x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

At a refugee camp in Lebanon, coffee and dashed hopes

A refugee camp for Palestinians in Lebanon is called "downtown", in reference to an upscale seafront district in central Beirut. But it is not like that. Rana Askoul visits the camp on the Nakba day.

Al Rashidiya is a Palestinian refugee camp on the coast just south of Tyre, in southern Lebanon. It has been home to around 18,000 exiled Palestinians for six decades now.

I visited Al Rashidiya with Lebanese social workers last year. They call the place the "downtown" of refugee camps in Lebanon, using the term for an upscale seafront district in central Beirut lined with outdoors cafes and nice restaurants and high-end designer stores.

Al Rashidiya is not like that, even though it is on the seafront, too.

The camp is built on a grid, and whichever alley you take you must go to the left or the right of the qanay, the open ditch that stretches down the length of each alley. Dug to drain rainwater, these seem to be filled with dirty water at all times.

Al Rashidiya's beige cement houses are almost all square, and average 80 square metres. Some house just two people; others have 10 or more. They all have small barred windows like those in prisons.

Abu Ahmed, dressed in a clean white shirt and black suit trousers, is sitting in front of his house sipping Turkish coffee. Additional white plastic chairs welcome anyone who wants to have coffee with him.

Mr Ahmed is 71, and has witnessed too many wars, lost too many friends and believed in too much rhetoric.

As a young man, he says, he was ready to lay his life down for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. Back in those days young men and women vowed to bring back to the Palestinians all that had been lost.

He speaks of his heartbreak as the years passed and these young idealists aged and corruption became entrenched within the PLO and dreams of regained dignity collapsed.

His eyes sparkle as he speaks of the days Hamas emerged as a replacement for the PLO, as a new group of young men and women vowing to bring back to the Palestinians all that had been lost. This group's ideology was different from that of the PLO, but it shared the resistance agenda the PLO had once displayed.

Then his eyes dim, and he sighs. The new dreams of regained dignity have collapsed again. As the years passed this new group became corrupted, so hungry for power that they killed other Palestinians.

He speaks of his misery in watching the fight between the two factions in Gaza and the West Bank. He despises politics and politicians, and how those in power can force a shift in the livelihood of a given community.

These days, Mr Ahmed says, the shops in Al Rashidiya are forced to close during Friday prayers, but this new rule is about power, he believes, not religion. He prays five times a day, but wishes those in power would force children to go school. Enrolment is at an all-time low.

I try to tell him that I empathise with the people living in this dire situation. But he just laughs and he tells me that Palestinian refugees are not worse off than other citizens in the Arab world. He tells me how in 2006, scores of Lebanese citizens from surrounding villages fled to Al Rashidiya for shelter after losing their homes in Israeli raids. He saw the irony: Lebanese citizens on Lebanese soil seeking refuge in a Palestinian camp.

Even before the conflict in Syria, he tells me, scores of Syrian workers flooded Palestinian camps in Lebanon, searching for work.

He tells me of a recent trip he took to Cairo to visit his son who has been long married to an Egyptian woman.

Touring Cairo with his son he noticed that the road winding up to the Giza pyramids was lined with little shacks selling cigarettes and snacks. He recalls that there were many children sitting on the kerb of that street and what dawned on him most was how poor they looked. He once felt betrayed and forgotten but he realises now that scores of citizens across the Arab world feel exactly the same.

I tell Mr Ahmed that there is some hope coming with the Arab Spring, and that the young generation will drive this region to better places.

He looks away and he tells me he has been here too many times.

I take one last sip of my dark Turkish coffee and bid Mr Ahmed farewell. I walk away, head down, thinking of what this region is up against: Islamist extremism and the secular versus religious divide; the proxy wars that are being fought; sectarian violence; power hungry regimes that are replacing old ones; and the new refugees of the Arab world.

And I hope that Mr Ahmed lives long enough for all of that to change, and for that long-lost twinkle in his eyes to sparkle yet again.


Rana Askoul is a Dubai-based writer and leadership development consultant with a focus on the Middle East