From the day we came into the world, we have found ourselves in a small place whose inhabitants share daily problems and conflicts, nationality and displacement, and the dream we have inherited from our forefathers—the dream of returning to our homeland. A homeland that we, as Palestinian youth, know from the stories of our families through their eyes. This place—the camp—with its narrow alleys randomly-built and overcrowded buildings, where electrical cables weave through the sky, further blocking the sunlight and preventing it from reaching the houses and alleys, and where flags flutter on its roofs, all form a small Palestinian community. Its residents have melted into one pot in a way that our relationships have become limited to those who live around us and share our place of residence. As for the “other,” whose community is only a few kilometers away, in other words “the Lebanese,” we have not had direct contact with them. It seems as if borders were traced between us, that we, the Palestinian and Lebanese youth, did not understand the “why” until much later.
Our Palestinian camps and gatherings adjoin and interweave through various Lebanese areas. This proximity is not only a geographical one: the camp is considered an extension of the various problems and difficulties facing Lebanese society, in addition to our particular issues related to the nature of the camp and the implications of exile. But illusory barriers have been erected between the two sides, which have had a negative impact on the nature of our relations as Palestinian and Lebanese youth.
This distance, whose origin has many causes that have nothing to do with us as Palestinian and Lebanese youth, has created inside us a negative perception of the “other.” This way we learned to perceive them as different from us, although we live on the same piece of land, speak the same language and share many common challenges as youth in the same country on the one hand, but as Arab youth, on the other. So, we imagine the Lebanese youth to be angry. We believe that the other will not accept us or will deal with us as outsiders in their homeland. These ideas are brought about by our lacking a sense of belonging to a society that rejects us in various ways and for reasons that are beyond our control.
Most of us completed our primary and secondary education at UNRWA-run schools. So, in addition to the camp, schools have been the small space where each one feels that they belong. Our childhood friendships were restricted to people from the same surroundings and limited social circle. As for the outside world, which was for us a different world, we did not have any real friendships with its residents despite the fact that we learned the history, geography, laws and values of Lebanon, the country in which we lived, from the curricula that we studied. But we did not know much about the “Lebanese” people. Falling short of getting to know the “other” has made us “strangers” on the same land.
Moving from high school to university, those who were lucky among the Palestinian young to pursue higher education, were able to take the first step towards entering the world within which we lived but never belonged to, in any way. That is why each one of us saw this stage as an opportunity to learn about life outside the camp and a renewed chance to integrate into the Lebanese society. But the fear of the other’s rejection, that of the Lebanese youth, of effective communication and cooperation in all areas limited our ability to build relationships with them. This faltering interaction with Lebanese youth, had sometimes its reasons: mainly the negative attitude shown by some of them as a result of some misconceptions about us as Palestinians living in the refugee camps, which the Lebanese society sees as a dangerous flashpoint as a result of illegal weapons and the various social and security problems, which we, as Palestinian youth, naturally reject.
The negative stereotypes held by the two sides have tarnished our relations with Lebanese youth. The direct cause is the Civil War and the various conflicts between the Lebanese and Palestinians, as well as the media portraying the Palestinian camps and their inhabitants as the main cause of unrest and the lack of security in their vicinity, and even in Lebanon in general. So we became, as Palestinian youth, an implicit model of a society of violence for Lebanese youth.
The post-university period, the stage of trying to find a job that allows a Palestinian youth with a lot of untapped potential, to practice and develop their skills and capabilities, is a continuation of the previous one. The camp, the surrounding areas, and the laws that strip us of our right to work do not help unlock latent capabilities. At this stage, the negative perception of Palestinian youth as an outsider emerges and materializes: the young Lebanese consider that only they are entitled to work. These and other reasons have led to the erection of a social barrier that has been reinforced by the Lebanese society and its institutions, which have not worked to develop mutual relations through dialogue, to integrate us into activities that bring us together, bring down barriers, and dispel our entrenched negative perceptions.
In spite of the borders that were drawn between us as Palestinian and Lebanese youth—which none of us chose to draw or define—a significant percentage of the young were fully aware that communication and interaction among each other would bring positive results. On each side of the borders there are untapped skills with potential and talents, and an effective exchange among those who have different experiences would lead to creative outcomes in various fields. This has been achieved in some of the projects that brought us together as Palestinian and Lebanese youth, whose results were successful at various levels. In addition, we realized that we share the same problems, difficulties and challenges, due to the nature of the Lebanese society and the scarce opportunities available for the young in general. Therefore, our communication and discussions have a direct impact in bringing our points of view closer together and clarifying the points of convergence among us, young people sharing one geographical area, who are able to achieve our common goals through effective participation.
In this regard, my Lebanese girlfriend and I worked together while at university on various projects. For one of them, we chose a special issue relating to Palestinian women working in the camps. So, it was necessary to enter the camp and conduct interviews to complete the investigation. This was my friend’s first experience of being in a camp, although she had heard much about it. I followed her gaze as she was getting to know the place for the first time. She had of course a preconceived idea of it but her reaction was positive. She later translated this into her work as part of a media platform related to Palestinian affairs and living conditions in the camps.
We have various experiences as Palestinian youth with Lebanese youth, and our relations are not restricted to the university or to the work environment. We were able to build true friendships that transcend stereotypes and prejudices. We treat and deal with each other as human beings on the basis of our needs to interact and build ties with people living in our environment, relationships that stay and continue over the years.