Beddawi Camp, Tripoli

The legend that is Melad Salameh took me on a quick tour of Beddawi camp the other day. This is the other Palestinian refugee camp in North Lebanon, in a suburb of the port city of Tripoli.
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Having spent the last month in Nahr al Bared, making friends and feeling at home there, I expected it to be something similar, another variety of the relaxed, peaceful and extremely friendly atmosphere you get in al Bared. I planned to go alone, walk around, take some photos, maybe meet some people. When I told Melad this, I got a funny look and then he suggested it’s not the best idea, better he takes me by car.

Nahr al Bared camp lives its entire life behind Lebanese military checkpoints, despite all the downsides that entails, there are some big pluses- a sense of security being one of them. I asked Melad once if he or other residents resent the Lebanese military and their enclosure of the camp, I was being a bit facetious and expected the answer to be an emphatic ‘yes’. He surprised me by saying, ‘not at all, they protect us’. I thought that was a remarkable statement considering that same military had only 8 years previously flattened the entire camp, not to mention they were regularly engaged in the on-going detention of young men in the camp (one evening when I first arrived the military raided homes and detained 13 young men. This happens regularly and men can be taken and detained for weeks and months without so much as a formal charge) not to mention their track record of putting down protests violently, wounding and even killing protesters. Stupid me, this is a world I know precious little about, everything here is relative and everything belongs in context.

Beddawi camp’s recent history and it’s structure is nothing like al Bared. For starters it is densely populated like I have never seen before, there are people thronging the streets and all kinds of traffic and activity happening on balconies, on the streets, in shops. People everywhere. I’ve spent the last year in one of the largest cities in the world in one of the most densely populated parts of the world (Guangzhou, China) and even there I haven’t been to such overcrowded neighbourhoods. Apparently the population is around 30,000 though it’s very difficult to know how accurate that is. Palestinians in Lebanon aren’t allowed to own land so expanding the camp is very difficult, this and the high birth rate and influx of other refugees compounds the situation. Some residents have no ID or papers whatsoever and are not registered and also there are, like Nahr al Bared, thousands of Syrian-Palestinians from Palestinian refugee camps inside Syria, who have twice been made refugees who are sheltering there. While their own camp was being destroyed in 2007 many of the then 45,000 Nahr al Bared residents fled to Beddawi for shelter. Given the cramped nature of the camp it’s difficult to imagine how at any time thousands more could be welcomed. The Palestinians seemingly have an immense level of solidarity when it comes to caring for refugees and anyone else for that matter.

Just taking photos can be unwise here. These guys seemed unhappy about it at first....
Just taking photos can be unwise here. These guys seemed unhappy about it at first….

.. but then they realised I was with Melad, so it was ok :)
.. but then they realised I was with Melad, so it was ok 🙂

Unfortunately I couldn’t take too many photos around the camp. Beddawi is one area where there is an agreement for the Lebanese authorities not to enter so security is provided by Palestinian factions. Armed men guard the streets and are naturally weary about anyone taking photos of them. Tripoli itself is intensely sectarian and has been described as a microcosm of Lebanon’s wider sectarian conflicts. Beddawi borders a major Alawaite neighbourhood, Jabal al Mohsen and the Sunni area, Bab al-Tabbaneh.

Patrick Strickland sums up the situation well, “The Lebanese state is fighting Islamist militias, who oppose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Alawite armed groups, who support Assad in Syria, are fighting Islamist militias. Many of the Islamist militias are at odds with one another.”

And that’s without even factoring in the densely populated, quasi-autonomous Beddawi camp stuck in the middle of all this.

Almost every building you can see going through the different neighbourhoods is pock-marked with bullet-holes (that said, bullet-holes on buildings are everywhere in Lebanon, apparently these ones were from recent battles though..). Another friend had pointed out a now closed, Jabat al Nusra recruiting office when we passed the previous day. They are an Al Qaeda affiliated group, doing a lot of the fighting against the regime in Syria, among other things they also claimed responsibility for a car bomb in the city as ‘a revenge attack’ in the Alawite neighbourhood in January of this year. Alawites are broadly aligned with the Assad regime and al Nusra spear-head the former FSA, anti-regime forces (what Putin now wrongly refers to as ISIS).

just your average flock of sheep taking a dander through the city
just your average flock of sheep taking a dander through the city

Despite all this, friends of Melad who we met there, young people who now live in Kuwait say they love Beddawi and would rather stay than go back to Kuwait. In all it’s craziness and hardship, like Nahr al Bared they seem to have created a very tight community of family and friends. There is something special about these communities, so much of their lives is fun and lively and spontaneous. It’s normal to see 10 year olds driving cars or cutting about on scooters or to see someone riding a quad-bike down the road on two side-wheels or for someone to ride a horse through the streets. Sadly though the violence in these neighbourhoods is less spontaneous, often controlled and influenced from outside and in the case of the al-Nusra fighters in neighbouring Sunni streets, they “are just waiting for the order from Saudi Arabia to open the next battle”. And sadly, Palestinians and all the other residents remain stuck in the middle.

just taking his horse for a walk
just taking his horse for a walk

when we got back to Nahr al Bared we hitched a ride on a wee tractor, as you do
when we got back to Nahr al Bared we hitched a ride on a wee tractor, as you do

a sample of life in Nahr al Bared!
a sample of life in Nahr al Bared!

The Dashing White Debke

My last full day at Nahr al Bared and in Akaar province was an unexpected mega treat of music, songs and dance. That seems to be the way of things in so many camps. In the morning I visited Al-Ihsan camp with a friend Bassel who arrived two months ago from Aleppo, we played a little then had an impromptu ceilidh dance with all the kids, followed by some performances by the kids themselves. Then in the evening Melad and Khalil, my Palestinian family at Nahr Al Bared heard about a dance party at the other end of the camp. Two very different parties, both fantastic.

The original idea was to go play a concert for the kids along with another guy who plays Syrian music on the Lute. Bagpipe music can be kind of esoteric, especially in a ‘concert’ setting, I love bagpipes but I wouldn’t really want to sit still and listen to them for more than a few minutes! The best thing for it was to get the kids to dance. Abu Khaled and Suliman took turns to play percussion on a biscuit tin until someone produced a tabla. The easiest and most fun dance I could think to teach them was a Strip the Willow, Orkney style. I had a moment of internal panic after I asked the boys to line up on one side and the girls on the other- I wasn’t sure if boys and girls were encouraged to mix here as in some places, like in Nahr al Bared, the sexes don’t really mix and especially not for dancing! Life is a mine-field in Lebanon when you don’t really know the culture and what is okay and not okay to do or say. Things like wearing shorts, talking to women, what particular greeting you use and so on, can be problematic and offensive, if the correct manners aren’t observed. I tend to try to be as polite as possible but often still find myself doing the ‘wrong’ thing at times. Turns out it was fine. At this camp children are encouraged to mix and to engage in whatever creative activities they fancy. It took a while for the kids to get how the dance works, many of them just looked on in amazement at the other kids spinning around. One young fella stared at me and balled his eyes out. I don’t blame him. They got the hang of it and kept dancing, every time I stopped to catch my breath they demanded another dance. Well done the dancers!

Orcadian Strip the Willow
Orcadian Strip the Willow

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After that the kids showed off their skills- some of the boys formed a rap group, Sheikh Abdoul laying down some heavy gangster beats on the PA and the lads taking turns to rip it up. That was followed by some more traditional Syrian chanting, call and answer kind of song, where a boy would lead and the rest of the kids would answer. That was cool as well. The camp puts a strong emphasis on art, painting, singing, dancing and creating theatre, these kinds of activities are clearly absolutely crucial to the well-being of the kids and the community as a whole. Without proper structures like regular schooling or work for the adults, the camp could easily deteriorate in different ways. Artistic activities give everyone a focus, a structure, a good excuse to be together and laugh and smile and of course they are a type of therapy that will help ease the very real psychological and physical suffering everyone endures.

some of the art-work Suleman has done for the camp, he also teaxches and encourages the kids to draw and paint
some of the art-work Yaman has done for the camp, he also teaxches and encourages the kids to draw and paint
aleppo

a picture by 9 yo Fatima Selo from Aleppo

Lute player and former Lawyer, Abu Khaled
Lute player and former Lawyer, Abu Khaled

As is the case everyday in Lebanon, I met some great people. Bassel is an impressive guy. He’s from Aleppo, where he had been working for the last 3 years for an organisation supporting families and individuals affected by the violence there. He speaks perfect English and is an engineer to trade. He could have left Syria a long time ago but decided to stay, in his own words, he’s attracted to lost-causes. Living under the regime for all his life and witnessing the destruction it was causing against civilians and then remaining there to help others, with the catastrophe all around, is quite something. He is now volunteering with Relief and Reconciliation for Syria, an NGO which among several other projects, helps provide social and educational support for children in camps in Northern Lebanon. They are always looking for volunteers who can spare time to teach children, if you have a few weeks or a few months then please get in touch. We all have the ability to pass on skills, whether it is teaching English, French, photography, art or whatever else- I went there with bagpipes so I’m pretty sure anyone can do it! Language education I understand is particularly important for the kids there because, though Lebanese schools are technically open to refugees, classes are often conducted in French or English so in practice they are not open to kids who cant speak these languages. As the war rumbles on from year to year children are missing out on opportunities to learn and to grow, when the time finally comes to rebuild Syria the people desperately need these kids to be educated to have any hope for the future.

Bassel and Sheikh Abdoul beside a fountain the camp had made by hand
Bassel and Sheikh Abdoul beside a fountain the camp had made by hand

Interestingly, R&R also offer services to other minorities, formally and informally, such as Alowites resident in Lebanon, known as ‘Haisa’, and sometimes other groups such as a local Bedouain tribe. They would usually be in Syria now, but like so many others are stuck in this part of Lebanon and have pitched tents near where the other camps are, among the farms. The NGO as I understand it was inspired by the work of Jesuit priests in the region, in particular Fathers Paolo Dall’Oglio and Frans Van Der Lugt. Both worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation between all people, that’s why it is particularly sad that Father Frans was executed at the community centre he had established in Homs in 1980, probably by extremists of Al-Nusra front and Father Paolo after being exiled by the Assad regime was kidnapped by forces of Daesh(ISIS) and is still in detention, his fate unkown.

Local Bedouain camp, despite their condition, they don't qualify for refugee status
Local Bedouain camp, despite their condition, they don’t qualify for refugee status

Back to Nahr al Bared with my Palestinian family and out of the blue I was whisked away to a dance party at the other end of the camp (videos below). One of the guys was getting married the next day so all the men were partying in the street. It was an impressive sight and better than any nightclub, rave, festival I’ve ever been to. Everyone was there, even some old ladies took to dancing and fathers brought their kids. There were fireworks and a smattering of Kalashnikov bullets sent through the camp sky. All the men joined to do a Dabke through the streets. The songs from Abu Jandall were intense, as was all the dancing. It was a fine end to the day and my stay at this amazing camp. I’ll be back soon.

Abed al Dayem

A new friend ‘Alaa'(pronounced ‘Alya’), took me for a tour of the camp the other day, he’s a bright young guy who speaks good English. Like many of the young guys from the camp he has a good education, he studied Engineering at University, but he is struggling to find work. There isn’t a job centre in the camp either and as I’ve mentioned before there is a bar on Palestinians working in over 20 industries in Lebanon so people have to work extra hard just to find the most basic jobs. Alaa searches for all kinds of businesses throughout the region and travels to them to personally inquire about job vacancies. Recently he’d also applied and been accepted to University in Australia- his dream destination- but due to the strict entry rules and the fact he is Palestinian, the Australian government has blocked him from studying. He paid two full semesters so he’s waiting for the money to be reimbursed.

After we went for a swim at the beach he asked if I wanted to meet his grandfather. I spend a lot of time meeting younger people at the camp so I was keen to meet older people too to see what different perspective they have of life here. On the way we passed some murals which Alaa’s uncle had painted. I had been admiring these murals in passing so it was a nice to surprise to know the people who had painted them.

the beach is minging, the water's ok though
the beach is minging, the water’s ok though
Alaa beside one of his Uncle's murals
Alaa beside one of his Uncle’s murals
'Right to Work Campaign'
‘Right to Work Campaign’
a depiction of what the camp looked like before its destruction
a depiction of what the camp looked like before its destruction

His grandfather lives on the rooftop of the building where his wife and other family members live downstairs. Apparently he likes the peace and quiet he gets living alone on the roof. On our way in I pointed out the large number of bullet holes on the interior walls of his house. Alaa, corrected me, they were in fact shrapnel scars from tank shells.

Abed is around 80 years old. Palestinians don’t have a tradition of remembering birthdays so ages can be a bit vague. He was exiled from Palestine when he was around 7 years old and has lived in this refugee camp his whole life. He’s a keen painter, the walls are adorned with his work. They offered me a painting to take home, another example of how generous the people here are. I couldn’t possibly have accepted the offer. He paints scenes of old Palestine, Jerusalem and ones from religious stories- he had a painting of the story of Joseph as his brothers were throwing him into the pit. He even spoke some English to me which was surprising, we had a short conversation and it turns out they had education in English when he was a child and Palestine was under its British mandate, pre-1948. A keen artist throughout his life, Abed worked mostly as a builder in the camp in order to pay the bills. Along with his artwork he keeps some of his old tools in his room and a collection of religious texts on his bookshelf. He has suffered from lung cancer for the last 5 years so has to sleep with an oxygen mask through the night. He seems content in his life on the rooftop, he hasn’t been outside of the small camp since the last time he was forced out in 2007 by the Lebanese bombardment. Asking about his memories of Palestine, he recalls the violence his family suffered when being evicted but then went on to say that he lived his whole life in Lebanon and Palestine has become just a memory and a dream for him. 20150914_123246

Abed
Abed

He’s just another in a long line of talented people, including his grandson, that I have met here at the camp. Since being evicted from his home in Palestine almost 70 years ago Abed was forced to spend his entire life in a small camp in Lebanon. The prospects for his grandson don’t look much better and the same goes for dozens of people I’ve met. Almost all have education, skills and want to work and despite there being work that needs done all around here in the camp and in Lebanon- avenues are closed to the majority. Opportunities for work in Lebanon are gradually declining further and the possibilities for Palestinians to emigrate are also declining. With so many others arriving from Syria it’s difficult to see these problems going away any time soon.

Cameron’s Refugee Camp Photo-op

David Cameron visited a refugee camp in the Beka’a valley of Lebanon a few days ago. He said he was there to see ‘what they need’. No doubt he got some good photos and can now deploy some appropriate sound-bites. Ad nauseum, he’ll trot out something along the lines of “when I was at refugee camp x I met a woman called -insert made-up name here- who told me ‘-insert misleading statement which supports some element of UK policy here-‘ ).

just call me Dave, pretending to be concerned
Dave looking concerned

I visited several Informal Tent Settlement’s recently with a Palestinian friend of mine, Melad, who is hosting me at his camp. On a visit two days ago I learned about the aid they were receiving. I had it in my mind, as perhaps many of us do, that the well funded, intra-national aid agencies and branches of the UN et al were there to provide the basics, such as water, food and healthcare. I thought there would be a network of food depots and distribution points which would ensure all refugees receive the food they need. For various reasons this is not the case and the reality is much different. According to a man I was speaking to at a camp near the town of Halba in Akaar province, refugees with families to feed receive $13 per month and individuals received $6 per month. Lebanon is relatively expensive, especially in the context of this region, food prices are comparable to those in much of Europe so such a paltry amount of food aid does not go far. How can someone provide food for their family for the equivalent of less than 30p per day? To compound the situation, this month over 130,000 Syrians stopped receiving food aid from the World Food Programme http://www.wfp.org/emergencies/syria in Lebanon due to the severity of the situation and the need to allocate resources elsewhere. US and UK allies in the middle-east are also conducting a devastating war on Yemen which is also causing a humanitarian crisis, so of course, resources are severely stretched. David Cameron was informed on his camp visit by a mother of ten that she is receiving $5 a month in food aid. He claimed to be there to listen to ‘what they need’ but strangely never mentioned more cash for food. According to the Telegraph, he did however offer them ‘good luck’, which must be a relief.

On the roadsides in between the camps we have visited there are always children at the junctions selling CDs, tissues and whatever else just to try to raise some money to help their families. They should be in the schools Cameron boasts about funding. The men in the camps have also been employed on farms in the surrounding area during periods of the harvest, but sadly many have not been paid, there’s nothing they can do about it. The great international aid agencies that Mr Cameron enjoys boasting about and that most of us probably imagine have the funds to deal with this crisis, to at least feed these people, are unable.

Other major concerns, if food insecurity wasn’t enough of a problem, include medical support. I met a man at the camp from Homs who was carrying a bad back and spine injury, he had a slipped disc and the bones were deteriorating. He needed treatment, including three cortisone injections that would cost around $2,500. Of course, he can’t afford to pay for it, though without it his condition will deteriorate. I was very surprised – naive of me, yes- that such, what I (and most people?) would consider basic and vital treatment were unavailable to him. Without treatment and with a family to support he could remain dependant on meagre aid handouts for a long time. What option would you take if you were him, continual deterioration in a camp or an attempt to travel to Europe with the chance of health care and a new life?

Faraz is in need of medical care he cannot afford
Faraz is in need of medical care he cannot afford

Another aspect of camp life, which increases the insecurity felt by Syrians and Palestinians, is the regular assaults by the Lebanese military. They often conduct military operations in the camps in order to detain suspected militants or other such undesirables. Of course, there have been instances of militants residing in camps and attacking the military so their objectives or not entirely spurious but the reality for most is that the camps are largely populated by women, children, the elderly and other vulnerable groups so these raids by the military take a terrible psychological toll on residents. I mentioned in a previous blog-post an old man who had stayed behind after his camp had moved on. I only just learned that the reason the camp had been moved, as so many others had also, was because over the mountain in the Beka’a valley militants had been using the camps to take shelter and fire upon the Lebanese military so the blanket policy enforced was to move all camps a few kilometres away from main roads. I hadn’t realised before, but that is the main reason the camps are scattered inland around remote farmlands.

old man left behind on an abandoned ITS site by the main road
old man left behind on an abandoned ITS site by the main road

Perhaps on his next trip the PM can seek to learn and communicate about the situation facing refugees and seek to address their issues rather than grandstanding about the UK’s alleged benevolence. Meanwhile, there’s always more money for a bombing campaign in Syria, not so much money for the basic needs of refugees.

playing some bagpipes for the kids at a camp near
playing some bagpipes for the kids at the camp near Halba

‘Informal Tent Settlement’

We visited an Informal Tent Settlement (ITS) a few days ago which is about 2 miles from the ‘settled’ refugee camp I’m staying in. The situation here in the surrounding area is less acute than in the Bekaa valley I’m told. There are tent settlements scattered throughout the countryside every few hundred metres or so. Each one home to several hundred Syrian refugees. My host Melad works with the children in this area and has good relationships with the men who live here. With the NGO Warchild I will be working with these children also. Melad is a third generation Palestinian refugee so it was interesting to see the solidarity shown from Syrians to Palestinians. One of the men told Melad that his children had fought and died fighting for Palestinians during the revolution. That’s solidarity. Palestinians in the region, such as my friends in Nahr al Bared have been there since 1949- 66 years! Without the potential for return to Syria then these ‘tent villages’ may start to resemble Palestinian camps over time. Palestinians themselves spent their first few decades in exile living in tents.

In Nahr al Bared itself there are between 2-3,000 Palestinian-Syrian refugees. These are Palestinian refugees, exiled from Palestine during the 1948 ‘Arab-Israeli war’ (others also fled the 1967 ‘six-day war’) who settled as refugees inside Syria but who have recently been made refugees yet again. Some fleeing Assad, others fleeing Daesh (ISIS) as in the case of the Yarmouk camp as I was informed by former Yarmouk residents in Nahr al Bared- one side is besieged by Assad and the other by Daesh. The exodus of Palestinians from Syria and the likely exclusion of them from EU asylum policy, given they are not technically full citizens of Syria, highlights the fluidity and complexity of the situation and also urges that all refugees are consulted and considered when searching for real solutions to the current crisis.

As with all refugees I have met they were immediately welcoming and happy to share what they have with outsiders. We ate a meal and then they offered Sheesha. Unfortunately I don’t know Arabic so I wasn’t privy to the entire conversation Melad had with the men from Homs. They did tell me about one child they had with them who’s parents were killed during the Assad government’s onslaught against rebel held Homs more than 3 years ago. The young child, Faraz, had travelled with his neighbours to this camp in Lebanon.

Ahmad and Hamad from Homs
Ahmad and Hamad from Homs

Ahmad, Hamad and Faraz from Homs
Ahmad, Hamad and Faraz from Homs

Ahmad showing me round the tent settlement
Ahmad showing me round the tent settlement

sharing a meal with the men
sharing a meal with the men

The residents had been at this camp for 3 years now and are searching for ways to move on. There is some limited schooling available to the kids here and NGOs like warchild help provide other services. Some limited opportunities for seasonal work is available for the adults in the surrounding farms, this with dubious legality and naturally, very low wages. Even with the small comfort provided by these limited opportunities, it is a cramped space on a rented field and is certainly not somewhere for any number of people to stay for a long period of time. 3 years in this place must be torture. Melad pointed out to me several other areas where there had been ITSs which had been moved. The local farmers rent plots of land via the UN and other agencies so when any contract expires the people are vulnerable to being moved on again. There was one camp by the barren coast-line where a whole settlement had been moved, yet one elderly man remained. He was living in a dilapidated makeshift tent in the middle of the field.

the last remaining refugee on this site
the last remaining refugee on this site

We are on the western slopes of the snowed capped Mt. Lebanon mountain range, the winters are cold and wet, though not as harsh as those in the Bekaa valley on the other side of the mountain range where there are many more refugees. One thing I noticed about the camp was that it consisted mainly of women, children and elderly men, presumably these are the ones not yet able to make the perilous sea crossing to Turkey or Europe. They did say that they planned on making the journey, perhaps they were waiting for the ‘right time’. I don’t know but it’s clear that 3 years and counting in this purgatory only makes the sea voyage more appealing by the day.

Nahr Al Bared Kid’s Club

There are kids everywhere you go here, playing in the streets, ruined buildings, waste grounds and also working in all kinds of jobs. I have seen kids manning scrap yards, garages, carting wheelbarrows on building sites and looking after shops.

young fella out grafting last night
young fella out grafting last night

funny kids at the scrap yard
funny kids at the scrap yard
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happy kids just hanging around on the streets
happy kids just hanging around on the streets
doing the water run for his family
doing the water run for his family
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bbq on the filthy beach
bbq on the filthy beach
local characters
local characters

There aren’t many facilities for them to be distracted by, there is no playground area, swing park or anywhere to run around. There are some places like a small cafe where the boys play on playstations and there is the makings of a fair-ground with a ferris wheel but it needs a fair bit of investment. All the trees were destroyed in the war, the rocky coast-line is in fact comprised not of rocks but mostly debris from the buildings destroyed in 2007, most vacant pieces of land become prime spots for fly-tipping as is the only river in the camp and much of the coast line so playing in the water is as filthy as playing on the land here. Palestinians, despite being surrounded the sea here, are banned from using boats, even small dingheys aren’t permitted by the Lebanese army. One potential source of income is off limits to them, nevertheless they fish from the rocks regularly. It would make such a difference if they could use boats or even for the kids to play on some small canoes or row-boats.

teenagers fishing
teenagers fishing

Zidane runs a kids club in the camp, he and others who help drive a an open-sided bus through the camp playing music, saying hello to people along the way and generally just having a laugh as much as possible.
on Zidane's magical mystery bus
on Zidane’s magical mystery bus
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The camp is 6 sq km so when you consider there are 30,000 residents in mostly low-rise accommodation, a large chunk of the camp is still in ruins, other parts are wasteland and other areas around the 3 Lebanese military checkpoints are blocked from being useful for security reasons, then you are left with a very small strip of land with very little breathing space. It’s quite shocking to walk the perimeter of the camp and to think that this is the horizon for all the children here for most of their upbringing, a polluted and bombed out few sq kms with next to nothing of real interest.

With the money we raise the goal is to provide safe spaces for the children to play. There are spaces available we just need some time and money to get these areas into decent condition.

Foze! My host Khalil's fantastic wee nephew
Foze! My host Khalil’s fantastic wee nephew
kids 'playing' in the rubbish
kids ‘playing’ in the rubbish
fishing in the river
fishing in the river
Zidane's 'bus'
Zidane’s ‘bus’
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No Borders

It took a few days for the reality of the camp to sink in. Flying in to Beirut, staying in one of the uber-trendy neighbourhoods with all the art-exhibitions, street art, hipster bars and fancy restaurants, was exactly the kind of place I usually detest but this is the middle east, there are bombed out buildings and classic cars everywhere, so it was actually kind of cool.  Then taking the 1980s style, demolition derby  bus up north the following day to change at Tripoli, a really delapidated and tense city, full of soldiers on their way to and from duty, that was an experience in itself. Then the final bus further north and up to the camp, seeing all the soldiers, the destitute by the road-side, the roadblocks and barbed wire, more bombed out buildings, the occasional black ‘islamist’ flag in some neighbourhoods was also eye-opening for a sheltered westerner like myself. It sounds stupid to say it but the area is so Mad-Max looking that it almost doesnt feel real. There is smoke and rubbish everywhere and all the vehicles and buildings look a few decades past their useful life. My friend Grazia speaks Arabic so to make myself feel even more of a lost westerner I was just following her along the road and nodding to whatever the soldiers were barking at us at the checkpoint. We got through with no dramas, by now it was pitch dark and we walked along the unpaved, unlit, dirt track along the sea front for a bit until a taxi stopped to offer us a lift. He asked if we were going to Melad’s (everyone knows Melad) so we jumped in. When we arrived at Melad’s we got out and had forgotten to pay him but he had started to drive off so Grazia ran after the car to pay him. That is typical of the Palestinians I have met. Can you imagine anywhere else in the world where a taxi driver wouldnt tell you exactly how much you owe him?

Enjoying the experience and hospitality here lulled me into a warped sense of comfort.  Sitting round with some men in the evening the picture of the young Kurdish boy Aylan started coming through on people’s social media. Melad showed me the picture and I gave the usual reaction of sadnesss but didn’t really think about what it really meant. Before going to sleep I checked facebook to see people arguing over whether or not to show pictures of dead children on social media, some people were disgusted that this offensive picture had disturbed their peace and one ‘friend’ commented that he had  had to go to the inconvenience of making himself ’30 friends lighter’.  As pathetic as it sounds, because I had already spent time at the camp among many refugees who hoped to make the journey themselves and who were connected to many of the most unfortunate through familial ties and friendship, but I still maintained the perspective of a disconnected outsider. Seeing the extreme disconnection back home and the perverse nature of the dialogue contrasted with the hopelessness of those I was with.  It is no longer possible to view the victims as the other and to pretend these tragedies happen far away to people we know nothing about.  To the Palestinian refugees Aylan was one of them, they know everything about his tragedy and short life, disconnection is not an option for them and so too with us we cannot allow ourselves to remain disconnected and to consider issues of refuge and asylum as talking points or a way to stroke our egos by jumping on board the ‘welcome refugees’ bandwagon as welcome though it is, many of the causes which create suffering for so many refugees, Syrian and Palestinian alike lie within our own actions and the actions, non-actions and interventions of our own governments.   It is not enough to open our borders and welcome refugees, as necessary and as helpful as that is in the short-term, without addressing the causes of these many tragedies. Melad’s take on the refugee crisis speaks volumes, “opening European borders is not a solution, what is the point of opening those while the borders of Palestine remain closed.”

Refugee’s Welcome

The most striking thing about the camp is the phenomenal hospitality shown by everyone here, all in spite of the extreme adversity.  So much about the conditions here is shocking and makes life for people full of suffering. The warmth and kindness is a code they live their lives by and it seems to be the most important thing that helps make life just about liveable for the residents.   The welcome and generosity at my host’s place is exceptional in itself but the welcome is extended everywhere I go.  Smiling and saying “hello, you are welcome” is almost universal as are the offers of tea, coffee and a visit to family homes, the Arabic “howloo” means something to the effect of- ‘come and join with us at our home’. We hear this everywhere and take up the offer when possible- the invitations are so frequent that to accept even half would prevent any other trips! Contrast this with our prevarications in Europe on whether to welcome refugees and it is for me a source of deep shame which exposes deep flaws in our culture which seems more selfish and individualistic than I had ever realised.  Far from outsiders like me coming here to offer anything to Palestinian refugees, it feels like a one way street where the people educate me at every opportunity on what kindness, hospitality and community really means.

the feast they prepared for our arrival
the feast they prepared for our arrival

 

To further underscore this point, I arrived here with the flu and was worried about transmitting the virus to anyone. After a few days here, I asked tentatively whether or not anyone had caught anything from me. Hoping noone would say yes, Melad told me that Khalil, who we share sleeping space with had a chest cough.  I was desperate to apologise for this and I would have offered to find another place to sleep. Khalil said without a hint of facetiousness that it’s good to suffer such a cough a few times a year so he was grateful that I had given it to him. That encapsulates so much about the warmth and decency of my hosts.

The other day I met Hussein who is a deaf-mute father of three. He approached me to shake hands and insisted that I go join his family for tea, cake and perhaps smoke some sheesha. I don’t understand Arabic and sign language I can only guess at but somehow we managed to communicate just with basic signs and gestures.  He is living in the bombed out ruins of his old home, sharing with another family. His son had fallen from the rooftop and injured his eye badly which needs treatment he cannot afford.  Hussein worked as a labourer for UNRWA for years but was recently made redundant due to his disabilities. There seeems to be widespread discontent at some aspects of the role of UNRWA here. The 8 years it’s taken them to reconstruct less than half of the camp and the withdrawal of funding for some other projects are causes for discontent among most. It’s hard to imagine what other work will be available for Hussein in the future and with a wife a three young children to support, one who needs medical care, it seems a hopeless situation for him. Nevertheless the welcome he showed me was as warm and generous as any at the camp. His brother Yousaf is also deaf-mute and unemployed as is another brother who I didn’t meet. They lavished me with tea and cake and sheesha and Hussein was delighted to show me the treasures he keeps in his home, a giant turtle-shell which adorns the wall which I’m pretty sure he was telling me he caught himself he also prouly showed me some ancient artefacts he had found on the beach, a plum-line and some pottery. After a tricky climb onto the roof of his bombed out home I was surprised to see he keeps hundreds of pigeons, they are his pride and joy and he was delighted to be able to let me help feed them.  Sitting round with Hussein’s family and some other relatives who also joined us, a young man told me that the whole camp are waiting to all travel together to Canada. The joy in his eyes was for me sad beyond belief. I knew this mass exodus was simply not possible and when some of the girls asked me if it was true I could only tell them that I didn’t think so. They didn’t translate what I said to the young man.

Hussein and his kids
Hussein and his kids
Hussein and Yousaf on the rooftop with their pigeons
Hussein and Yousaf on the rooftop with their pigeons
 
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Another of the many conversations I have had here, again relating to an escape, a friend of Melad wanted to ask me if I know the best way to get to Europe, Germany in this case and what I can do to help get papers for him, perhaps if I could make an invitation letter from the UK which would facilitate this.  As we talked, all I could tell him was that the policy of European states, especially the UK was to make it as difficult as policy to claim asylum, that to recieve papers while still in a refugee camp was near impossible and that the only possible way to get there was the desperate journey over the water to Turkey and then onwards via Greece or elsewhere. This man wasn’t prepared to risk his family on the journey so as with so many others, resignation and hopelessness seemed to be his reaction. I wish I could give different answers to these questions.   I could recount dozens of other similar meetings and conversations here, every single person is resigned to the fate that leaving here is the only option, even after 70 years here and 2,3 and 4 generations, the overwhelming desire and necessity is to leave their lives of suffering in Nahr al Bared.

Chez Khalil

The first evening we arrived at Melad and Khalil’s place, where three of us share the floor of their makeshift shack 3m x 4m. The door has bullet-holes (as does almost everything at the camp and most buildings in Lebanon!) and the roof is rusted, corrugated iron, itself  riddled with holes. This is one of the ‘nicer’ dwellings at the camp.  There are rats, usually they’re small but we had a big one a few nights ago that woke everyone up, I managed to sleep through apparently. The mosquitoes are hellish. As the water comes from wells and we are on the sea-front, it’s salinated so washing isn’t really possibe, you never feel clean, all your skin is always covered in a layer of salt and sweat. Your hands always feel dirty. Getting to sleep is usually fine but waking up I always get cramps, probably just from bad circulation.  It’s pretty grim. I get to go home though. This, I’m told, is an improvement on how they had been living after their previous camp was flattened.

skin covered in salt from the tap water
skin covered in salt from the tap water

Melad and Khalil's place, where I'm staying
Melad and Khalil’s place, where I’m staying

 

They have their wall adored with heroes of resistance, Arafat gets top billing as does Hugo Chavez, ‘Vittoria’ an Italian activist and friend of Melad’s, who was killed by Hamas a few years ago.  The picture of Sadamme Hussein with a quote from his trial is a bit unusual, but when I think about it, given the context and recent history, I’m sure his words on trial are resonant. The main picture of ‘Che Geuvara’ I keep trying to tell people is actually Benecio Del Torro from the movie ‘Che’, but it doesn’t seem to translate, or matter…  I noticed he had a picture of a group of bagpipers on his wall. Melad told me he is close friends with the former leader of the group ‘Kanaan’, who lives closeby and we could meet together that evening.  I knew before I came that Palestinians had a penchant for bagpiping and I was keen to try to meet some but I never thought I would be lucky enough for such a meeting to be made so easy. 

random guy who came to take shot of the pipes
random guy who came to take shot of the pipes

We have spent a few evenings together with Kanaan and Mohammed playing music, talking and smoking sheesha. Kanaan tells me it is his dream to again own a Scottish bagpipe- ‘Girbee Skotlanda’ as they say in their Palestinian dialect. During the 2007 destruction of the camp all their bagpipes and other equipment were lost. Using my bagpipe to play Palestinian songs and dances, it is clear that these guys were keen players one time though Kanaan is suffering some paralysis to one side of his face so blowing the instrument has become difficult for him. Kanaan is also a phenomenal percussionist so he played tabla while Mohammed played on the pipes.  Having not played bagpipe for several years and having no instruments of their own, the ease and enthusiasm with which they play is impressive to say the least.  Before 2007 the guys tell me, they used to play mostly at weddings and to celebrate historic occasions, much as we do back in Scotland! “We play to make people happy” Kanaan says. Kanaan currently works as a labourer for the Lebanese military helping to fortify their checkpoints and security posts at the border with Syria, 15km north. Mohammed does what work he can around the camp. 

Melad and Khalil's place, where I'm staying
Melad and Khalil’s place, where I’m staying

Kanaan and other pipers on the wall
Kanaan and other pipers on the wall

Both are looking for ways to escape life at the camp but for stateless Palestinian refugees there are many hurdles, from lacking passports and official documents to the controls of the Lebanese government and of course the responsibilities to family and others at the camp.  Everyone at the camp wishes to escape, the vast majority are seeking ways to travel to Europe, Canada or Australia, the stock phrase I have been told time and again is that “I dont want my children to endure the suffering I have and I just want a better life for my family”. The few who are not looking for a route to the West, my hosts Khalil and Melad among them, are commited to the resistance and the belief that one day their people will return to Palestine.

Melad
Melad

Khalil
Khalil

Conditions in the camp are dire. There are basic utilities but they are consistently terrible. Water from the taps is often dirty or salty, the electricity, on a good day will cut out 10 times, yesterday it was out  all night so we sat round using candles and mobile phones for light. No street lights, only a few paved roads and the town still remains half in ruins. It has taken the agency UNRWA 8 years to rebuild less than half of the camp so at the current pace, it could be another 10 years until the remaining homeless are housed.

Muhammed on the Irish pipes
Muhammed on the Irish pipes

Several families are crammed in to small shacks not fit for a single family occupancy.  In front of the school on the sea-front, a youth worker Zidane points to where the school playground used to be. Now there are just piles of rubble, still lying from the 2007 bombardment. “the Lebanese military dont allow us to use this area for a playground anymore for security reasons”.  Zidane spends alot of time driving a small rickety open-sided bus round the camp, playing music and doing what he can to entertain the kids. I joined them a few days ago, playing some bagpipes and having a laugh with the kids. 

Kanaan
Kanaan

Some children here are clearly withdrawn and are suffering and need a lot of encouragement just to engage and occasionaly smile, I can only imagine what some of these children have gone through, some are Palestinians who have twice been made refugees, fleeing recently from other camps over the border in Syria.  One thing I can say about all the kids I have met here is that they are very tough and grow up fast. The boys are young men. 12 year old Bakir has taken me on tours round the camp and he is always on hand to help me, show me where places are, take me to buy food etc. He’s young but he has so many responsibilities, driving his scooter around the camp and doing errands and favours for just about everyone. On our first tour of the camp he and his friend Ali were showing me around, it was extremely hot and dusty so by the end I insisted that I buy them ice-lollies, they both refused several times so I didn’t press them any further in case there was a reason they wouldn’t accept. I was later told that they are taught to never accept gifts from guests or to take anything that isn’t theirs.

Nahr al Bared

Staying with Palestinian refugees in a camp in Northern Lebanon, is not the kind of thing I could have guessed I would be doing at this point in life.  A good friend Grazia, a PhD student at Glasgow University suggested that I come to visit Lebanon while she is here on a study and research trip and as I have been playing bagpipes at a circus in China, we thought it a good idea to work with children here at the camp doing some music and kids games.

Grazia’s close friend Melad lives at the camp and helped arrange access for us both to visit, which is generally nearly impossible to get.  Nahr al Bared is a closed camp, unlike all others in Lebanon. It has existed since 1949 and despite UN resolution 194 which declares that Palestinian refugees have the right of return, the Israeli state and international ambielance prevents them from doing so.

the camp centre
the camp centre

As you can see from some of the photos, this is a ‘settled’ camp, for want of a better word.  Families live when possible in brick houses as opposed to the tents we more often associate with refugee camps such as many of the ones in Lebanon providing shelter to the 1.2 million recent Syrian arrivals.   That said, some of the houses are ‘temporary’ prefabricated ones as in the photos above and were built as a quick fix after the entire camp was made homeless in 2007, 8 years on their temporary housing remains.  

'temporary housing' where families have been living for the past 8 years
‘temporary housing’ where families have been living for the past 8 years

Most other housing too is ‘temporary’ in that everyone is waiting for reconstruction of their homes by UNRWA, it’s taken 8 years to complete 4 sections out of 10 at the camp. 70 years in one very small place with almost no hope of return to Palestine or escape to elsewhere means many are resigned to staying here for years to come.  These kinds of camps have been growing since 1948 and without proper solutions to the current outflow of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere we can expect many, many more.  Indeed this camp has also recieved some 3,000 ‘Syrian’ refugees, fellow Palestinians from Syrian beseiged Syrian camps such a Yarmouk.  In Lebanese terms that’s a very small number but consider the fact that this tiny camp, offcially 1km x 1km has taken in 20% of the 15,000 total that the UK has promised to.

the old school beside the new school
the old school beside the new school

After the war in 2007 when the Lebanese military bombarded and entirely destroyed the camp the population here has been under strict surveillance and control, so all those who enter must seek permission to do so from the Lebanese military and pass through heavily fortified checkpoints to enter. For outsiders this is an inconvenience and usually prevents access, for residents of the camp this represents a daily humiliation and economically, it’s cripling. Before the ‘war’ (given the asymmetry of the conflict, it feels perverse to call it a ‘war’), Nahr al Bared was home to a thriving market, one of the largest in Northern Lebanon. Now the daily reality for families here is one of grinding poverty with few prospects for the future.

prefabs
prefabs

Lebanese law proscribes Palestinians from employment in over 20 professions (until recently this was more than 70) and as friends here tell me, the bar in itself isn’t the biggest obstacle they face for in permitted employment roles such as nursing, something Palestinians have traditionally excelled at, growing discrimination has become a huge problem.  A young resident Adele, who works with the UN, told me that Palestinians are considered as ‘bacteria’ in Lebanon as she was explaining that whole hospitals had started imposing outright bans on the employment of Palestinians, so even if some professions were ‘open’, job opportunities are scarce. One of the main problems here, Melad tells me, to compound the grim realities of daily existence, is the overwhelming feeling of hopelessness, especially among the youth.

 

 

Bakir
Bakir