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Burj al-Barajneh Refugee Camp: A Neglected Palestine

 Tala Elissa

LAU Tribune Contributor

I walked into the camp, silent as a cactus desert at midday, unprepared to meet an unfortunate reality. I walked out of the camp as quiet as an imam praying at the Dome of the Rock for the first time; a silence of reverence. A silence dedicated to every soul that died in the narrow alleys, to every parched throat, and most importantly to a history of people who have always been struggling to survive.

Taken by Lauretta Hayek

Burj al-Barajneh is a Palestinian refugee camp in south Beirut. According to Bahaa Hassoun, UNRWA’s camp services officer for the camp, the community hosts approximately 26000 Palestinian refugees that have now risen to 31000 after the Syrian crisis. The camp’s official area is only one-fourth of square Km that it occupies. The camp was set up in 1948 by the Red Cross Societies.

As the refugee issue turned into a protracted crisis, the responsibility was handed to United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The UN agency was first established in 1948 after the first wave of Palestinian refugees entered Lebanon and surrounding countries upon being ousted from their homelands. Today UNRWA provides assistance to 5 million registered Palestinian refugees in the Middle East. The Palestinian existence in Lebanon goes back to the 1948 and 1967 Arab- Israeli wars which resulted in a Palestinian diaspora seeking refuge in bordering countries. Due to the proximity, Lebanon inevitably became one of the main hosts.

The instance you walk into one of the entrances, you suddenly find yourself isolated from the world from which you just arrived. As you continue deeper into the streets and alleys, you realize that the camp is a segregated enclave of a specific group of people, haphazardly formed within the bustling metropolis of Beirut. It is an entangled labyrinth that engulfs your senses with its shabby houses, and hundreds of dangling wires and pipes, in disrepair and neglected. Its extremely claustrophobic alleyways attempt to hold you captive while you silently suffocate.

The refugees’ living conditions in the camp are unbearable. The fact that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are denied full civil rights also means that they are deprived from their basic needs.

The camp suffers from many challenges and economic impoverishment is a leading one. Burj Al Barajneh camp is not alone in facing high unemployment; all Palestinian refugees in Lebanon who amounted to almost 433,000 in 2011 suffer from the same problem. In 2011, UNRWA estimated the joblessness rate of Palestinians refugees in Lebanon to be 58%, and an unemployment rate (as defined by the International Labor Organisation) of 8%. Joblessness differs from unemployment in that it refers to the  people of working age who are unemployed and are not ill, nor studying or pregnant. On the  other hand, unemployment refers to the unemployed who are actively searching for work.  Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are banned from working in more than 30 syndicated professions. Those who manage to find work earn an average net income of 537,000 LL –  lower by around $50 than the Lebanese minimum wage.

Taken by Lauretta Hayek

The camp’s location is yet another unfortunate circumstance. Built on a hill slope in the lowest part of Burj Albarajneh means that winter rainwater floods the camp, often reaching up to half a meter. During the flooding, residents can barely leave their homes, and children are unable to walk to school.

Difficult conditions limit the refugees from accessing even the simplest daily requirements, such as water. The camp suffers from extreme water shortages. Salty sea water is their only means and is provided for only half an hour every two days. This water is then stored, to be used for cleaning, washing and bathing.

Yet, amid the degrading alleys, one can hear laughter and singing from one end of the camp. These voices belong to a house for the elderly run by the Social Support Society. When asked about the source of joy and high spirit regardless of the terrible circumstances, one of the women at the center answered: “If you  delve into my heart you will find it as black as tar, but what can we do, we make ourselves happy.”

Although realities of life at the camp strangle hope, the refugees, particularly those who fled during the first and second waves of the refugee crisis, hold on to their only dream: their return to Palestine. “My heart and soul are in Haifa… If God wills we shall return to its soils” one woman said. Another man recited a poem about Palestine.

With no careers, opportunities or future, the refugees at Burj Al Barajnah cannot extract their motivation from materialistic short term desires, and so the only motivation they have left, although surreal and Utopian, is that of returning to Palestine. However, after 65 years of not being able to return, perhaps,  more permanent and concrete solutions must be presented to Palestinians living in Lebanon as refugees.



I agree with what you wrote, Tala, " The refugees’ living conditions in the camp are unbearable. The fact that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are denied full civil rights also means that they are deprived from their basic needs."  And it is getting even worse, thanks for your true words, describing the conditions of those forgotton, people.

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