The Wandering Palestinian from a Syrian to a Lebanese Camp
*Syrian-Palestinian journalist, Sabina Palestinian refugee camp, Syria
Five years have passed since I was classified in the Five years ago I was classified as a “displaced refugee,” and here I am entering the sixth, carrying the weight of all these years on my shoulders.
I was born into a refugee family, originally from Safad in the north of Palestine, in a refugee camp to the south of Damascus, where I spent the prime of my childhood and the spring of my displacement (if displacement has a spring). When I came of age, I was unfortunately forced to go through a second displacement as a result of the war in Syria. This time the destination was Lebanon.
My first day in Lebanon was harsh enough an indication of what was to lay ahead. I remember the taxi driver who was driving my family to the Rashidieh Palestinian refugee camp in South Lebanon, commending our choice: “Rashidieh is a quiet, beautiful camp by the sea,” he said.
The conversation with the driver was the only good thing that I recall of that day. After his words, I began to imagine the camp and how it embraced the sea. I longed for it even before seeing it. We arrived at the bus station known as “Duwar al-Bass.” There, we waited for more than half an hour, looking for a taxi to take us to the camp. Although there were many idling at the station, they all turned us down once they learned our destination. The drivers’ greetings suddenly turned to refusal and the situation left me perplexed and confused. I later learned that only a small number of non-Palestinians enter the camp, and it’s not just the taxi drivers that won’t go there. The trouble of finding a taxi to take you to the camp will shadow you as long as you live there.
Finally, we found what we were looking for: a driver from Rashidieh camp. I was eager to reach the camp that was beginning to take shape in the distance and when we got there, we were greeted by a Lebanese Army checkpoint. At first I thought that it was there because of some security incident and would be dismantled once the repercussions were dealt with. In other words, I thought it was a “mobile checkpoint,” to use military jargon, but by the look of it and its structure, I gathered that it had been there for a long time and will continue to be. One of the functions of the checkpoint is to prevent a list of prohibited items and persons from entering the camp without a special permit, this includes building materials and foreigners. So, my family and I were prohibited from entering without an authorization to be granted at the Army’s discretion!
We were issued the authorization after a disconcerting process and we entered the camp to be greeted by fluttering flags of different factions, posters of martyrs, and nationalist slogans completely covering every wall.
A month into our most recent displacement, the residents of the camp who had greeted us with warmth, were able to help us find a home. The house in which we stayed was decaying, like many of the camp’s houses, and rainwater was leaking in. On the morning of the second day, my father and I rushed to do some repair works. After examining the dampness in the ceiling, we reckoned that we would need one bag of cement. So I went out to get one. I wandered over the entire camp but returned empty handed. My father met me clearly annoyed because of my delay, asking angrily about the bag of cement. I told him that an authorization was needed to bring it in, according to what the camp’s residents told me. A look of disbelief came over his face.
After a while I had to find work to support my family. I worked on a construction site with some other young men from the camp. I remember on the first day of work, we sat down for breakfast with the other workers chatting about the differences between the life in the camps in Syria and in Lebanon and other similar things. I told them that, before the war, I was planning on pursuing my studies and dreamed of becoming a lawyer one day. Most of them laughed at my words with derision on their faces. One of them said: “A Palestinian is prohibited from working as a lawyer in Lebanon.” Surprised, I asked him: “But why?” He replied: “Palestinians in Lebanon are prohibited from practicing a lot of professions. That guy sitting to your right is one of those who were prohibited.” I turned to my right with my eyes wide open in disbelief. He said, “I am an engineer and I cannot work as an engineer.” I was shocked to the core of my being. How could it be that an engineer was working on a construction site that he could supervise! I found out later that the majority of the young men on the construction site were university graduates and that this construction site was just one example of many in Lebanon with the same situation.
I had been working for some time when we were able to buy a TV set. It was the first luxury we could afford. We wanted to watch the Arab Idol program, and especially Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf. We were looking for little joy then, and Assaf represented for us a glimmer of hope: any success achieved by a Palestinian was considered an accomplishment for all the Palestinians. After the last competition, and as soon as the program host announced that Assaf came first, the camp exploded with joy and gunfire. Given the huge number of rounds fired that day, for a moment, I felt as though I was on a war front. I later learned that weapons here were not only a means of maintaining security, but also a means of rejoicing and sometimes for settling disputes.
After a while I started volunteering in local community organizations and became a football coach for children. During a training session, I asked them about their dreams when they grow up. The boys’ dreams were different but most of them consisted of migrating and living abroad. It was a surprising revelation for me. Later, however, I discovered that this was not only the dream of these children, but that in reality many of the young men had already left their homes and neighborhoods.
Days and years passed quickly, and I decided to pursue my studies. After many difficulties, I was able to enroll at the university for a major in journalism. The university is the place where Palestinian and Lebanese young people meet and get to know each other better, breaking all social restrictions. There I heard the term “stereotype” for the first time and experienced it first-hand as well. It was this term that prevented Lebanese young people from visiting their friends in the camps. It was a legacy of the Civil War that portrayed a negative image of the Palestinian reality, and the media assume a large part of the responsibility for its entrenchment. Those young people, on both sides, are the primary victims of this term’s effects.
Today, these incidents are still happening in front of me and I have become part of them. Many incidents represent the living reality of the Palestinian in Lebanon who is trying hard to improve his life and pinning great hopes on the new government to obtain justice and realize their rights.
The Palestinian camps in Syria are not all that different from the camps here in Lebanon. To this day, I cannot forget the feeling of security I feel when I enter the camp. The suffering of displacement is the same but the circumstances are different in the host country. In Syria, there was no such thing as a stereotype; there was no discrimination between the Syrians and the Palestinians. There were also no campaigns to obtain civil rights, since Syrian law states that Palestinian refugees should be treated like Syrians. But what is common between here and there, and in the Palestinian diaspora as a whole, is the hope of return.