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.”