By: Renée Pinchero
Wavel

It’s August 26th and my second last day in Wavel Camp. I write this as I lay in bed sick. Again. A cold this time. But as I lay here, it’s not the frustration of being sick that brings tears to my eyes, but this week’s process of saying my “good-byes.” As I write this, the taste of mulokehye (the best transliteration I can manage) still lingers on my tongue – the mulokheye that my neighbour promptly brought over on a tray as soon as she found out I couldn’t make it for lunch today because I was sick.

Just as I was overwhelmed by the amount, I have been continually overwhelmed by the generosity of the people I’ve met – people who have so little materially, but whose love of life and concern for others is so abundant. People who have shown me that despite living in what my neighbour described as “a virtual prison” (her description of camp life) still offer not only a wealth of hospitality, but something more. Despite the fact that my government is complicit in this imprisonment, the people in Wavel can and domake a distinction between my government and me.

They have reminded me of the single most important thing in the world: the importance of recognizing the humanity of another. I need to be careful, though, for I do not want to fall into the trap of sentimentalizing the suffering. I don’t want to sentimentalize the ‘Suffering of the Palestinian People.’ I don’t claim that it’s their suffering which makes them stronger. Suffering is neither noble nor beneficial. It’s unjust.

So, I need to remain focused: The situation of the Palestinians here in Wavel, in Lebanon, everywhere, is not only unjust: it’s a crime against humanity itself. It’s a crime against our own humanity. And for my part, I need to do more than just acknowledge this. I need to act on it. I need to make sure that my daily actions do not betray the people who have opened up their homes, their hearts, and their lives to me. For they have recognized my humanity, and by doing so I need to act to make sure that theirs is equally respected. But how can I do this? I have been reminded repeatedly of how I can act. I’ve been reminded in all my “good-bye” visits, in all of my “good-bye” heart shaped notes from my grade eight girls, in every exchange of email addresses and telephone numbers… “Please don’t forget us when you back to Canada. Please tell people about us.” And I know that when I return, my life will return to its regular breakneck speed: there will be too much work, too much to get done. But as I lay here, in front of the remains of the rice that I managed to get away with not eating under the watchful eye of Najwa and her mother, I know that this time I must make good on my promises. I must do more than “not forget.” I must act. This summer must be more than just a “great experience.” It needs to be more than a few stories that I can share with friends and family. I have a responsibility to provide space for voices which are all too often muted by those who have the power to write our official history. I have a responsibility to be an advocate when I can and to educate at home. I have a responsibility to make sure that my actions acknowledge the humanity that lies in every one of us.

By: Mohan Mishra
Bourj el Barajneh

We have just finished our fourth week of teaching here in Bourj el Barajneh, a Palestinian refugee camp near Beirut, Lebanon. I continue to be amazed at the people here and how friendly and welcoming they have been to all of us volunteers. You can hardly walk down the street without someone calling you over to talk or invite you in for tea. After being here for more than a month, the community here really does make you feel at home.

We have now reached the midpoint with the english, french and computer classes. The students here all have such a deep knowledge about their history and community, it really has been an amazing experience to get to know them better.

Despite the unjust restrictions and the harsh reality facing Palestinians living in Lebanon, the kids here still have big dreams. Many want to be doctors, teachers, or journalists, while many also talk about wanting to help their community in someway when they are finished school.

In the classes they have all been eager to learn, although I think they have taught me more than I could ever teach them. The local NGO’s we are working with here have also been great. The different groups are all run by people from the camp and it is inspiring to see so many people working to support their own community. I am also amazed by the strength of the people living here. They have survived so much hardship and injustice, and have had so much taken away from them, yet they are still so generous and welcoming. I feel like I have already learned so much from the people here, about personal strength, about community, about generosity. I am looking forward to the next month of teaching and I sure it will be just as amazing as the last four weeks.

By: Yasmine Lemzoudi
Bourj el-Barajneh

Where can I start telling you how the experience of living and working in Bourj El Barajneh camp has been for me? My first day here I was walking around the labyrinth that is the camp with its meter wide streets and I thought to myself: “I like this place”. Everywhere paintings of mosques and palm trees adorn the sinuous streets as if to hide the cage it represents for its inhabitants. Despite the fact that dirty water runs down the middle of the roads making its way to the closest hole, there is an apparent effort to maintain this place clean and livable. The first thing that disturbed me was the thousands of bullet holes on the walls as if they were scars that had never completely disappeared. These holes tell the story of the sieges, the civil war and are reminders of the many enemies Palestinians have in this country. It is hard to explain how difficult and unfair life is for them. Electricity is cut usually three or more times a day for a period of two, four or six hours. The tap water comes from wells and is scarce and salty. Your neighbours have a direct view into your windows from about sixty centimeters away. The children play in the dirty alleyways even though they draw trees, grass and birds to represent their homes. There are many stories of people dying young and 96% of the elderly have diabetes. Most of the refugees can’t afford medical treatment and their beautiful smiles reveal a row of black teeth with quite a few missing. Children scream to you as you pass by: “what’s your name?” or “hello how are you?” even though you’re a stranger they see for the first time. Young girls brilliant in their studies tell me they won’t try to reach their dream of being a doctor or an engineer because they cannot work in their chosen field as they are excluded from over 72 different professions in Lebanon. The only way foreseen by the youth to better their situation is to leave. And many do. They marry a Norwegian, a German or someone from Denmark and they leave their families and community behind. When I ask people about their relatives four different countries are usually mentioned in the same sentence. This has made me realize what the word Diaspora means. For people so close to their family I cannot imagine how hard it is to be separated for years without seeing each other. I can’t imagine either how terrifying it must be to spend thousands of dollars so that your son can travel illegally to Europe and then to hear he got caught and was thrown in a prison somewhere where he was tortured and where they are asking you for even more money to pay for his way back to square one. Everything here reminds me of the misery and injustice these people live in. A man told me today to tell you what I saw, to tell people about the struggle of the Palestinians. He wants you to know, as many others do, that they are not terrorists. I can testify that they are the most kind, generous and hospitable people I have ever met. Living among them has been an important lesson in human values. I have heard many times: “We want our rights, we want our land. We don’t want war, we don’t want death, and the Israelis don’t need to be scared. We just want our land. We welcomed them into our land and they took it from us and expelled our fathers from our country. We hope to go back and that hope will never die whether this takes one hundred years or two”. So it is my responsibility to tell you their stories, to let you know that these people suffer and cannot go on living in these subhuman conditions. I could go on telling you about this place and these wonderful people but I will stop. If not tears will start running down my face.

By: Lara di Tamasso
Wavel

“But I am Palestinian.” This is what Manal told me as we walked into Baalbeck arm in arm. I had just asked her what she wanted to be when she grows up. She told me she wants to be a heart surgeon, but she is Palestinian. Her brother studied chemical engineering, ” . but he is Palestinian, so he can not work in his field.” Manal is one of the students I have the privilege of teaching at Najdeh in Wavel camp. My class is composed mainly of 15 and 16 year olds, all of whom face very difficult decisions in the coming years. My respect grows for them with every passing day. They are bright, driven young people with big dreams and bigger hearts. Well aware of the obstacles they face as Palestinians in Lebanon, they come to class every day, eager to learn. I have heard of the jobs Palestinians are allowed to hold in Lebanon described as, “a list of jobs no one would want.” Day laborer, mechanic, garbage man. I often observe my students during those rare moments of silence, while their heads are bent over their work. There is Mahmoud, who wrote in his journal last week, “I want to be a good man.” There is Mohammed, the artist, who eagerly showed me his sketch book of incredible drawings when I visited his family. There is Khalil, who has betrayed his dream of becoming a professional football player in pursuit of a more realistic goal: working as a children’s doctor. There is Manal, the aspiring heart surgeon, who takes it upon herself to correct my English from time to time. And Hanan, whose resigned sadness is so palpable, I wish I could promise her a better future. These students have taught me more than I have taught them. I know they will grow into beautiful human beings. But they will most likely be prevented from growing into their dreams. They have been pre-defined, labeled, and limited by the laws that govern their lives as Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. I do not see anything of the mechanic in Mohammad that I am supposed to see. And I dread the day when he is forced to see it in himself.

By: Jordan Topp
Bourj el Barajneh

A miniature airplane hangs in the center of the ceiling fan. Mohammad points up at it, Nadia brought it for my nephew, Ahmad, but I took for myself. An airplane. The center piece of a room filled with symbols of a ravaged homeland. Palestine. Mohammad explains his increasing desperation to leave this place.

Earlier this month he got turned down for a visa to Italy. And he regrets not going with 2 of his friends who left through Turkey. They are traveling to Cuba from there, but will go down illegally when they stop in London…I should have gone. I have to get out of here.

I ask Mohammad if there is any news from Bilal and his friends. Last I heard the 8 young men from Bourj el Barajneh had been arrested in the Ukraine – after paying large sums to take illegal channels through Moscow. All the young men were arrested except Bilal. His mother tells us he got away because he doesn’t look Arab. Mohammad confirms the rumor circulating around the camp.

The 8 men are being returned any day now. Returned. The statement causes uneasy silence in the room. Returned. To the camp. I enquire about another rumor – Bassam, one of the young men – is he dead? They had actually begun funeral preparations last week, before realizing no one could confirm the facts. And so now his family and friends wait to see if he returns with the rest.

Saturday morning Um-Bilal greets Lara and I with ‘good’ news about her son. Bilal crossed another border and is staying with a man named Omar. He and 16 other young men from the camps in Lebanon, whom Omar responsible for. She doesn’t know much more, Bilal was too tired to talk. He had been in the forest – making his illegal crossing – for the past 5 days. He, along with a Syrian woman and her 2 children, had foraged for food. It is dangerous, she tells us, Some people get shot.

Trying to brighten the mood I ask about her trip last weekend to visit family in the South, only to find out she didn’t go. The man who ‘helped’ Bilal and his friends get to the Ukraine had called them, threatening to kill Bilal if he didn’t get more money. Mafia, she explains in English. But Omar is good. Better than the other man. Omar is also Mafia. And I wonder sadly how such things can be rated.

And so life continues in Bourj al Barajneh camp. As Palestinian families are broken apart and reunited by the cruel reality in which they live. With my soul disappointed in humanity (how many times can a soul be so disappointed?) I go up to seek the comfort of a cool night breeze on the roof with my friend Hanan. Talking about the situation of the young men, Hanan explains to me, too knowingly for a 23 year old woman, Life is bad for us everywhere, even outside the camps. This is our fate. And I remember a few weeks earlier, when Ahmad’s mother came to see me in the camp. He had sent photos for her – it had been years since they last saw each other. After almost 4 years in Canada- his early 20s no less – Ahmad was refused Refugee Status. He can not work, and has already received his deportation notice. As Ahmad’s mother opens the photos, to show her son to my friends in the camp, she begins to cry. All of my sons are in different countries, she explains. Rami has been refused in Canada. Tears fill the eyes of the room, for they have all lived the same story. Um-Majed – born in Palestine, who raised her children in the refugee camps of Beirut – comes to comfort her. One of my sons is in Italy. Another in Germany. And Majed is now in Dubai. This is the life for Palestinians here. They will be fine. This is the life for Palestinians in Lebanon. Until they have the full rights and humanity that all citizens of the world are entitled their lives, hopes and dreams are in the hands of others. And I wonder to myself – to Mohammad, Bilal, Ahmad and their families- how much longer can a people live this way?

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