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.

By: Kathy Ramsey

For me, being here has been an overwhelming experience. I have been astounded by the generosity of the people I’ve met, the sad stories they have about all the problems they face here in Lebanon and the dreams they all have to go back to Palestine. As volunteers teaching a few hours (or many more!!) of English a day and playing games with the kids, it initially felt like we were doing so little for these wonderful people considering all the obstacles stacked against them. My second week here I remember thinking how can I do anything to ‘help’ the youth pass their all important exams next year when I am only here for 2 months and there is so much work to be done? I began to doubt if I could really make any difference, even small, in their lives. And then I asked the kids to write about themselves and their hopes and dreams so that I could take their writings back to Canada for people there to learn about them and their lives. I can’t describe the looks on their faces any other way than to use the cliche of ‘absolute joy’. They really were so happy that people in Canada would be interested to learn about them AND that they were being given the opportunity to share their stories with the outside world. The students worked so hard on their writings that you could have heard a pin drop in the class it was so quiet – that is really something unusual! I really had to force myself not to cry as I watched them hard at work. The results of their work are really amazing. These are all very special and unique children and youth – there is no way to stop yourself from loving all of them. Their lives will not change because of me or CEPAL but for 2 months this summmer these kids had an opportunity to have fun and learn that they otherwise would not have had. I know it means alot to them and also to me, for having had the chance to meet and get to know them.

By: Christina Nitsou
Bourj el Barajneh

We have been in Bourj el Barajneh, a Palestinian refugee camp in Beruit, Lebanon for approximately two weeks now. The sights, the people, the atmosphere is indescribable because there is such a rich history and such hidden meanings to what meets the eye. I was and still am amazed at how the entire camp runs itself. The organization and the sense of community that everyone tries to create in order to live life the best the can given their circumstances is amazing. To begin with, it is incredible to see such a community mobilize and organize themselves to provide services for everyone in the camp. The power of what a person or a group of people can do is unbelievable. The camp is like a small city in which everyone works to improve their situation and help those around them, even with minimal resources. People only have so much to offer but what they do have they offer it open heartedly. People have been very welcoming and have expressed their gratitude for other presence in the camp each summer. People’s smiles are so contagious here, that it is a wonderful way to start your day. It amazing at how much a person can learn in such a short period of time. So far, I have learned that what becomes of life is about what opportunities we encounter. When opportunity is limited and your future appears dim what do you do? People here have shown me that friendship and community is vital for survival and more importantly happiness. And so, identity and community have become the focus of our teaching. We decided to make these two topics ongoing themes throughout the summer and allow our students to understand the strong dynamics that exist in their own community what their individual contribution can be. People continually ask me why I came to Lebanon, and why the refugee camps? I am here to learn and absorb as much as I can about a culture and group of people that I know very little about. We are all on our way to learning and sharing so much more and the summer has just begun.

By: Kathy Ramsey

As always the girls are all on time, despite the fact that class starts everyday at 8:30 a.m. during their summer vacation and the UNRWA school is nowhere near any of their homes.

Also, as always, the electricity is off and there’s a cockroach on the floor. As the girls squeal, it’s me who chases it out of the room and into the hall. When we all stop laughing, the girls look at me expectantly–they are ready and eager to learn, or at least have some more fun!!

Today I ask the girls to write about their hopes and dreams, a somewhat overwhelming task for these girls given the obstacles stacked against them. Not only are they barred, as Palestinians, from working in over 70 professions should they graduate from high school, but as girls they face strict social and familial constraints on their freedom.

Next year, at 15 years old, they will write the most important exam of their life-a standard Lebanese government exam which will determine if they can go on to finish high school. Even if they pass the extremely difficult exam, I can’t help but wonder what future there is for them anyway. But the girls are undaunted. When I tell them I want to take their writings back to Canada so that people there can learn about them, they are incredulous and ecstatic.

The moment the pencils and paper are handed out, there is utter silence only interrupted occasionally by questions like “Kathy, how do you spell pharmacist?” or “Teacher, what do you call it when people take over your country and make you leave?” Some students have moved from their usual classroom spots to the back of the room so they can work without any distractions. I’m doing my best not to cry as I watch them all. As the students finish their writings, they are eager for me to read them. Even though I should not be, as I know how amazing these girls are, I am struck by the strength, generosity, and maturity that their writings reflect. These are girls with loads of hopes and dreams, not only for themselves and their loved ones but for everyone on the planet. Their resilience is astounding and I tell myself that if these girls haven’t lost hope for their futures, I can never lose hope for them either.

By: Amal El Masri
Bourj el-Barajneh

I sat on the rooftop for hours yesterday, from late afternoon to sunset, watching people moving around in their houses, beautiful girls wearing green pants or red scarves or gold impossible earrings coming out to take down the laundry or to lean their head on their hand and peoplewatch, or the young men (the shebab ) who come up on their roof to smoke argilieh or to train the pigeons that so many of them keep on thier roofs or to make s-s-s-s-s-s sounds at me, foriegn girl, listlessly sitting on the roof and it becomes cool before I know it and the evening prayer call sounds (Allahu Akbar! Allahu akbar!) and soon, this Palestinian flag that I had been watching in the distance becomes indistinguishable in the night and I realize that this camp that has been here for 50 years, that has evolved from tents to shacks to a slum, will be here long after I die and I wonder what will happen to the Palestinians who don’t have nice Canadian passports, who have no passports, only UNRWA identity cards and frustration at wanting to live rather than exist in this concrete disarray.

And they do. At parties, at wedding, I am overwhelmed by the noise, the energy, the clapping, shouting, drumming and the dancing, my god, the dancing. Your only excuse not to dance here is if you are too young or too old to walk. On the dance floor, women’s hips become electric, men are fearless, no pseudo-macho-i’m-too-rough-to-dance, and I realize that I will never be able to feel joy like these people.

They have lived through sieges, massacres, bombings, multiple deaths in the family, civil war, indignities unimaginable. They came through a lot to get to this party, and dammit, they’re going to have a good time.

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