On this land, there's what's worth crying over

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Lebanon's Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of the southern city of Saida. Al-Akhbar/Marwan Bou Haidar

By: May Khatib

Published Tuesday, December 23, 2014

As you return home, to your home, think of others

Do not forget those who live in tents

As you sleep and count the stars, think of others

Those who have nowhere to sleep

Think of Others – Mahmoud Darwish

A home in the camp

It’s a small paper, the size of the palm of the hand. Although it may seem insignificant to us, it is everything to her. It is the passport to her life. One day, the young woman left the Ein el-Hilweh camp to work. She had gathered her belongings in a hurry and forgot the small paper that included her name and place of residence. When she returned in the afternoon, she was asked to present her identification papers at the military checkpoint located at the camp entrance. She could not find it and said that she forgot it at home. She pointed to the opposite building, saying, “This is our house.” Still, she was prevented from entering the camp. And each time she forgets this piece of paper, she won’t be allowed in.

Her name is Hadeel al-Zoubi. She has lived for 21 years in the Ain al-Hilweh camp, yet remains a “stranger.” Every day she leaves the camp to her work in Saida, she will be searched as if she was entering her home for the first time. Hadeel did not complete the last year of her secondary education. She says that she wanted to “register this year, but I did not. However, I want to complete my education, and study political science or journalism. I also want something else: I want to live on my own in a separate house. This is a dream, of course, because it is impossible in the camp.”

Three months ago, Hadeel started working at Civis Mundy, an NGO funded by the European Union. These were three “stable” months unlike previous jobs, where “I have worked irregularly as a waitress in restaurants and cafes.”

“I was born into Fatah”

I was not born independent… politically. This should not come as a surprise as most children in the camp are born “politically affiliated.” Most of them are like me, as “I was born into the Fatah Movement.” I loved it, and it ran in my blood because I love Abu Ammar. But when I became a teenager, I realized that “it is just not enough to be with Arafat.” Today, I’m more inclined towards the left, and my father has had a role in that shift. Although he was a member of Fatah, he somehow helped me to develop my leftist ideas. He used to talk to me about different ideologies and recommend some of the books he had in his library about historical materialism, dialectics, and other topics. Others, too, contributed to shaping my ideas: my friends in the Union of Lebanese Democratic Youth (ULDY), who made me feel that I no longer belong to Fatah.

The missing part of my father’s life

When I was born, I inherited my father’s “shortcoming” – his lack of an identity document. When my family was displaced from the West Bank in 1967, it was not recognized as a refugee family, and – like the “1967 families” – had no identity documents. Not long ago, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) provided Palestinians who do not have identity documents with IDs bearing their name, surname, and place of residence. This reminded us that we lack official identity documents. Apart from this recognition, no one recognizes us here, neither the Lebanese state nor the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). This deprives us of travel, and even of marriage. Nevertheless, this problem can be solved through a political decision. The issue lies in the hands of the Lebanese state, Palestinian officials, and the country we came from. In 2008, we received identity papers from the General Security Directorate, which were soon withdrawn as the issue turned into a profitable business.

It is noteworthy that the number of people who lack identity documents in Lebanon is estimated to be 6,000.

One step outside the camp

I am not religiously observant, and I know that no one has the right to impose anything on me. But I wear a veil out of consideration for the general atmosphere at the camp, although I do not believe in the general convictions there. I love the camp, and I would love to stay in it. Every step I take outside the camp, I feel the cruelty of the word “refugee.” However, this love may disappear with a stray bullet tearing through my head, most probably caused by people who are settling personal accounts. They are the ones who rule the camp “as if it belonged to them.” However, “we have become used to the saying ‘Those who are destined to live will not die of hardships.’ I love the camp and would not imagine myself living in a building.”

Room above the house

I came back from Qatar to build a room above my family “house.” When I’m done, I will get engaged to my cousin... and hope to find a job to make a decent living from. I know that it will not be a prestigious job, first because I am a refugee and second because I did not complete my education. I finished the eighth grade and quit school after I realized that an education won’t help me land a job. I had seen many youths who obtained university degrees but ended up working at construction sites. At the time, I asked myself: Why should my father pay for my education if the result is the same? I made up my mind and began to look for a job, any job. All I wanted was to assist my family financially. I kept looking for a job but to no avail, until I got lucky and traveled to Qatar. I worked there to save enough money to propose to my cousin. If I did not do this, I would have surely joined a “faction” in the camp. Palestinian factions take advantage of this problem, and lure young people to join them and follow their political agendas in return for $200 or $300 per month. This amount barely covers food and does not include medical coverage, or joy.

The Cinderella book

Only luck stood at my side. When I finished my secondary education, I was helpless. My father owned a small shop, from which he barely earned 15,000 Lebanese liras ($10) to cover our food expenses. Given these circumstances, I did not live a normal childhood, like others. I never owned a toy. I remember that when I grew up, I bought a coloring book that has drawings of Cinderella and princesses from children's fairy tales. I was so delighted to have it and started to color as if I were a little girl. I relived my childhood at a later age. Because I do not want to be deprived of a decent future, I turned to my uncle who works abroad to cover my university expenses. I graduated from the Faculty of Education with the help of my uncle. This is a “blessing” many students do not have. Still, I could not find a job that meets my expectations. I applied to teach at an UNRWA school. Of course, my application was rejected because “I do not have contacts.” So I started looking for any job, and ended up working as an administrative assistant in a consulting firm. The problem is that we, especially young women, have gotten used to giving up easily. It has become easy for us to say, “I do not know, I cannot, I am not educated;” it is as easy as “sipping water.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Very interesting read. The problems that Palestnians face in the camps in Lebanon must not be forgotton. We hear the politics but we don't hear enough about the personal struggles.

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