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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My name is Tony Collins, sometimes a professional bagpiper and other times a political activist of sorts.
I’ve been working at a circus in China for the past year and when the opportunity arose recently, I decided to travel to Lebanon with my bagpipes to meet people at Nahr al Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon, 10 miles from the Syrian border. I will be starting work with the NGO War Child Holland working with children suffering the effects of war using muic and games to entertain and get to know these amazing kids.
This blog will document the many enlightening, warm and heart breaking encounters I am experiencing along the way and hopefully shine a spotlight on the stories of some of Lebanon’s most forgotten refugees.