I feel a tugging on the back of my coat before I hear the innocent giggles. Turning around I see three grinning girls, their cheeks blushing to match the pink of their dresses. They giggle again.
I smile back as one of them begins to speak in Arabic. “I’m from Lebanon,” she says, as Firas, our guide translates for me. “Palestine,” says another. “Syria,” says the last girl, all looking up at me before giggling again then running off.
I was in Burj Barajneh, a refugee camp in Lebanon, where, to these girls – nationalities didn’t matter.
Lebanon is situated in the Middle East and has one of the largest populations of refugees that make up a quarter of the population. There are 12 refugee camps here in total.
I am here to visit two of the camps, kindly hosted by UNRWA (The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East). The agency was established in 1949 to provide assistance and protection to approximately 5 million Palestinian refugees. Its mission is to help Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip achieve their full human development potential though education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, and protection and micro-finance.
Following a briefing about the agency and the work that they do, we were due to visit the camp services officer in Shatila before visiting the Women Programme Centre in Burg Barajneh Camp.
This camp suffered heavily throughout the Lebanese civil war, and nearly 25% of the camp’s population was displaced. Burj Barajneh is the most overpopulated camp with a population of 45,000 residents. The living conditions here are poor with narrow roads and an old sewage system which is regularly flooded in the winter months.
As we walk through the camp, Firas tells us to be careful of the low hanging cables. “Thirty-five people have died here alone from being electrocuted,” he tells us.
A week before I was due to arrive, an altercation had occurred in this refugee camp and the British Foreign Office had advised against travel to this area. With living conditions like these I could understand how tensions could rise.
More than 60% are living in overcrowded refugee camps with substandard housing conditions, limited work opportunities and restricted freedom of movement.
In 2016, the conflict in Syria continued with intensity and unpredictability with Palestine refugees among those worst affected. More than half a million Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA in Syria prior to the conflict and more than 120,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria have fled to locations outside the region. Mental health is a big problem with many feeling worried about not being able to provide for their families, losing their source of income and fearing for the safety of their families.
As we walk around the camp I observe the daily life, the smell of chicken roasting as it turns in the rotisserie, the colourful selection of fruit as we pass by a local market, and legs of meat precariously hanging in a butcher’s window.
We walk by cigarette shops, pass by locals selling biscuits from a wooden cart, and a shop with a sign saying Mr Juice and Mr Crepe. Images of political figures adorn some of the brick buildings and the comforting sound of the call to prayer beckons us to a nearby mosque.
We go into the mosque; an ordinary-looking building which I could have easily bypassed. Between 1985 to 1988 Burj Barajneh was one of the camps seized during the civil war. Firas looks at the concrete floor, a mass grave where thousands of bodies are buried beneath. It’s clear that the recent history here is still so raw.
As we step back into daylight the sombre mood dissipates. A young boy sweeping the floor smiles at me, a reminder that this is now the present.
We stop at the Human Centre, one of the most beautiful buildings in the camp which I soon discover is even more beautiful inside. A giant olive tree, a symbol of Palestine is beautifully etched into one of the walls.
A sign saying “Be a human or die trying,” hangs on the wall of this drug rehabilitation clinic, a peaceful sanctuary within the camp. Initially opened as an experiment, the centre now has room for up to 15 people.
We pass one of the residents who instantly opens up and tells us his story. His name is Syed and it is his second time here. His wife is also here visiting. “My wife is very upset,” he tells us, pointing to the bump in her belly. She is expecting a baby and Syed tells us that this time he is determined to get clean after spending seven months in the clinic previously.
He takes us past the gym room, the pool table and into the workshop where he is learning how to delicately carve wooden furniture. Some of which are displayed in the centre.
Looking at the conditions of the Human Centre with its workshops, gym and zen-like treatment rooms I can understand why he keeps coming back. Compared to his living conditions the Human Centre provides a peaceful oasis within the camp.
Our next stop couldn’t have been more of a contrast from the sanctuary. Eager to show us how bad the conditions can be, one of the residents beckons us into a dark dank room accessible by a broken door. From the outside, it looks like a disused building. From the inside, it is so dark that my eyes can barely see. The man who brought us in is pointing his finger to the corner. He quickly scrambles around for a torch and lights up the area to display a blanket and rug on the floor. A tin kettle sits by the makeshift bed and now the shocking reality of the dampness on the walls is plain to see.
This is the home of an 87-year-old man. He fled the war in Syria and has no family except one daughter who is still in Syria. The stench of the dampness becomes too much and we are ushered outside.
According to the man who showed us the room, this old man is contemplating taking a boat to Europe. Having seen the reports of refugees crossing the seas to European pastures, it hit home to realise that this is one of the places that they flee from.
There is no specific elderly care here. A high percentage of the elderly are vulnerable and barely survive.
Palestine refugees from Syria are given $100 a month towards accommodation. The rent here is $250-$300. Food nourishment is limited and some of the residents suffer from anaemia. To buy chicken or fish can cost a family $30 for a meal. Many people don’t have legal assistance here and next year we are told that we probably won’t find two-thirds of them in the country.
With more than one million refugees in Lebanon, the cost to help them doesn’t come cheap. This year (2017) UNRWA requires more than $400 million for its humanitarian response to the Syria crisis to provide money, food and relief items. That’s a huge cost and isn't just for Lebanon.
Palestine refugees from Syria have very limited possibilities to flee Syria and enter Lebanon. Some of the Palestine refugees from Syria don’t hold valid residency documents and some cannot afford the fees. There is a scarcity of livelihood opportunities with many living in poverty and having to rely on debt charity and humanitarian organisations to survive. A high percentage fear deportation.
Many Palestine refugees historically have been excluded from key aspects of social, political and economic life, facing restrictions on the enjoyment of human rights. They also have severely restricted access to public services and job opportunities which leads to marginalisation and increased vulnerability.
Even if they want to work they are limited in their opportunities here. Although they do have to right to work in 70 professions, over 30 careers are prohibited to refugees. In Syria or Palestine, if they worked as a dentist, a nurse or a midwife, they are not permitted to do the same in Lebanon. Other healthcare professions also remain prohibited to refugees as well as tourist guides, public accountants, engineering, and lab technicians. This makes families highly dependent on UNRWA services.
We continue our walk around the camp. The conditions of the damp room still play in my mind.
An old woman passes us and says, “Bonjour.”
In Lebanon the official language is Arabic but French is also spoken as well as English. Smoke drifts by from a group of men sitting around chatting. My stomach growls quietly as the scent of freshly made bread wafts past.
I hear a shout and see a bucket being lowered down to the ground floor, as a shopkeeper loads it up and sends it back up to the floor that it came from. The person teetering over the edge amongst the clothes hanging out to dry. The houses here are a higgledy-piggledy stack of buildings. Each family is in control of their own construction but there is no room to build outwards so the only way is up and vertically. Many people living here consider that they are temporary and will be going back home.
Saleh Shatila from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) tells us that the people here only want peace. His role is to ensure that the refugee's voices are heard and he acts as a spokesperson between them and UNRWA.
As he talks openly to us in the narrow street, a man on a bicycle stops and condemns the recent London attacks in Westminster.
We pay a visit to the Camp Services Officer in Shatila camp. She looks flustered and busy. We make our excuses so she can continue with her duties. Out of the 12 camps here, she is the only woman who is heading a camp. But women's power isn’t just restricted to this camp officer.
Women here are encouraged to set up their own businesses as we discover at the Women’s Only project, a large building which is being re-painted as we enter. All workmen are recruited from the camp, helping to create employment and sustainability within the camp.
The Centre provides micro-loans for women for all types of businesses such as shops, bakeries and hairdressers. Classes are held here to help educate the residents in literacy, computer skills and cooking.
We hear about their newest venture, a food truck which will sell traditional food from the refugee camp on the streets of Beirut.
“Our mentality accepted that women can work,” says Mariam, one of the women who works at the centre. Many women here are starting businesses; Mariam herself creating a childcare centre for 150 of the refugee children. The four teachers hired to teach the 5 to 14-year-olds who aren’t currently in schools, will be funded by volunteers.
Centres like these are a necessity for the camps. Of the more than 32,000 Palestine refugees from Syria living in Lebanon, 44% are children and 52% are women. Social projects not only provide them with the vital skills they need in life but they serve everyone regardless of their political beliefs. Just because they have fled from a war zone doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be helped.
We walk back towards the entrance of Shatila camp and make our last stop at the camp. Stopping to watch a man make tannour bread, a typical bread made in Syria. His worn hands expertly spinning it around a cauldron before placing the warm thin bread onto his table. Firas tells us that only a few people here can make it. We buy one each and then purchase a doughnut from the next seller. As we wait for the hot dough to be dunked in sugar, a young girl holding her mother’s hand smiles at me in the queue. I remember the giggles of the little girls at the beginning of my tour, their innocence and unity.
My journey here may have been brief but the warmth of the residents, the hope of entrepreneurship and the kindness of the people who are striving every day to survive will stay with me forever.