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.
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.
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.
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.
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.