By: Mina Chung

I’m in Wavel camp which is in the Bekaa valley, just outside of the city of Baalbek. Mountains surround us, and there is an easiness and breathing space here that is nonexistent in the congested camps in Beirut. Wavel was a former army base for French soldiers during the French colonial regime so the camp here is less labyrinthine than in Bourj El Barajneh camp where the streets were barely wide enough to pull our suitcases through when we first arrived in Lebanon. The people here call Wavel camp Al-Jaleel, for the home in Galilee they fled from in 1948. When the refugees first arrived, people ran with their belongings to camp buildings to claim living space for their families. I share rented rooms with two other volunteers in what was previously one of the barrack buildings. Teaching is hard work! I don’t have it in me to say anything remotely flip about this. Last week my UNRWA class was setting off firecrackers in class. I love 13-15 year old boys. These days I wake up with pens and gluesticks and holepunchers in my bed, wondering about the present progressive. It seems like between trying to understand life in the camps, preparing for school, and sleeping, time runs short. As for what it means to be a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon… who am I to say? I’ve been here a month, and my Arabic now consists of “Hi!” and “Yes, Lebanon is beautiful”, and “Be quiet! Please sit down! NO FIRECRACKERS!!!!” Through my window of smiles and thank yous I only catch glimpses–the affection the children show each other, the constant invitations for lunch, tea, coffee, a snack, the unbrokenness in the women as they hold hands and dance the dabke. Hamoudi, the brother in the home where I stayed before coming to Wavel, said to us, “The camp is not like houses, the camp is like living together in one home.”

The strength of the relationships between the people in the camps is real, as real as the lack of electricity, the stale air and the dirtyness of water. I’m so moved by the resilience in their daily lives that I’m surprised when I’m reminded of the context of their lives–the hardships they face, the war they lived through, the lack of rights they are accorded, and the homes they lost in Palestine.

There are layers and layers and layers here that emerge in pieces and passing comments: when Radha laughs at jumping at a cockroach saying, “Can you believe I carried a machine gun during the war?”, when the boys point to the police station from the classroom window and tell me about how two men were killed when Lebanese soldiers entered the camp in the middle of the night to “clear the camp of weapons”, when Houda tells us how during the war she hid under the bed clutching her children to her chest–Khalid was 6, Fikri, 4, and Samar a baby. To leave to not leave, to change to not change. Without a choice, where do you put your hope after 57 years of exile?

Hamoudi who has foreign friends jokes about starting a REAL exchange program, he says, “You can have the camp, we’ll just take Oslo, no problem.” Then with so much loyalty and irony it hurts, “ah, but we wouldn’t know what to do with it, we’d just end up building camps in the city.” Still, there is dancing and celebrating, and everyone from the 3 year olds to the 70 year olds knows how to shake it like Shakira. And when my students aren’t setting off firecrackers, I see the beauty in the men and the women they will grow up to be and my heart breaks because they deserve so much more than this.

One of my students wrote, “Independence, freedom and all of these words are shown as little words, but in fact they have big meanings. The world should understand these words in order to help us obtain them.” They are still waiting.

01 August, 2005 16:04 Age: 4

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