Layers of Ordeals: Beirut’s Palestinian Refugees Host Others in Bourj Al Barajneh

By Arwa Mahmoud

Palestinian refugees embraced others as the violence in Nahr el Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon reached its peek with a rising death toll and a large exodus. On the day I did this feature in May 2007 over 100 refugees had flooded the already crowded Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut. A shorter and edited version of it was published in on May 27, 2007.

“Hajjeh Zeinab*, where are you going now?” asked a young lady in Bourj Al Barajneh, one of the oldest Palestinian refugee

Children in Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp (Beirut)

Children in Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp - Beirut (Photo by Arwa Mahmoud)

camps in Beirut, “I’m going out again to see if more people have arrived,” explained the old woman as she struggled in her walk to the door, “I must see if they need anything.”

Beirut’s Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian camp is placed on 1 square kilometer space and is home to around 21,000 Palestinians—offspring of villagers expelled in 1948 from their homes in what is now Israel. The camp is now home to over 100 extra Palestinian refugees who continue to flood in from Nahr al-Barid camp in the north of the country after the truce.

“There isn’t much aid coming to us from UNRWA, but there are some non-affiliated NGOs who are offering some help,” said my escort, who met me under a large Hamas poster placed at the entrance of the gate next to a fading poster of Yassir Arafat, “The refugees here live day by day, they have no stable jobs, but everyone is giving what they can give.”

The only clear affiliated efforts to settle the refugees in Bourj al-Barajneh came from the social sector of Hamas. With the arrival of the first wave of refugees from Nahr   al-Barid, a committee was created to survey the available space and aid needed. Sometimes they were lucky to find empty homes in which they managed to place some families, but most of the time they had to seek permission from existing families to host more people.

“This made matters much worse,” said a young Hamas social worker, “Most of the homes here are very small; two rooms maximum, and they are often inhabited by families of six or more members. So how can we give them even more people? Even when they welcomed them, which they always do, there is hardly space to place a mattress for a person to sleep on. So they spend most of the time out of the house because of the crowded atmosphere.”

With this bleak introduction, I began my journey through narrow, damp walkways, hanging electricity wires, and into the already crowded refugee homes that now hosted more people inside. It was impossible to picture how such homes held double their capacity.

Despite the difficult conditions in which these homes were built and the current troubling situation they are in, inside they were clean and tidy.

The refugees coming from Nahr al-Barid were timid and all of them refused to be identified or to have their pictures taken. They gave conflicting observations that made it difficult to draw a complete picture in the beginning.

In the first home three teenagers spoke as their mother served juice.

“We fled the camp at 11 PM, after the truce was announced. The Lebanese army shot at civilian homes, with no evidence of the militants being there,” said Mohammad, a green-eyed 16-year-old who showed noticeable confidence as he recalled his ordeal. “We had no militants shooting from our homes and yet our house was hit. No person would allow the militants into the rooftops of their homes to shoot at the army,” he added. “It was very difficult for us to flee because of the shooting, and it wasn’t easy to make calls, there was hardly electricity for us to charge any mobile phone. With each bombing there would be shrapnel everywhere, and then the camp would be filled with a bad unusual smell.”

“I had the blood of a teenager splintered at me in an instant,” said another, “There was random shooting. Random, merciless shooting coming from all directions.”

A man in his late forties appeared terrorized, angry, and frustrated. “We were refugees in the north and now we are refugees in Beirut hosted by refugees,” he said with a nervous smile, “We are rejected, unwanted by anyone. Why doesn’t everyone kill us [Palestinians] all and be finished?”

Many of the Nahr al-Barid refugees specifically chose Bourj al-Barajneh for its distance. As I walked further through the alleys, my escort explained the reason behind the influx. “Some of us fled to Bedawi camp, some to Eih el-Helweh, but it’s unwise. Violence can spread to these camps any minute.”

We walked on to Abu Kamal’s house. A home with 3 rooms for a family of 6 people that now received 8 refugees. At the door we took our shoes off in respect to the custom of most of the families there, and walked on a clean floor and sat. The door of one of the rooms was open, showing a line of mattresses placed on the floor. There were men and women in the house, women dressed in hijab now all the time, since they hardly have any privacy.

“The camp was filled with young youth who had no sense of life direction. They knew nothing about their religion and many of them sometimes committed blasphemy. With the coming of Fateh Al Islam, many of its members used to guide this youth and teach them more about Islam,” said an old man who refused to be identified.

“It would be unfair to say that they [Fateh Al Islam] were completely bad,” said one of the women, “they used to stand by the poor and help the needy.”

Through further conversation, it became apparent that none of the Fateh Al Islam militants were Lebanese. They came from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and many other Arab countries.

Fatah al-Islam is a Sunni salafi group that emerged among others in the north of Lebanon, basing themselves in Palestinian refugee camps such as Nahr Al Barid and Ein Al Helweh. Recently, they have especially drawn the attention of observers as being a balancing counterforce funded and supported by the Future Movement under the auspices of the current Lebanese government to meet the rising challenge of Shiite Hizbullah. After the summer war in Lebanon in 2006, there numbers have increased.

In what became a prolonged discussion in Abu Kamal’s house, Abu Kamal referred to American journalist Seymour Hersh’s recent article “The Redirection,” published in The New Yorker on March 5, 2007, where he pointed to evidence of US and certain Arab states supporting Saad Al Hariri’s Future Movement in funding such movements, more specifically after the summer war in Lebanon.

“Hersch is right,” said Abu Kamal, “the militants had a lot of money with them. They used to give whoever was in need. They would pay for widows and help the poor. But dollars would pop out of their pocket any time. Where did they get that money from?”

In a special interview for that is soon to be published, retired General Amin Hoteit of the Lebanese Army stated: “these movements have entered the camps under the blessings and support for the Lebanese authority. There is no other way they could enter.” He added that one of the people whose name came in the investigations of the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Al Hariri was involved with these movements, but he was never arrested.

In retrospect, the residents of Abu Kamal’s house reflected on their helplessness during the fighting in the camp. They could not stop the Fateh Al Islam militants from shooting, and some were impossible to approach during heightening tension, because they would simply blow themselves up, killing others in the process.

“We used to spot people carrying rifles and randomly shooting, but they were clearly neither from the Lebanese Army nor from Fateh Al Islam. They wore civilian clothes, and many times they were the ones who would start the shooting, provoking the Lebanese Army to hit back at the camp,” he added.

A tingling thought remained in the air about the direct involvement of the Future Movement as I gathered accounts from refugees and reflected on observations of analysts.

Lebanon continues under layers of ordeals, forever a ground for forces vying for power and civilians victimized in the middle. But hope never fades even with those “double refugees” now in Beirut’s refugee camps. Greeting welcoming smiles, servings of tea and juice, and kind old people like Hajjeh Zeinab tell that it will one day be over.

*All names in the feature have been changed for privacy.

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