The streets of Bourj el Barajneh are narrow and dark, an absolute labyrinth. I’m lost within five minutes of being there.
I hadn’t even realised we were about to enter a refugee camp. Our bus passed under the motorway overpass, pulled up outside a typical Lebanese mixed business, everyone in the group followed our tour leader off the bus. She led us down an alley way between two shops and suddenly we were inside.
I guess in my head I’d had pictures of something like Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney – fences, security checks, clear geographic and physical separation from the ‘local’ community. It wasn’t going to be the last time I was wrong on this study tour.
Bourj el Barajneh refugee camp is in southern Beirut, close to the international and military airports, on one square kilometer of land. The land was leased to UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Work Organisation) for 99 years in 1948 to provide a temporary home to Palestinians fleeing their land, land which had been given away to form the brand-spanking new state of Israel. Many Palestinian villagers had fled from tales of fear about how some of the now-Israelis were claiming ‘their’ land. Others had seen it first-hand.
None of them were really expecting to stay long. On one square kilometer to the south outside what was then Beirut, people put up tents for their families. Palestinian refugees from particular villages settled close to others from their hometown. A haphazard system of tents, streets, intersections and meeting places evolved into a tent city.
Sixty-four years later a lot has changed, but districts within Bourj el Barajneh refugee camp are still largely organized along the lines from those villages from pre-1948 Palestine. The health centres are names after cities in the West Bank.
Four to eight years after the camp begun, people were allowed to build more permanent mud brick structures. They had zinc roofs which leaked when it rained. It was unusual for families to get a full night’s sleep.
After 1967, and the beginning of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, another wave of refugees arrived in Lebanon and its refugee camps. Beirut had expanded around Bourj el Barajneh, for the new refugees there was nowhere to go but up. The Lebanese government now allowed the Palestinians refugees to build with concrete.
All construction within Bourj el Bourajneh requires approval from the Lebanese government. The vast majority of structures have no foundations. The last time Israel attacked Lebanon, in 2006, the reverberations from the Israeli shelling of the nearby Lebanese air-force base led to the collapse of buildings in Bourj el Barajneh. Some new buildings, predominantly those built by NGOs with aid money, have foundations.
Today, sixty four years after it was established, Bourj el Barajneh is home to around 22,000 Palestinians on one square kilometer. A very high proportion of them are children.