of course, be a combination of all of these.
Most of all, it could simply be that he is one of 450,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon registered with UNRWA and destined to live in squalid conditions for the rest of his life, permanently hungry and forever wanting justice. This is surely too much of a burden for a 12 year-old; it is just not right.
UNRWA, which says that it is there to advocate for Palestinian rights, needs to be fully funded and fully operational to help the next generation of refugees have a better life but that is clearly not happening. Amazingly, the agency depends entirely on voluntary donations from UN member states; there is no core UN funding.
“UNRWA education services are a beacon of hope for Palestinian children,” a spokeswoman told our delegation. “Our protection colleagues are following up with families living in particularly dire situations to try and provide them with assistance and support. UNRWA education colleagues are monitoring drop-outs from school and following up with the families to try and get the kids back in school.”
The rising extremism in the region is very alarming, she admitted. “This is why a full funded UNRWA is essential to enhance its education and recreational services. UNRWA protection team and social services teams are following up with the kids who are dropping out of school and the frustrated young men.”
It all sounds promising and hopeful — and I do so wish it well — but when mothers and sons fall through the net unnoticed who will catch them? Interpal has thrown a lifeline to Umm Ahmed but only time will tell if she can emerge from her depression a stronger, more resilient woman. My greatest fear today, though, is for her son, who stares out at the world and into his own future and sees no hope whatsoever in either.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.