Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Box

Posted By Scott Campbell
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.

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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.”

DSCF2491All 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.

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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.

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Milad

Posted By Scott Campbell
May 6, 2016

I can’t tell what I’m smelling, but it’s not good.

I’m walking up the stairs of an apartment building that is currently without power. I’m with Grace from Our Lady Dispensary and three other members of the Learning Tour group from MCC Canada. We are following Wafaa to her apartment located in the Beirut neighbourhood of Banshreh. Grace tells us on the short car ride over that this neighbourhood is mostly inhabited by refugees. Rent is cheaper than other areas of town. That’s the reason Wafaa, her husband, three kids and two in-laws moved here from another apartment they shared with her brother. That, and her brother has been sponsored to move to Canada and will be leaving soon. Additional pain for Wafaa.

Her family is Iraqi. They have been in Beirut for 2 years. Grace, with the support of MCC donors, has been working with Wafaa in the Dispensary’s trauma care program. Wafaa has agreed to talk to a small group of us in her apartment. She knows that sharing her story is important for her healing and for us to understand what’s happening as a result of the conflicts in the Middle East.

“She knows that sharing her story is important for her healing and for us to understand what’s happening as a result of the conflicts in the Middle East.”

We reach the top floor and we make our way down a long narrow hallway to a sitting room. There are no pictures on the walls and the two old couches are pushed to the edges of the room. The sun through the curtains makes the room feel bright, but stark. We’re offered water — a Middle Eastern tradition and sign of welcome.

Grace invites us to ask questions to anyone in the family. I ask if I can take pictures. Grace confirms that it’s okay. As soon as I pull out my camera, Wafaa’s 7 year old boy, Milad is transfixed. I quietly walk over to one corner of the room and crouch down, trying not to disrupt the conversation my colleagues are having with Wafaa and her family.

From the couch on the other side of the room, Milad is staring right down the lens of my camera. I make a face at him and he jokingly sticks his tongue out at me. It’s on. I know this game. I play it with my own kids. This is a game of one-upmanship with the goal being to not get caught by anyone else in the room. Milad looses, quite quickly as his uncle snaps Milad to attention. I continue to take pictures and listen to the conversation. Milad gets tired of adult talk. He quietly leaves the room.

Later, Wafaa takes me on a tour of their apartment. She and her husband, along with their three kids, sleep in one bedroom, while her in-laws sleep in the other. The ceiling is moldy. The small kitchen is worse. I think to myself that if I had to, my family and I could make this space work as a temporary home.

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But this is not temporary for Wafaa.

As far as she knows, this is the new normal for her and her family. She has a desire for something better, a new life outside of Iraq and Lebanon. But it’s not accurate to say she has hope. In Iraq, her husband was a mechanic. Her kids did well in school. They had what they needed and life was good. Now, after fleeing their country with almost none of their material possessions, Wafaa’s family is amongst the poorest of the poor in the Middle East. They are displaced. They can’t return to Iraq. They are not able to work in Lebanon. No other country will take them in. They are stuck.

“They are displaced. They can’t return to Iraq. They are not able to work in Lebanon. No other country will take them in. They are stuck.”

Overnight, in December 2014, everything was taken away. The trauma of the loss, the things they witnessed, and how they’ve been treated is almost too much. Wafaa is scared. Wafaa is tired. She would be lost if not for Grace. Grace and the Dispensary see Wafaa, they see her pain and they share its burden. They may not be able to fix everything, but they are standing with her.

I find Milad in the bedroom. He’s playing with a plastic truck and talking quietly to himself. If he’s like my kids, he’s telling himself a story about the world this truck inhabits. I wonder if his truck is busy picking up and dumping dirt somewhere other than Lebanon. Perhaps his imagination has led him back to Iraq; to his old backyard. Or maybe he’s in an imaginary world, somewhere far away from here. It doesn’t matter.

He’s dreaming, and for me that means there is hope.

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