By: Samer Abdel-Nour
Bourj el-Barajneh

Each morning I would wake up, wash, and head out to my morning class at Najdeh, in Bourj El-Barajneh. The Najdeh youth would were between 12 and 15 years old, and thus, many classes focused on the ideas of dreams, hopes, and realities.

The next class was also in Bourj, but with the Women’s Humanitarian Organization, or WHO. The children at this school were younger, a bit wilder, and would greet me each morning with a rendition of ‘good morning to you…’ sung to the tune of ‘happy birthday’. I’m sure they were tired of it by the end of the summer, but they still sang with smiles on their faces. I would spend my afternoons teaching in Shatila and Sabra, where I taught two days per week each. When I arrived it was always a treat for me. I recall one day when Fatima, an eight year old from Shatila 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 used to fight with the younger children over which class I would teach first, even thought they know that the young ones got me first. Teaching days seemed long when the heat and humidity were factored into the day. After classes, I spent most of my time visiting the families I became close with in the camp. Often I would make two or three social visits per evening, drinking tea, sharing stories, learning history, and just being with the people of the camp. Before bed, which was often quite late, would spend some time preparing for the classes next day… Although each day may have seemed routine, nothing ever was. In any given morning there may not have been electricity, or perhaps something in the news from Palestine depressed the students. Some days the heat and humidity would just simply be unbearable. In the refugee camps of Beirut, everyday was an adventure, with one day almost never like the next.

By: Yasmine Lemzoudi
Wavel

It’s early in the morning. The shops which usually pave the way to the Najdeh association are all closed except for the ‘Manaeesh’ shops which are at their busiest preparing pizza like pieces of bread with thyme or cheese on top that everybody eats for breakfast. I try my best not to get my feet splashed with the water coming out of the houses and running down the middle of the meter wide alleyways. My body is already covered with sweat and it’s only nine in the morning. As I get to the classroom, the children greet me with the usual: “good morning miss!” As I start the class, the director brings two new students into the tiny room which barely fits the others. After fifteen minutes so many students have arrived in the 2 by 4 meter room that they have to sit in a second row of chairs around the only table in the room. Today’s activity is based on emotions. We first reviewed the different feelings and once they finished doing some written exercises, we moved on to the fun part of the lesson: they had to pick one emotion or feeling, write the word on coloured paper and decorate it. As they cut their chosen emotion in interesting shapes and glued it unto a wider piece of paper, I asked them to write down things that they associated with that emotion. Once they were finished, I went around the room and glanced at their papers and was astonished to see how many of them wrote : “I love Yasmine” or “I love you teacher” surrounded by flowers and hearts. They probably had no idea how much those words meant to me and I had no clue of how much I meant to them! I cut pieces of tape and put their creations up on the walls so that I could come in the next morning and remember that these children appreciate me and that it is enough of a reason to be here, no matter how hard that is.

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: Samira Hussain
Bourj el-Barajneh

The evening began with the MC walking confidently on to the stage and announcing to an audience of 200 people: Opposite to common practice, I will not ask audience members to observe one-minute of silence. This period does not require silence. The world has remained silent towards the injustices in Palestine long enough. In an effort to be part of the new intifadah, the students of Bourj el-Barajneh refugee camp have formed the Mohammed Al-Durrah Group. Out of their own initiative, the students organized themselves and created this group.

Last Friday, they put on their first cultural show, where they raised almost $ 1 000 USD, which was promptly donated to the PRCS in Palestine. I am amazed at the difference in the camp.

During the summer, music blared from every home, weddings were celebrated with joy, and the birth of children did not hold an element of despair. Now, there is no music from the homes. It has been replaced by the sound of the news, announcing the latest casualties in Palestine. Weddings are not as joyful as they previously were. There is no joy at the thought of creating yet another generation of people that will reside in a refugee camp.

A few weeks ago, a women in the camp gave birth to triplets: she named them Mohammed, Aqsa and Intifadah. I have never been able to express the radical change in the mood of the camp. Sometimes I feel that the difference is so great that it is rendered unbelievable. But the literal transformation that I have seen in the last few months was highlighted during the cultural show, presented by the Mohammed Al-Durrah group.

I spent Friday afternoon translating the introductory speech written by one of the students, the contents of which shocked me: Ladies and gentlemen, we are of the same generation of Mohammed Al-Durrah and his friends. We have named our group after him so that he may act as a symbol of the atrocities committed by Israel against the Palestinians on a routine basis. We will never forget. The enemy must realize that the more they use such vicious tactics, the more our faith in the liberation of Palestine will grow.

I was astounded by the words of courage and strength, spoken with certainty by a girl who just entered secondary school.

This summer, the children of Bourj el-Barajneh began the summer activities program knowing that they would embark on an adventure that would allow them to discover Palestine. It was explained to the Canadian volunteers that, ‘those who actually lived in Palestine are very old. Before we lose them, we must find out as much as we can about our home’.

This is a common story, one that I have heard from many organizations all over Lebanon. The difference in the summer was that the onus rested upon the students of the summer program to get out and discover all they could about Palestine, by taping into the resources in the camp. Learning debke, Palestinian songs, and other dances went hand in hand with this discovery process.

At the end of the summer, the product of their genius was presented to their parents with such pride and joy. It was a delightful experience for them to hunt for information about Palestine. But that elation was lost on Friday night. The childrens’ performances were just as beautiful but not as innocent. It is almost as if they have lost a part of the innocence they possessed during the summer. The same song that brought one girl to tears during the presentation at the end of the summer brought the entire audience to tears. The chorus of children behind her sang with all their might, tears welling and streaming down their beautiful faces. The people stood in their chairs, clapping to the rhythm of the song. What was a joyous experience in the summer has turned into a time of sadness. These students echo the views of all the Palestinians in Lebanon. They want to be part of the struggle. They want to help their brothers and sisters in Palestine. These students have the most strength and courage because they are using what they have and they are making a difference. Not only in their financial contribution to the PRCS in Palestine but they are taking the lessons that they learnt this summer and are putting it to use. They are taking what they know to make Palestine such a beautiful place, and are using it to try and save the country they have seen only in their dreams. In the minds of the Palestinians in Lebanon, all they have been able to do is watch atrocity after atrocity being committed day after day. Well, not these students. My time here is slowly coming to an end. But what I learnt here, I will never forget. I can’t. It will haunt me forever. A song that I originally appreciated for its musical simplicity now sends shivers down my spine. When Fairuz cries for Al-Quds, a part of me now cries with her. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when the children cried in unison for Palestine, not even mine.

By: Jessica Reekie
Wavel

The plane began its descent in the early hours of the morning. Knowing a little of Lebanon’s troubled history, I craned my neck to catch a glimpse of the sights about which I had read in books and articles, but outside my window the sky was dark, reducing the city of Beirut to many clusters of light in a hazy, black expanse.

It was not until the drive from the airport to Bourj el-Barajneh refugee camp that I got my first real look at Beirut. Images flashed by of decrepit bombed-out buildings and the new modern-looking structures that flanked them. The strange juxtaposition was a reminder of the devastation sustained by Lebanon during the civil war and the current government’s attempts to rebuild Beirut. However, as we approached the perimeter of the refugee camp, any evidence of government plans to restructure and beautify this part of the city was sadly absent.

My stay in Bourj el-Barajneh was going to be brief – a four-day orientation to camp life before beginning my internship in Wavel refugee camp in the Beqa’a Valley where I would live and work for the summer months. Cepal, the NGO that had brought me to Lebanon, had a well-established reputation in Bourj el-Barajneh where they had sent summer volunteers and interns for the past few years to teach English and French language classes. This summer, the small Ottawa-based organization intended to expand its overseas program by sending volunteers to teach conversational English in the oft-neglected rural refugee camps in Lebanon.

My first impressions of Bourj el-Barajneh refugee camp were entirely favorable-so positive, in fact, that a mere four-days-stay made me slightly resentful of my plans to spend the summer in Wavel camp. True, the heat and humidity was pretty unbearable and the stench of garbage lay thick in the air, but the people were so wonderful! Barred from practicing over 75 professions, deprived of sanitary living conditions and continuous electricity (among other things) by the Lebanese government, it never ceases to amaze me how an oppressed and disadvantaged group of people like the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon manages to remain so welcoming and kind-hearted. As Cepal had encouraged us during pre-departure orientation to embrace the culture, the summer volunteers and I began immediately to make visits and meet new friends. The welcome we received was absolutely heart-warming.

Many of Bourj el-Barajneh’s inhabitants were familiar with Cepal and its programs that brought Canadians to work in the camp. This camp was well acquainted with the presence of foreign volunteers, as many different NGOs had supplied aid in various forms over the years. We were expected guests and treated like old friends. The easiness and the familiarity with which we were received in Bourj el-Barajneh made it difficult, at first, to envision a similar happiness in living and working in Wavel. While I was delighted at the prospect of meeting yet more new people, the excitement was tinged with nervousness. With approximately 7,000 registered Palestinian refugees living in Wavel, this relatively small refugee camp was not favored with assistance from foreign NGOs to the degree that larger, urban refugee camps enjoyed. One other Cepal summer volunteer and I were going to be the only foreign presence in a camp that unlike Bourj el-Barajneh, was not used to outsiders. The anxiety proved completely unnecessary. Living and working in Wavel this past summer made me realize that attention-starved communities, like Wavel Camp, react very positively to foreign aid. Far from being suspicious and guarded about an alien presence in the camp, people went out of their way to meet “the foreigners” and invite us into their homes. Their only complaint regarded the number of English teachers, for two were too few. Parents and students were so excited about prospective English summer classes that the day after our arrival adults and children crowded the office of Najdeh, our local NGO partner, with the hopes that they could enroll. Wavel’s Najdeh coordinator spent the next several days trying to accommodate all the families and managed only by restricting enrollment to one member per family. It was a challenge to conduct class in rooms that couldn’t even accommodate desks, as they took up much needed space. Heartbreaking though, was the number of children we had to turn away for want of time and better teaching facilities.

As I look back on this past summer and fall, I have come to accept, as all the other foreign volunteers have, that what I gave to the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon pales in comparison to what I received from the people I was sent to “help.” Their kindness and hospitality is difficult to repay and I remain in their debt. At the same time, the gratitude they expressed reminds me that my work, no matter how insignificant it may appear to me now, was appreciated by the community.

Cepal considers this past summer’s expansion intoWavel camp a success and I’m happy that the organization has plans to continue sending support in future years. Small communities like Wavel camp both need and appreciate foreign aid and I feel fortunate that I was given the opportunity to help.

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