One year after the Beirut blast, life in a Lebanese refugee camp is marked by despair – but also hope

Against all odds, people living in the Burj Barajneh camp continue to strive and survive. But for how much longer?

Juliette Touma
Thursday 12 August 2021 11:03
Watch live as Beirut protesters gather to hold minute silence marking one year since explosion

There was no hello, there was no good morning, a group of men drinking tea and smoking at the entrance of Burj Barajneh camp just stood up and started talking to us: “I want out, there is absolutely nothing here, we have no jobs, there’s no electricity, it’s way too hot, we are not even able to sleep at night, water is running out. Just get us out of here”.

In the camp’s snake-like alleyways, water drips into electricity wires chaotically tangled outside tiny windows. Every year, children die when they touch or step on wet wires. More than 67 people, including children, died because of these electricity lines in the past seven years.

Four kilometers south of the capital Beirut, the camp was established in 1949, to shelter refugees arriving from the Galilee region.  Today, it is home to more than 20,000 people. Across Lebanon, 10 times that number of Palestine refugees live in 12 camps and around 50 gatherings. Nearly half are children and two-thirds live in poverty and overpopulated camps.

In a small dim room at a Unicef-supported NGO, we met a group of women at a session on domestic violence. The eight women were a mix of Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese. Some were born there; some fled the war in Syria, others married Palestinian refugees. As in the rest of the country, the camp was barely receiving two to three hours of electricity a day. People live in small crowded rooms, with no fans and often no water. It is 35 degrees celsius.

Abeer, a softly spoken woman, shared the impact of the conditions on her teenage son: “He was having fits of anger and becoming more violent, but all he wanted was to be able to wash. He would shout: ‘I will go kill, I will go beat up whoever is responsible, I just want water to have a shower’.”

The plight of Abeer’s son is being mirrored across Lebanon. The country is going through a scorching heatwave and water and fuel are running out. Unicef estimates that within four weeks, 4 million people are at risk of having no water as water pumping will gradually cease across the country mainly due to fuel shortages.

Sana’a (another woman in the group) said this is by far the worst she’s ever lived through. “We just want to leave; we just want to live”. Over the years, Burj Barajneh has been the scene of some of the most devastating violence in Lebanon, including during the 15-year long war that ended in 1990. Despite this, Sana’a said we are now at rock bottom: “It has never been as bad as this. I wish I got on a boat and left,” she says. Sana’a’s brother made it out two years ago on a boat.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, women like Abeer and Sana’a worked as seamstresses or as house helpers. Most have since lost their jobs. Their husbands worked mainly in construction and are now unemployed. Many got sick, some with chronic diseases. None of the families can afford medical treatment or medication. It was either far too expensive or simply not available. The state normally subsidises imports of medicines but that system is almost paralysed now.  Most pharmacies were forced to close or exponentially increased their prices. As the local currency devalued to unprecedented levels, 75 per cent of families in Lebanon are now vulnerable and can barely make ends meet, not to mention being unable to afford basic medications like over-the-counter painkillers.

As we walked through the camp, the city was about to mark one year since the Beirut blast, which ripped apart the eastern areas of the city, taking with it the lives of more than 200 people and shattering houses, schools and hospitals in a glimpse of a second. We passed by the Haifa Hospital, the only health centre available. Graffiti filled the walls. One stood out: a small girl wishing Beirut to get well soon.

Against all odds and despite austerity and deprivations, young people continue to strive. At a centre for young people, we met around 20 men and women, all Palestinian refugees. Most had university degrees, and all were bright, thoughtful and hopeful for a better future. Many spoke of challenges in the camps, including increasing violence, an abundance of illegal arms and huge amounts of drugs. They almost all spoke of plans to leave the camps and eventually Lebanon altogether. They were determined, practical and courageous.

Yacoub, who is in his early 20s and a graduate in physics, is unemployed. He started volunteering to encourage people in the camps to get the Covid-19 vaccine. Across the camp, very few people have taken the vaccine, mostly due to hesitancy.

Reem, a student of economics and business administration, said she is keen to finish her studies and move out of Lebanon. She would love to teach but is unable to get a teaching job in a public school. In Lebanon, there are 39 professions that Palestine refugees cannot do, including medicine, law, engineering and many other private sector jobs. Palestinians also cannot own property.

Towards the end of the session, a young woman, Latifa, hesitantly took the floor. Her father-in-law fled the war in 1967 to Lebanon. He never got registered so did not have official papers that he could pass on to his children. Sawsan has since married and had a baby girl, Haya. Haya, similar to her father, is unregistered. The family, like another 4,000 Palestinians in Lebanon, are all “sans-papiers”. Despite immense efforts from UNRWA, these families face huge challenges to get health or education services. “All I’m asking for is to officially be a refugee!” said Latifa.

As we were leaving the group of women, I asked Abeer where she was from. “I’m from here,” she answered without hesitation. I probed: “And originally?”. She replied: “Oh, yes! My grandfather came here from Sa’sa.” That is a small village near Safad, in the Galilee region.

High doses of despair were in the air, and yet it is matched by people putting plans together determined to have a better life. It is a determination that should not be taken for granted, especially since it’s quickly dwindling.

The visit, my first to a refugee camp in Lebanon, left me wondering how much longer it would be until Palestine’s refugees in Lebanon can only get the basics. How could all of this go on for 73 years? How much longer can people endure? But mostly, why? Why should they continue to endure?

Juliette Touma is the regional chief of communications for Unicef in the Middle East and North Africa. She recently returned from a trip to Lebanon to mark one year after the Beirut blast and to visit Unicef’s projects and programmes.

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