By: Samer Abdel-Nour
Bourj El-Barajneh

In the early hours of Monday morning, I was woken by a terrible BOOM. The noise was enormous and shook the house and everything in it. It left me shivering, unable to move in my bed. My first thought was that there was an explosion in the camp, perhaps at one of the houses next to us. People in the camp were streaming into the alleyways. It was chaos. Samer Mahmoud, the person from whom I rent a room from, knocked on my door to see if I was alright. “It was an Israeli F-16…” Samer said, “they fly the jet so low to the ground that it breaks the sound barrier. It has happened to us many times in the past. You know, intimidation tactics, to remind us that they can still get us anytime they want.”

Intimidation is an understatement. Sleeping in a room which is 32 degrees Celsius and humid is difficult enough. After this experience, it was impossible. The next day the children would not let me teach them. Some would not even lift their heads up from the table. They were tired and visibly upset. All of the children I teach would have been too young to live through the long civil war, Israeli invasion, or the nine-year siege of the camps. If they had, they would remember similar sounds. I stood in front of my Monday classes wondering what it was like for a child of seven, or ten, to be woken up at 1am by the explosive sound of the Israeli F-16. I have seen and heard so much that I haven’t been sure of what to write, or even where to begin.

Maybe I could have started with the mother who brought me to tears because she did not have money to buy milk for her baby. She was so proud, and could not look at me in the eyes when she told me this. Or perhaps I could have begun by telling all of you about the six-year siege of the camps, when many of the people I have met here survived on rats and cats, and the wounded were operated on without medical supplies or anesthesia. Maybe I could have shared one of my many giant cockroachs-in-my-bed stories, or written about the poor kitten that had half of its head chewed off by a rat or other cats, who lay meowing near my doorstep for two days, keeping me up those nights. What was I to do? Put it out of its misery? Buy it milk when there are babies who go without? All this in a country that is full of new money.

The downtown core in Beirut is beautiful, and the Prime Minister here is one of the richest men in the Middle East. No. These things are too depressing, and I have not even begun to mention the disgusting quality of the water, the astonishing rates of disease due to malnutrition, or the 80% unemployment rate. Perhaps I could mention that the camp is a 1 km squared concrete jungle of alleyways where 18 000 plus people live almost totally without sunlight, and children here do not even have a small playground area to play. Instead, I should consider writing about the strength and kindness of the Palestinian refugees living in Burj El-Barajne. I could mention that regardless of the poverty and conditions in the camp, I have never before experienced such generosity. I do recall hearing someone say once, that it is the poor who give the most. Some days I cannot even take ten steps without hearing ‘ahlan’ or ‘fudal’, meaning ‘welcome’, ‘enter’. I have spent much time sitting, eating, and drinking tea with many of the families and shopkeepers that I have come across in the camp. These people are beautiful, and although I am clearly ‘ajnabe’, meaning ‘foreigner’, I have been accepted as one of them. My kids in Burj El-Barajne see me every morning, and sometimes it is difficult for them to get excited for the class, especially in the heat and humidity of Beirut. But it is different in Shatila and Sabra, where I only teach two days per week each. When I arrive it is always a treat for me. The last time I taught at Shatila, Fatima, an eight year old in my class was waiting for me by the window. When she saw me she flew down the three flights of stairs, grabbed my hand, and lead me to the class. She made me wait outside the room while she announced to the class that ‘Austaz Samer’ had arrived.

In Sabra, the older children fight with the younger children over which class I will teach first, even thought they know that the young ones get me first. Sometimes my body is caught in a tug of war. Four of five are pulling one arm, four or five on the other, and one or two little ones with their arms around my waist smiling up at me. Often I feel down, depressed, and overwhelmed at the conditions of the camps. These moments with the children are the ones that give me the energy to continue with a smile on my face. Without them, I don’t know how I could get out of bed each morning in the sticky heat, and take the shower in water that more often than not smells worse than I do. All in all, I am fine. In a short period of time, my teaching will end, and I will be on my way home.

One of the people in the camp had asked a small favour of me for when I return to Canada. When I asked what it was, he replied, “Don’t do what the world has done for the last 55 years. Don’t forget about us.” I definitely won’t.

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