May 7, 2016
Before you read the rest of this blog post, pause for a moment and mark out on the floor a square that is approximately 12 feet by 12 feet. Look at the floor and mark it out in your mind or pace it out. Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you.
Done? Okay, now in your imagination turn that square into a box – solid walls and ceiling. Place yourself inside the box. Look around. Can you see it? This is your home. Wait, not quite. You need to picture seven other people in the room with you, and rows and rows of similar rooms lining the streets of the neighbourhood you live in… Now can you see it?
Today we visited a Palestinian refugee gathering. To understand what we experienced, I first need to share the difference between a refugee “camp” and a refugee “gathering.” A gathering can look exactly like a camp, but it is not officially recognized by the government, thus it is a gathering of refugees, not a camp.
This gathering might not be what you’re picturing in your mind. Refugee camps (and gatherings) in the Middle East can be rows of tents; temporary spaces set up to house displaced people. But as I learned today, there are camps where there are no tents, only city street after city street of make shift cinder block squares stacked one on another, put together by the refugees themselves on land they don’t own.
It’s very difficult to tell where an official city block ends and an urban camp begins. No matter what you call it, what I know is that after what I saw today I’d take a tent in a rural area over these cells no questions asked.
Our guide today is Rashid, the Programme Manager for Popular Aid and Relief Organization (PARD), another MCC partner in the region. I’m sure it will come as no surprise that the issues in this country are complicated. Rashid does an admirable job helping us understand.
First, he points out that not all refugees are created equal. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees, Iraqi refugees and Palestinian refugees make up the vast majority of the displaced population. He reminds us that Palestinians first started arriving in Lebanon in 1948. I won’t start in on the history lesson, but for the purposes of this story, all you need to know is that Palestinians have been refugees in Lebanon for a long time – for generations.
As a refugee in Lebanon, you’ll face a different hardship if you are labelled “Palestinian.” A Palestinian in Lebanon can’t own land, can only be employed in one of 17 approved professions (mostly labour work), must have a work permit (at a cost of $200/year) and has limited access to education, health care and housing. Even those born in Lebanon to Palestinian parents are considered Palestinian refugees. All the same rules apply. This is has been going on for generations. This is nothing new, it’s just that Lebanon or any country in the world for that matter, doesn’t seem to feel the need to do anything about it.
“There is so much wrong with what we saw today…. To be frank, I’m angry.”
All this was context.
The story for today starts to unfold four years ago when a new wave of Palestinian refugees started making their way into Lebanon from Iraq and Syria. These Palestinians, too, have been on the move since 1948. They happened to choose to end up in Iraq and Syria, but now that the official citizens of those countries are fleeing for their lives, the Palestinian refugees in those countries are making their way to Lebanon.
Where are they going? The same cinder block camps in the heart of Beirut inhabited by other Palestinian refugees. As a result, this gathering has doubled in four years, with no additional infrastructure. A neighbourhood that was holding 200,000 Palestinian refugees is now holding 400,000.
And this is but one of 42 unofficial Palestinian gatherings.
Each one of these Palestinian refugees is stuck. They can’t go back to Palestine, Syria or Iraq. They can’t leave the country, as nobody is accepting Palestinian refugees. They can’t stay in Lebanon where they have no work, homes or education.
So what do they do?
This was my question today as we met with people living in this neighbourhood. We visited a couple of these rooms that refugees call home. They are dark, damp, and dirty. Not that they aren’t cared for, but no one should be living in these spaces. We talked with some families about their experiences and what they are doing about their circumstances.
“What can we do,” one man replied, “there are no jobs.”
There is so much wrong with what we saw today. It could easily be overwhelming. To be frank, I’m angry. As a husband and father I felt the weight of the despair these families are living with. How do you hold onto hope when you will be just as stuck tomorrow as you were today with no new options?
This is where you come in. The families we spoke to today depend on food vouchers that PARD distributes on behalf of MCC and Canadian Food Grains Bank (CFGB). Each voucher is worth $20/month. It is you who makes this possible.
With your help, PARD has also been able to finance a kindergarten to give children the opportunity to pursue a quality education. Students in Lebanon must take an entrance exam to begin grade 1. Without proper preparation it is unlikely that a non-Lebanese child would be able to secure a spot. Last year, all of the graduating kindergarten students from the school passed their exam and were able to claim a spot in the Lebanese school system. Victory.
What I witnessed today is inhumane and something needs to change. I’m not overwhelmed however. Being overwhelmed won’t change a thing. Today I did enough. I encountered an evolving tragedy and now I’m compelled to share what I witnessed.