In 1948, some 750,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homeland in what is known as the Nakba (the catastrophe). As a result, thousands of Palestinian families left their homes for what was promised to be just a few weeks, seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. With their keys in their hands, they were unaware that this would be the last time they would see their homes.
Now, more than 70 years later, there are at least 5 million UN-registered Palestinian refugees who live in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) and refugee camps in neighbouring countries. Some 450,000 of those reside in Lebanon, with many living in the country’s 12 refugee camps.
MEMO visited four of Lebanon’s refugee camps to see what life is like for displaced Palestinians: Burj El-Barajneh, Shatila, Nahr Al-Bared and Mar Elias.
Burj El-Barajneh camp was established in 1948 to accommodate refugees fleeing from the Galilee, in the north of Palestine. It is now the most overpopulated camp near Lebanese capital Beirut, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which is responsible for Palestinian refugees. Burj El-Barajneh has seven schools, one health centre and more than 17,945 registered refugees living in extremely difficult conditions. The camp also suffered heavily throughout the Lebanese Civil War of the 1970s and 1980s, with properties damaged and scores of people displaced once again.
A chaotic jungle of cables is woven above the streets; locals expressed their despair at the on-going problems caused by this low-hanging, hazardous wiring, which has claimed dozens of lives.
Chaotic layers of electricity wires, many of which are intertwined with water pipes, hang over the narrow streets of Burj El-Barajneh.
The journey started in 1948
Some senior members of Active Ageing House, a support centre for elderly people, lived through the Nakba; many still hold on to the keys to their homes in historic Palestine.
Seventy-year-old Mariam Mahmoud – affectionately known as Um Zahir – was born in the village of Safsaaf, northwest of Safad.
“I was born in 1948, the year of the Nakba. My mum had lots of kids, we were the typical big Palestinian family. The fighting started in Palestine and they told my family to leave for a week and then we’d be able to come back when it dies down. Obviously I was only a few months old, wrapped up in a blanket. Because of how many kids my mum had, when we got to the border of Palestine and Lebanon, my mum had to leave me under an olive tree to take some of her kids and come back for me.”
So my mum came back for me and we entered Lebanon. It was only supposed to be a week and my family found it so hard. The UN gave us tents and we set them up in the dirt (turaab), among the stones, until we could go back home as we were promised. We lived in this setting and the UN gave us our food, mainly lentils, rice and sugar.
“Time passed as we waited in these tents, until we slowly started to build our accomodation with cement, little by little. We didn’t have electricity, the toilets were a long walk away and communal. We began to disperse across numerous refugee camps in Lebanon. But of course we are not happy living in these conditions. Our life is unstable, we are not settled here, even after all this time; it’s not like living in your own home. As Palestinians we are frustrated by our plight as refugees. As a people we still remember life in Palestine, with its fertile land, its olives… we remember everything.”
Sitting in a traditional Palestinian seating area, Mariam talks to MEMO about her love for her homeland:
“I am ready to walk back to my home in Palestine, if I could. Even if my home is no longer there, I would live on nothing but the soil on the ground. At the very least we would go back with our dignity. Yes, our children have been educated and are living in this country [Lebanon] and abroad, but does that mean that they will forget their Palestinian identity? Even if they have taken up new nationalities, are living well and have happy lives elsewhere, if someone said they could go back to Palestine they would drop everything and go. They will never forget who they are and where they come from.”
“There were very few opportunities for Palestinians to work in this country [Lebanon]. I learnt how to sew Palestinian embroidery, which is a big part of our culture. I also taught my daughters this so that they can benefit from their heritage; we used to sew under candlelight, so that we could earn some money from our handicraft. We have preserved these traditions because it is part of our identity and we still treasure our Palestinian heritage. Israel has tried to steal our culture from us, but we are holding onto it strongly. This is our culture, no one is allowed to take it from us.”
UNRWA has taken up the mantle of education
In a visit to UNRWA Lebanon’s field office, MEMO viewed the agency’s archival images, which document the journey of Palestinian refugees from Palestine to Lebanon.
“This image depicts the first kindergarten classes in Dekwaneh camp, north of Beirut, Lebanon. Dekwaneh was later razed to the ground after intense fighting during the summer of 1976, and was one of three refugee camps which found itself at the centre of fighting during the Lebanese Civil War. The survivors are now in Dbayeh camp, east of Beirut, or have been scattered to other parts of the country, finding temporary shelter as best they can.” – UNRWA
“Broken buildings and piles of rubble are a constant reminder of the events in south Lebanon during the summer of 1982, when Israel invaded the country. Things eventually began to get back to normal, schools reopened and children resumed their studies.” – UNRWA
Palestinians pride themselves on their undeterred value of education, despite being displaced and subjected to numerous wars.
Hayat Salih, an Arabic teacher at one of UNRWA’s schools in Burj El-Barajneh, explained to MEMO:
“Our attention and focus is always on education, because for us it is our foundation. For Palestinians, education is everything, it is indispensable. For our children and our people, it is the only way that we can live and remain steadfast.”
Today, there are seven schools in Burj El-Barajneh, but due to the large number of Palestinians living there the space is insufficient to cater for all the students. UNRWA’s Galilee Secondary School and Haifa Preparatory School stand side-by-side, just outside the camp.
“#DignityIsPriceless” – An UNRWA campaign sticker stuck to the wall at the entrance to Haifa Preparatory School. The global fundraising campaign was launched shortly after the US announced last year that it would withdraw all financial aid to the UN agency.
Haifa Preparatory School is made up of 664 students from different refugee camps, particularly Shatila, Burj El-Barajneh and Mar Elias, as well as others in the surrounding areas. The students are Palestinian refugees from both Lebanon and Syria.
Souad Srej, Principal of the Haifa Preparatory School in Lebanon told MEMO:
“We hope that the economic crisis in UNRWA will be overcome. The biggest obstacle for us is that if the students don’t come here, they will be on the streets. If they want to go to Lebanese schools, it’s impossible because they only take a small number of refugees. If they want to go to private school, it is very expensive and they won’t be able to afford it. So what are we supposed to do? Leave them to stay on the streets? We promised ourselves that even if we don’t have the UNRWA money, we will still open the school and keep it running. Even if we don’t have our salaries, we have to continue to give them lessons with whatever we have. When we’re working with these students, young boys and girls, we’re building their personalities. We don’t want them to be affected by this situation, so we have to give them hope.”
When asked about her hopes for the future, 12-year-old student Mariam, who studies at the Haifa Preparatory School, said:
“My dream is to be a lawyer so that I can stand up for the oppressed.”
Amar, a 16-year-old student at Galilee Secondary School who was elected to be head of the Youth Parliament representing Beirut, explained:
“I want to be a dentist, but there are numerous obstacles. One of the problems I face is that I live very far from school and my parents can’t afford to pay for me to get the bus, so I have to walk. Our hope is that UNRWA is able to continue what it is doing, particularly by providing us an education; education is what opens up opportunities for our future.”
Hayat Salih has been teaching Arabic at the Haifa Preparatory School for 13 years.
“The conditions in the camps are not for humans to live in. They’re so overcrowded with houses right next to each other – the children can’t even breathe and if they leave the camps and go on the streets, it is too dangerous and they’ll be misled. The students that come to our school come from these conditions, from these camps; they are always worried, always scared for their future. When you ask them ‘what do you want to be in the future?’ they say ‘I don’t know’, as if it leaves them overwhelmed. This is why we try to give them hope, so that they have the drive to become a doctor, an engineer or whatever they want to be.”
Hoda Souaiby, senior media and communications advisor at UNWRA, told MEMO:
“UNRWA was created as a humanitarian agency to cater for the needs of Palestinian refugees until a just solution is found for the Palestinian refugee problem. UNRWA will not disappear until then.”
“When we opened our schools this year on 1 September, everybody knew that we only had enough resources for one month in the bank, to run the entire agency across five fields. We were hesitant, we didn’t know until the end of August whether the schools would open or not.”
A “232km towards Jerusalem” sign and a “Returning” painting in the courtyard of Galilee Secondary School are just some of the numerous murals depicting symbols of Palestine. Palestinians continue to hold onto the right of return.
UNRWA is the camp’s main healthcare provider
Dr Nasr explained to MEMO: “Here in Lebanon and especially in Beirut, hospitalisation bills are very expensive. Very high. One of our main challenges is that there are too many patients. There are two doctors here in the family health team. Every doctor sees an average of 90 patients per day. Each patient gets around three to four minutes per appointment.”
Hoda Souaiby, senior media and communications advisor at UNWRA, echoed Dr Nasr’s concerns:
“The problem of hospitalisation is such that, especially for sophisticated cases of medical care, UNRWA is unable to pay the full hospital cost. Sometimes our coverage is 40-60 per cent. But the problem is that the difference is huge. Sometimes the difference is $30,000 – $40,000 and there is no way for them to pay this kind of money. We refer them to other NGOs and other providers who cover the remaining cost. Yet again, sometimes they fail to secure the full amount so they decide not to undergo the surgery. This is the situation even in extreme cases of neurological surgery, heart or organ transplants… it is really very, very difficult.”
‘We fled in 1948 and are still followed by wars and problems’
An elderly resident of Burj El-Barajneh stopped us to say a few words:
“The Palestinian people fled their lands in 1948. Our children have grown up learning in UNRWA schools and have studied to become engineers, doctors and lawyers. They are welcomed at intial job applications, until they pull out their Palestinian ID card. Then they apologise and say ‘sorry we can’t hire you’. Why?”
“We don’t have the same level of schooling as the rest of the world. The condition of the refugee camps is incredibly bad; we don’t even have electricity. Our water is so salty that you’re basically washing your face with sea water. What can I say about the Palestinian people? We’ve suffered so much. We fled in 1948 and until today we are followed by wars and problems. All we want is to provide for our kids and give them some sort of future.”
Shatila refugee camp was established in 1949 to accomodate the exodus of Palestinian refugees from Amka, Majed Al-Kroum and Al-Yajour – three villages in the north of historic Palestine – after the Nakba. There are two schools and one health centre for 9,842 registered refugees living in the camp. The camp was devastated during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and was frequently targeted during the Lebanese Civil War.
When the first Palestinian refugees arrived in Lebanon in 1948, a number of tents were pitched side-by-side as temporary accommodation. More than 70 years later, cramped alleyways weave in and out of the unorganised, tight-knit buildings, which were erected gradually over the years. The vast majority of apartments receive very little natural light and air, with the gaps between neighbouring buildings creating a claustrophobic environment.
Much like Burj El-Barajneh, Shatila is also overcrowded and tangled wires snake over the entirety of the camp. Living conditions are extremely difficult, with the foundations of many buildings dangerously unstable. The refugee camps were originally built in a makeshift manner for temporary use and now, decades later, are suffering the course of time.
The Sabra and Shatila massacre still haunts refugees
In 1982, Shatila camp was the scene of the Sabra and Shatila massacre – carried out by Lebanese militia the Phalange and overseen by the Israeli armed forces – in which hundreds of men, women and children were killed. MEMO visited the Sabra and Shatila massacre graveyard, where hundreds of bodies were piled together and buried in a mass grave without proper markings. Situated behind a bustling main road, what at first glance appeared to be an empty car park was in fact the mass grave.
Mahmoud M. Abbas, known as Abu Moujahed, is the director of the Children and Youth Center in Shatila. He told MEMO about the painful memories he still holds from the Shatila massacre:
“If I have to remember, I was coming from Burj El-Barajneh to Shatila that night when I saw that there were light bombs flying high over the camp, coming from the sea. It was the first time we had seen them and the extent of the light would turn night into day. It was Israeli forces lighting the way for the murderers, because there was no electricity and it was very dark.”
“When we entered the camp, it surpassed even our worst fears. To see the dead on top of one another, children, women, men, young, old, even animals, all killed by guns, knives, swords, axes. I have to tell you that, personally, I was disturbed mainly by the smell; the weather was very hot and caused even the whitest skin to turn dark blue. When we took the bodies to the cemetery, there were so many that we just had to split them into piles of women, children and men. There are people whose bodies, even up until now, are yet to be found. I wasn’t angry, I wasn’t sad, I was astonished by people who were beating themselves, people losing consciousness or ripping their clothes. Why? We are at war, that is what I expected from Israel. It was only later on I realised that I was traumatised.”
“As a Palestinian, I don’t know which massacre to talk about or which to cry about. People used to talk about Deir Yassin [during the Nakba] because the media reached it. But what about Tantura? What about Houla in Lebanon? What about Tel Al-Za’atar – 3,000 in one day! What about the condition of Nahr Al-Bared? What about Nabatiya? How many massacres do we have to mention? What about Jenin? What about Gaza? What about Yarmouk [in Syria]? I am Palestinian and all these massacres are of Palestinians.”
“I’m not trying to tell a sad story. I’m not begging people to feel sympathy for us. We don’t need sympathy. We need solidarity. We need people to believe in our rights. We need people to stand beside us because they believe they should stand by us.”
With the camp severely overpopulated, residents of Shatila have had to create a mass grave under one of the mosques to bury their loved ones, as there is no other place.
“Shatila has three cemeteries. In these cemeteries we have forgotten God, we’ve forgotten our tradition. We put the dead together on top of one another because there is nowhere else to bury them. It is out of our hands. We have to open up the graves to put more dead bodies in.”
“After the fighting stopped, we started to understand the extent of the massacre. Within two or three days we found 1,500 – 2,000 people who were killed within just a few hours. We feel the extent of the catastrophe now more than before; everybody comes to ask about it after many years. It’s a wound for everybody, but mostly for the families affected. When we have almost forgotten about it and begun to recover, people come and re-open the wounds by making us re-live the tragedy again.”
Grim reality of life in Shatila
Children meet in the Children and Youth Centre (CYC) in Shatila camp. The small playground at its entrance is the only open-air space in the camp. The CYC is an NGO founded in 1997 and serves as a lifeline for many of Shatila and Nahr Al-Bared’s most disadvantaged youth.
“Never, in 71 years up until now, have the lives of Palestinians improved. There is always a new tragedy to face. More refugees have come to this camp seeking shelter in Shatila – take 2007 for example, following the Nahr Al-Bared tragedy, to more recently the war in Syria. So every time you’ll find more and more people coming to this camp. We try to work as much as we can with other partner organisations to provide protection and well-being for these children, because we believe the more they are in school, the less they are on the streets. So we try to help them develop their knowledge, talents and hobbies in order to give them a chance to get out of the difficult conditions they are living in.”
“No child should live in these conditions. We cried for our children, we know what it means to lose your children in front of your eyes […] This is the human right of equality. If you don’t have universal human rights, universal equality, then take the principles of the French Revolution and throw them in the garbage, because they have no value.”
“The Palestinians in Lebanon are humiliated – deprived of their human rights after over 70 years in this country. We don’t want citizenship, we don’t want to settle, we don’t want many things, just to be treated as human beings. We are brothers, they [the Lebanese government] should at least give us the right to work, to own a house, the right to move.”
“In Syria, the Palestinians had rights to receive healthcare, housing, education, life, everything was equal to the Syrians. You couldn’t distinguish the Palestinian accent from the Syrian one because they used to believe that they were at home. Whereas here, with me, we try to disguise our Palestinan accent – the situation is very different. Since we came we have always been, to a certain extent, unwelcome in this country.”
‘As Palestinians from Syria we are not recognised as refugees’
Mother-of-five Um Ahmed talks about adjusting to life in Shatila camp. The family were driven out of the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk in Syria because of the civil war, which has devestated the country since 2011. They, like many Palestinian refugees in Syria, have now been doubly displaced and are struggling to adapt to worse conditions in Lebanon’s refugee camps.
It’s been five years since we left Syria. I have three boys and two girls. It was incredibly hard for my children to continue their education here in Lebanon. To be honest, when we got here and saw how miserable life is, we were really shocked. The Palestinians living in Lebanon are faced with so many difficulties, oppressed and unrecognised. Our misery doubled when we came here, even now we are trying to integrate but struggling.
“We have no life back there in Syria because of the war and the fact that my sons will be forcibly conscripted. No one, no country, has helped our cause as Palestinian refugees from Syria. We can’t go to Europe, we can’t go back to Syria. We are a people with no nation and we had to flee the country we sought refuge in. The international community, the NGOs, they all support Syrian refugees – they give aid, whether its food, shelter or asylum. Even though they are citizens of a country but we are stateless and in need. We, the Palestinian refugees from Syria, have been doubly displaced, we have no one else, no one will accept us, protect us, teach our kids and give them an education so that we actually have a chance to live. We have a right to humanitarian refuge just as much as everyone else.”
“My two daughters are divorced, so they and their kids live with me now because their husbands couldn’t provide for them anymore. If one of my grandchildren asks for something, we have to try to explain to them that we don’t have money right now. It’s hard. One of my grandchildren is suffering from a medical condition but UNRWA can’t help us because they don’t cover all medical problems, only specific ones. People can be dying and they still won’t get help.”
“My youngest son, he’s 19, he hated it here in Lebanon, he couldn’t stand living here and said to me ‘I’d rather die than live in this country’. I was pleading with him to stay, because if he goes back to Syria they will intercept him straight away at the border. But he said ‘Mum, I don’t care, I can’t live here in these conditions, if they take me, they take me, but anything is better than this. Death is death, wherever you may be’. He went back to Syria and we spent a few days asking around, trying to find out what happened. He had been intercepted and kept in jail for five days and later taken to a military camp to serve in the Syrian army. He calls me now crying, regretting what he did. He is only young – he didn’t realise.”
One of Um Ahmed’s sons, Amjad, spoke about his struggle to find work:
“I have been looking for work for a while. I have applied to jobs and been told that only Lebanese people can work there. The problem with this country is that, even if you try to make a life for yourself, even with UNRWA’s help, it is impossible. The law is against you at every turn – you can’t study, you can’t work, even if you have certifications you might as well throw them away, they’re useless.”
Nahr Al-Bared was established in 1949 by the League of Red Cross Societies to accomodate Palestinian refugees suffering from difficult winter conditions in the Beqaa Valley and the suburbs of Tripoli. An estimated 30,000 displaced Palestinians now live in the camp. In 2007, Nahr Al-Bared became the centre of conflict between the Fatah Al-Islam terrorist group and the Lebanese army, which resulted in the refugee camp being destroyed. More than 27,000 refugees were rendered homeless, leaving them doubly displaced.
12 years later, Nahr Al-Bared is still under re-construction
Over a decade after the 2007 conflict between Fatah Al-Islam and the Lebanese army, UNRWA is still reconstructing Nahr Al-Bared.
John Whyte, project manager for UNRWA’s Nahr Al-Bared reconstruction, told MEMO:
“There were something like 150,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance which were removed, it was probably the most contaminated site in the world at that time.”
“This is a huge project. It’s 5,000 families… 21,000 people. It’s the single largest project taken on by UNRWA in any of its fields of operations; we’re not just building a camp, we’re really re-building a massive town or city almost.”
“If you’ve visited some of the other camps in Lebanon, then you may have noticed that they’re very densely populated, have very poor natural light, very little in the way of ventilation […] they are some of the most densely populated spaces on earth [because] the boundaries of the camps have not changed since they were established 70 years ago.”
After the destruction of the camp, the reconstruction of Nahr Al-Bared has seen brightly painted homes and wider roads built to allow for better light and ventilation in an otherwise densely-populated camp. However, residents say that this has come at the cost of the size of the new apartments and the rooms within them.
“One of the criticisms that we often hear from the community is the buildings are much smaller, the apartments are much smaller than they were before the war. This is true, because in order for us to be able to make wider roads, we had to squeeze the footprints of all the buildings. So that means the rooms in many cases are smaller.”
“The time taken is obviously a big issue for many families. They waited for 12 years, and since 2015 we have been unable to pay the rental subsidy that we used to pay to families. So between, say, 2007-2015 we provided each family with $150 per month to allow them to pay for accommodation in the surrounding area, but now we don’t have the money.”
“The time taken is obviously a big issue for many families. They waited for 12 years, and since 2015 we have been unable to pay the rental subsidy that we used to pay to families. So between, say, 2007-2015 we provided each family with $150 per month to allow them to pay for accommodation in the surrounding area, but now we don’t have the money.”
Despite having been given a newly-reconstructed flat, one Palestinian family has had to leave their house due to severe damp, which rendered their flat unliveable. One step into the door of the flat leaves the visitor suffering under the overpowering smell of damp, which has infested much of its walls.
“I think this is now the 12th year since the camp was destroyed in 2007. So looking at it in that way, maybe the progress isn’t so good, because when the camp was originally destroyed and when we had the international donor conference in Vienna in 2008, commitment was given that the camp could be complete within two to four years, so by about 2011 or so. So of course we failed on this. This project has been extremely complicated for a number of reasons: physical, political, economic and logistical.”
“The project is being very closely watched and very closely monitored by the Lebanese government and they’ve put a lot of constraints and restrictions on it.”
Abu Wehbe and his brother, both residents of Nahr Al-Bared, were doubly displaced following heavy fighting in the centre of the camp in 2007. Abu Wehbe told MEMO:
“We left [our home in Nahr Al-Bared] in buses which took us to Baddawi refugee camp; they distributed us and we were taken to an UNRWA school. We spent three months living in that school and then we were transferred to housing here. It was very basic, there was no electricity, more than five families were living together in the same house. Although it is much better now because we are living by ourselves in this new place. The biggest change is the size – before the war in 2007, 13 of us lived in a small flat – but it was still bigger than this new one!”
Abu Wehbe was born in Lebanon in 1951, after his father was told to temporarily leave their home in Sa’sa’ – near Safad in northern Palestine – in 1948. He was told to wait for the war to settle down and then he would be able to go back home, but he ended up raising a family in this foreign land. Abu Wehbe’s brother interjected:
Abu Wehbe is our eldest brother and suffers from diabetes. Because of this, his hearing and memory have been affected. My father is 92 years old and my mother is 88; they currently live with me because they are both ill. My mother is diabetic and had to have surgery for the transplantation of her arteries. The hospital that is partnered with UNRWA gave us a success rate of 20 per cent, while another hospital gave us one of 75 per cent – so when we decided to go to that hospital instead.
“UNRWA didn’t subside the surgery. The operation was very expensive, around $12,000, and my mother picked up the Pseudomonas infection which she is still suffering from until today. Her daily medicines are also expensive. For example, one injection costs $100 and everyday she needs a dosage of one and a half, so that’s $150. So in total, the monthly costs for her medications come to about $2,000 – $2,500.”
Grassroots action for a better life
Isa Al-Sayid is a trustee for the local popular committee in Nahr Al-Bared. Popular committees were formed to unite different factions of the Palestinian refugee community and work to serve their needs. The main goal of Al-Sayid’s popular committee is the continuation of daily life after the destruction of Nahr Al-Bared.
“Nahr Al-Bared used to be the economic epicentre of the Akkar district [north of Tripoli], but of course after the war it has become the poorest. One of our biggest problems here in the camp is the water – it’s undrinkable. It’s far too salty, to the extent that it has a smell to it. No one is taking responsibility for this.”
“How can it be that me, a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, is struggling just as much as the Palestinians living under siege in Gaza? We are essentially living under siege as well, with checkpoints around our camp. As Palestinians, we are subjected to constant searches because we are automatically seen as a security threat. So this has an effect on your psychological well-being and your confidence. Then put this on top of the struggle to get food for your family and pay for healthcare.”
MEMO also visited ‘Nada for embroidery’, an NGO where Palestinian women were sewing in front of shelves of different embroidered clothes and accessories. Palestinian embroiderers often use their sewing skills to produce merchandise inspired by the Palestinian cause. Keyrings hung in the shop included various patterns specific to Palestinian villages, while others featured the Palestinian flag and other symbols of resistance, such as the young boy Handala, a white dove or the map of Palestine.
Nada Aziz Shehabi, founder of the NGO, told MEMO:
“We started from nothing. This workshop was completely destroyed, it was not an environment fit for living or working in. So the idea behind the project was to empower the women of Nahr Al-Bared. However, giving women the option to work and earn their own income was only one of the reasons behind the project – we are also displaying our Palestinian identity and continuing our culture by trading our products with others. This helps people learn about our heritage, which has been passed down through generations so that it stays prominent both in our minds and theirs.”
At another local NGO, 21-year-old Nahr Al-Bared resident Nadine Ahmed Ali teaches grades four and five at the camp’s Azahir centre. She told us about what the centre does for the young children of the camp:
“We created this centre for them, for the children. The focus is on the youth, which is us; we need to empower the youth first because they don’t have the chance to express themselves, to work, to learn. There are around 72 jobs which we can’t be hired for. So this is a lot of pressure for us as refugees […] and it’s not a good life to live.”
What drives me to do this is that I’ve had enough war, I’ve had enough violence. I’ve seen people losing their children, I’ve lost my uncle, I’ve had such a hard time and other people have also struggled. I’ve had enough, I’m fed up of it. I have two options, either I give up or I can face it in a good way. I want to be a role model and a good example to follow.
“It has been around 70 years since 1948, since we left Palestine. I see my people fighting in a good way, so why am I not one of them? Why don’t I fight here? Even though I’m not living in Palestine and I’ve never been there, I hope I will go someday and I know that I will eventually. This is what’s keeping me believing in my cause – that this is my right and I want to go back to my home. I know it.”
“Both Palestinian-Lebanese and Palestinian-Syrians have lived through war, so the effects of war on these children is equal. Both of us were starved, we didn’t have food, we didn’t have shelter. Both of us lived on the streets. We as Palestinian refugees in Nahr Al-Bared, after the war, lived in schools. We lived in tents. We all lived under these harsh conditions.”
“We’re trying to figure out how to live in this environment. Not to give up, not to have depression, not to say that life is nothing, that everything is closed to us. We’re trying to figure out other ways that we can take advantage of [what we have] and help others too.”
Mar Elias refugee camp was established in 1952 by the Mar Elias Greek Orthodox convent. In 2002, there were 1,406 registered refugees living in the camp.
A group of young Palestinians who make up the Palestinian Democratic Youth Union wanted to send a message to the international community, that Palestinian youth in Lebanon ‘are one hand’. Although they may have differing opinions or politics, the organisation prides itself on its ability to unite young people in the refugee camps under one banner: ‘standing united in our struggle for Palestine, for our freedom and our right to return’.
Established a few years ago, the movement sets out to tackle the many challenges faced by Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon. Yusuf Ahmed, the president of the Palestinian Democratic Youth Union, told MEMO:
Some thought that the third or fourth generation of Palestinian diaspora – who were born outside of Palestine – would have forgotten or compromised on the right of return, but the reality is that these youth are still steadfast in this ambition. Our main goal is to achieve the right of return for Palestinian refugees and defend the right to return to the homeland.
“Part of our programme is to solve the problems that face Palestinian youths living in the refugee camps, for example, striving for the right to work and learn which the Lebanese government prevents them from accessing. There is a significant increase in young Palestinians who are unemployed, which is really dangerous for the future of the refugees in the camp. Not to mention the extreme efforts by the US to dissuade the rest of the international community from donating to and helping Palestinian refugees. There really is a strong will in the heart of young people here in the face of these challenges.”
A young man named Ahmed, a member of the committee, called for international solidarity with the plight of Palestinian refugees:
“Really we are dying, believe me we are dying. Everyone has a story. If I start to talk about our problems, we will not finish until morning.”
“If someone wants to support us, to push the Lebanese government to give us our humanitarian rights, this is what we need now. For me as a Palestinian youth, I cannot sit with you and give you a strategy about my future and what I’m dreaming about – I know what I want. I believe that one day Palestine will be free.”
Another committee member, Younus, listed some of the challenges faced by Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, from “difficulty accessing university education, being barred from 70 per cent of jobs” to “not having the right to own any property, the checkpoints we have to go through when entering and leaving certain camps”, as well as the difficulty of travelling with no passport. “But despite everything,” he said, “we are a strong people and we will stay strong.”
Home is where life is
A mural stood out in the entrance to Mar Elias camp, depicting a Palestinian grandmother speaking with her grandchild:
The grandchild says: “Tell me about the meaning of ‘homeland’”.
The grandmother responds: “The meaning of homeland is to carry it just as it carries you and no matter how much you’ve lived in it, it lives inside you. It is your dead, your bread and your salt. When you sleep, you put it on your pillow with you. You wake in the morning and see it in your coffee. The love for your homeland comes from the love for your God. Go to your brother Abu Akram in Beddawi camp and he’ll tell you the link between the homeland and religion. The rest of the story is with him.”
In a room filled with young men standing defiant in the face of the many obstacles before them, a question arose as to what the future looks like for the thousands of young Palestinians living in Lebanon’s refugee camps. Younus replied:
To answer your question, we don’t see our future here. Our dreams are not in these refugee camps. Our dream is to go back to our lands in Palestine. These camps are like a stop on the road to our homeland.