On one square kilometre of land in southern Beirut, around 22,000 Palestinians live on one square kilometer of land. A very high proportion of the people are children. The Bourj el Barajneh refugee camp has been here since 1948. Beirut grew up and around the camp; generations of Palestinians have grown up inside it.
It’s the second day of our trip. I’m jet-lagged, shivering, I think I’m coming down with something. Everything feels so cold. I don’t know how anyone can stand it.
Technically the people living here have slightly more freedom of movement now than they did in the past – the checkpoints, for example, are gone. However, people still tend not to leave the camp. Children grow up lacking basic skills such as socialization and knowledge of use of public transport.
One factor may be the status of Palestinian refugees in Lebanese society. Possibly due to the highly sectarian nature of Lebanese politics, Palestinians are somewhat of a political football, sadly reminiscent of how the Labor, Liberal and National parties treat refugees in Australia.
Unlike in nearby Jordan, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have very limited rights or opportunities to participate in broader society. They are unable to own property and are excluded from 72 professions, including driving taxis. Young Palestinians can study medicine at Lebanese universities but they are not allowed to practice medicine.
This segregation is a large problem. The lack of options children have when they finish education, coupled with generations growing up in families where the adult role models are highly educated but equally highly underemployed, mean children grow up with little faith in education as a means of improving their lives.
The outcomes can also be violent. In 1982, not long after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, Bourj el Barajneh refugee camp was laid siege to by the Israeli army and Lebanese Christian Phalangists.
A key factor here was the presence of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The PLO emerged in Beirut in 1970, and immediately improved the lives of the refugees in Bourj in Barajneh, offering both services and resistance. The PLO did basic things like connect underground water to homes. They also installed basic electricity, which forms the basis of the power system that exists today.
But the PLO left Beirut in 1982, (sadly this did not end the violence in Bourj El Barajneh; it – and other Palestinian Camps – was also laid siege to by Amal militia from February 1984 to February 1987 for the control of West Beirut); subsequently this halted progress on the development of infrastructure relating to water and electricity.
Sixty four years after its creation, the water in the camp remains untreated. The tap water is salty. There are no electricity meters, no safety pre-cautions, new connections are made by splicing off the old ones; people dying from electric shock is not uncommon. Electricity in the camp sometimes goes off for days at a time, at the whim of the Lebanese government.
People have poor living conditions and sanitation. Hypertension and diabetes are common. There is a high incidence of cancer. Local hospitals are unable to complete many necessary procedures. There are no green-spaces for children. People in the camp have access to one pediatrician and one gynecologist per fortnight. Most children are underweight and anemic.
Doctors in the camp see an average of 100 patients every three hours. All they have time to do is to give prescriptions. Health typically comes through contracts with private hospitals. The people in the camp have no access to Lebanese public services.
In terms of education there are around 40-50 students per class. The buildings used as schools were not built to be schools. The Lebanese curriculum is used, but there is a large lack of resources. There is a low enrolment rate compared to countries like Syria, plus a high drop-out rate.
We visit a childcare centre, a women’s services organisation and the home of a Palestinian family. I am initially surprised and encouraged by the smiles and warm words that met us at veritably every turn. But scratching beneath the surface reveals the prolonged wear on generations from living under terrible conditions with no end in sight.
Everywhere we go we are fed and given tea and coffee. But the dark circles under the eyes of everyone we meet are clear sign of malnutrition. The smiles and welcomes are the last glimmer of hope these people have that their situation will change. After sixty-four years, at times it must feel like desperation.
We meet with representatives of the local community. The women express their anger and sadness. When they laugh you can feel their pleasure across the room. The men are subdued, broken, matter of fact about the realities of day to day life in Bourj el Barajneh.
One of the members of our delegation gets excited about the electricity situation. He can fix it, he says, he wants someone to show him some of the infrastructure. Confronted with the enormity of the plight of these people he is reaching out to find a way to make things better.
They have heard words like these before. The problems faced by the Palestinian refugees in this camp are not exotic locations to be discovered by intrepid adventurers. They have been around in plain sight for some time, the solutions so far out of reach and out of sight that they are almost intangible.
I wonder if they are sick of people coming and telling them that if only they were doing things in a certain way then their lives would be better. The men sigh, they know it is futile, but they take him anyway. This is the hope that will not die.
After sixty-four years of generational violence, poverty and discrimination, I get the impression these people feel abandoned and forgotten. I wonder if the hope I see is brought out only for visitors, a direct connection to the outside world and a potential for a life that is not like this.
I can find no direct solutions to what I see. There is nothing I could do that besides small kindnesses – pencils and stuffed toys to bring a smile to children’s faces, a warm greeting for everyone I meet. When I leave the Bourj el Barajneh I doubt I have done much for those I have met beyond provide a distraction from the oppressive realities of life.
But I will continue to tell their stories.
Next: Meeting the ITUC in Amman