It could seem idyllic. The sun rises over dwellings nestled between groves of banana, fig and olive trees. Grapevines criss-cross streets, joining house with house, thriving in trellised courtyards that provide relaxing shade in the heat of the day. The sound of waves crashing in the Mediterranean Sea is easily heard from those houses closest to the shore. It is soothing, a gentle morning call from the world outside.
But look again – closely. Each of these houses is, in fact, a make -shift concrete accommodation. At best, they hold several rooms. At worst, (fifty years after their beginnings) they are rooved with corrugated iron. Down, below the lattice of grapevines, open drains cut through every street and alleyway and run down to the sea. The beach – now a sorry, uncared for sight – is the garbage dump of Rashedieh’s residents. This is how they live in Lebanon’s southernmost Palestinian refugee camp.
Rashedieh has the dubious distinction of being the best of some 12 Palestinian refugee camps registered by the United Nations Refugee Works Agency (UNRWA) in Lebanon. The 360,000 descendants of those who endured the Palestinian Nakba or “disaster” of 1948, say that Rashedieh is relative comfort. But the sea and green do not hide the difficult reality shared in every camp in Lebanon.
Rashedieh, like the other camps, is provided with UNRWA services that include schooling, medical facilities, construction services and waste disposal. The services are woefully inadequate. In Rashedieh schools, 50 to 60 children squeeze into one classroom where they are seated three to a bench. The schools operate on a split-shift system – one session in the morning, and a second in the afternoon.
Teachers here are often unmotivated, many of them turning to teaching because they have no other opportunity for work. Palestinians are banned by Lebanon from working in some 72 professions. Other jobs that Palestinian refugees are allowed to do are those within UNRWA medical services, acting as a doctor in the camp clinic or, in Rashedieh’s case, the camp hospital. The most widely available medicine here is aspirin and doctors prescribe it often to the approximately 100 patients they see a day.
Talk has it that even these pitifully inadequate services are to be whittled down. The international community is gradually shifting its responsibility for the Palestinian refugees to local organizations that have been established to provide aid.
But still, people say that Rashedieh is lucky. It has several streets wide enough to drive cars through. It is lucky because it has a beach on which, amid the rubbish, children can play and adults can take an evening stroll.
Some Palestinian refugees here in Lebanon do not even have access to these meager services. UNRWA excludes from its lists Palestinian refugees who fled later, in the 1967 War with Israel.
Mohammed and his family of twelve children simply do not exist, having fled their home a bit too late. Without being registered as refugees, this family is reduced to trying to subsist. Without refugee status, they are denied the right of exit and entry to Rashedieh camp’s one square kilometer. The family spends much of its time in a makeshift home on the site of a former dump. Lack of work is a problem common to all Palestinians living in Lebanon, but for Mohammed, there is no work because he does not carry the UNRWA registration card. The family cannot even afford mattresses to sleep on – to splurge would leave them no money to buy food.
For all the refugees, life here revolves around making it to the next sunrise. One more day means that they may be one step closer to returning to their homeland.
Nawal Hassan, registered in Nahr Al Barid Refugee Camp, appeared to feel tantalizingly close to her homeland this time last year. Returning from a visit to Lebanon’s southern border with Israel after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon last May, she brought photographs of Palestine. But they were taken from the wrong side of a barbed wire fence.
“Look,” she says, as her fingernail scratches lines through the green hills in the photos. “Look -this is Palestine. This and this and thisé” She is insistent. “Isn’t Palestine beautiful?” she demands.
Most of the time, the refugees are waiting for that paradise over the border.
“It takes me seven minutes to smoke one cigarette,” surmises Hussein, a 15-year-old, as he draws on his cigarette. “So, if I smoke 22 a day, that’s approximately two hours a day that I don’t have to think about filling up in order to get to tomorrow.”
Hussein calmly accepts this waiting game. His resignation is frightening in some ways.
In the camps of Sabra and Shatilla, there is not even a forgiving countryside. The suburban slums of these West Beirut camps were the focus of international outcry in 1982 when, under the command of Israeli forces and current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Christian Phalangist militia murdered an estimated 3,000 civilians, many of them women and children.
As I pass the hospital building in Sabra, an elderly lady, stooping over her bags of vegetables, turns. “What do you want? You foreigners you come, and you look, and you go. What do you do? Nothing. Why do you bother coming. Twenty-four years I have been here. You call this living? What kind of life is this?’
The conditions in Sabra and Shatilla are probably the worst of Lebanon’s camps. They are embodied inside this hospital building.
The stench of rotten fish hits even before I enter the little passage next to the stairwell. Years have passed between my visits, but the smell has not changed. One hundred families inhabit this building, once a hospital. After the massacres of Tel Al Zatar and Karatina when Christian Phalangists laid siege to the Palestinian refugee camps in East Beirut, these families were relocated here. The relocation was meant to be a “temporary measure,” but has lasted some 20 years.
On each floor, 21 families live in some 21 rooms. Each floor has one communal kitchen area, three communal bathrooms. The doors to the bathrooms are carefully padlocked, so that only the seven key-holding families to each can enter – it is a small, but vital sign of privacy and ownership.
I cannot help but think of the other numerous keys I have been shown by Palestinians in Lebanon. They are keys to houses in Palestine lost long ago. Still, even the youngest family member, those who have no memory of the family place, can describe with pride the exact look and location of home.
Here, the hospital building is dark and the stench nauseating. A door to a room opens and someone invites us in. The room is clean and tidy and there is a stack of mattresses in the corner. There are six people in the room. In all, 10 people live in these two rooms. The average family size is seven or eight people. The rest of the floors are the same – cramped living areas, no running water and intermittent electricity.
Refugees twice over, these people have been shunted from one camp to another. In new surroundings they have tried to build some kind of another life. The pretext is always that this will be temporary.
Volunteer Maysoun Sukerieh works with children in Shatila Camp, encouraging them to write about how they pass the time.
“Whenever people used to ask me where I was from,” writes 14- year-old Mahmoud Halimah of Shatila camp, “I would answer, ‘I am Palestinian and Palestine is my homeland.’ But I used to think that was the camp. It was obvious to me, since I live in the camp, and I knew that I am Palestinian, so the camp must be Palestine. So I was shocked, when I realized that the camp is not Palestine – I was shocked because I realized that I do not live in my homeland.”
“Since then,” he writes in unconsciously revealing English, “my hobby is to return.”
As the Israeli government does its best to demolish the homes of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the future for Palestinians in the Diaspora is bleaker than ever. With over 1,300 Palestinians made homeless and first or second-time refugees in the last few months, it is all too clear that the camps in Lebanon – no longer a focus – will be full for many years to come.