Real Lives: Beyond the statistics
As Lebanon struggles, relations between Palestinians and host nationals evolve
Across Lebanon, the past two years have heralded a social and economic crisis, the depths of which have not yet been fully reached. As the country and its people sink further to their knees, an ever-greater number of the population has slid into poverty. UN agencies estimate that 71% of Lebanese are now in poverty, yet for marginalized sectors of the community – including Palestinian refugees – this figure is now over 75%. Economic stresses have conspired to generate social tensions too.
Compound crises of civil unrest, the pandemic, 2020’s Beirut port explosions, and a lengthy national leadership vacuum have delivered a cataclysmic decline in Lebanon’s financial prospects. The Lebanese Pound now trades on the black market at under 10% of its official value, and society is in turmoil.
In a nation where official statistics often disguise unpleasant truths, unemployment levels amongst Lebanese are reported to be under 20%. However, the actual figure is probably closer to 30% and, for the nation’s youth, perhaps over 40%. Once again, marginalized communities are hit hardest – Palestinian unemployment is today over 60%.
An undeniable fact is, whichever side of the refugee camp wall you’re sitting on today, life in Lebanon has never been more challenging.
“The whole country has suffered from the impact of the coronavirus and its effects on the economy”, says thirty-year-old Palestinian mother-of-three Farah Awkasha, “but for us in the camps, the effects have been greater and the remedies much harder to come by”.
As we sit in her third-floor home – deep within one of Beirut’s Palestinian refugee camps and accessed via a dark stairway at the end of a maze of narrow alleyways – our conversation is illuminated only by dim light filtering through a single window. State-supplied electricity is off – it powers the camp for only one hour a day – and the walls of the neighboring building is within touching distance, and direct sunlight never touches her home.
Until four months ago, Farah worked in the legal department of an international NGO. When the project finished, she found herself back at home with little to do other than wait and hope for a similar project to come along.
“There are no jobs for us in Lebanon”, she laments. “As Palestinians, we’re barred from working in many businesses. Even if we’re better qualified, the Lebanese keep the best jobs for themselves. We have to be lucky, like I was, and get a job within an NGO if we want to provide for our families today”.
Nonetheless, Farah is surprisingly resigned to her plight. “Do the Lebanese want to help us?” she asks rhetorically. “Perhaps, but they’re living the same lives as us right now, so they are struggling to support themselves”, she answers. “It’s worse for us in the camps, but they cannot help”.
Not every Palestinian is so charitable in their demeanour.
Photographer Nasser Khazaal is a well-known figure in the community. He established his studio inside a camp in 1994 and has worked constantly throughout the years. “Some years were better than others”, he opines, before adding, “but I’ve never been through a time like this before”.
As the economy continues its collapse, people are, he says, “forced to choose between spending their money on a professional photographer, or feeding their family”. Indeed, recently, as a videographer, Nasser was compelled to sell his video equipment to cover other expenses.
Inequality between Palestinians and host Lebanese is on the rise. Nasser’s uncle, also a photographer, ran a studio – registered in the name of a Lebanese colleague – in Beirut for many years. Although, as a Palestinian, he is not permitted to own a business, the fact was that everyone knew who was running the operation.
While there was enough business to go around, no one appeared to mind. When the chill wind of the crises manifested itself through cancelled weddings and a reduction of commercial work, Lebanese photographers banded together and, he says, “They forced my uncle to close his business. He was good – the best. But he’s Palestinian”.
Although he counts many Lebanese amongst his customers, he shakes his head, lights a cigarette, and says, “There’s no chance for Palestinians to work here. We will never have equality in Lebanon. They think if they allow us to work and provide for our future, be happy here, we will forget Palestine and decide to stay.
“There’s no way that can ever happen”, Nasser insists. “Even though most of us were born here, we can never forget Palestine, and everyone must go home, eventually”.
The youth, not yet jaded through decades of fighting the system, still display an element of hope.
Twenty-five-year-old Nour Ajjawi is a teacher within an NGO-funded educational institute. Supporting vulnerable Syrian refugee children who now live within the camps, she reflects on the importance of her work and the essential irony of refugees helping refugees.
“The children we work with here are ignored by the Lebanese society. It is down to us, another refugee community, to feel enough compassion to find a place in which to take care of them”.
Bassil Abdullah is twenty years old. For the past four years, he’s been an integral part of a camp’s voluntary ‘emergency team’. Together, they respond to call-outs from residents in need of plumbing or electrical repairs. It’s the only work he’s ever known yet is unpaid.
“It’s frustrating to have gained four years of experience, but to know I’m unable to take my skills outside the camp”, he says. However, he controls his frustration and adds, “I never allow myself to get angry. Why would I? It will never change anything”.
Engaging in critical work outside the camps is the aim of Ahmad Alzakar. A volunteer with the Palestinian Civil Defense in Lebanon, he’s a trained first aider and supports anyone in need – regardless of nationality.
“We’re here for the whole of Lebanon”, he affirms, “even though we don’t see the rest of Lebanon helping us”.
A neighbor, thirty-one-year-old men’s salon owner Ali Asseil, tell us they’re tired of how the system is rigged against them.
“Can a Palestinian have a good life in Lebanon?” asks Ali. “It’s impossible. We can work hard, but the Lebanese system continues to push us down. Every time we try to improve ourselves, another rule is implemented”.
Ali has a two-year-old son, Reda. “He will have the same chances to succeed as I did – zero”, he says. “The Lebanese government will do its best to keep Reda down too. I’m angry at this inequality. We’re Palestinians, hard-working, and against the odds, we educate ourselves to a very high level.
“But, you know what? We have hope. We’ve come this far and survived on nothing more than hope. We must keep going”.