Life in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon

A view through my own eyes at Camp Shatilla and Mar Elias - Sanna Padela

Volunteering at this camp has given me a totally new and different view of life. I arrived in Beirut at Mar Elias Camp the afternoon of Saturday, July 22nd year 2000. Coming from New York state, the culture shock was devastating. Born in Pakistan and raised in America, I didn't know what to expect. I had heard of the camps when I was in school, at the University at Buffalo (New York). I am a premedical student, and I was looking for a way to get involved "medically" in the Middle East. By asking around, I came across Health Resource Center for Palestine, Inc. located in Florida. With the help of the director, Lamyaa Hashim, I planned my journey via e-mail and telephone.

Almost a year later, I found myself at Mar Elias, one of the three Palestinian Refugee Camps in Beirut. I would be staying there for two weeks with my friend Shaziah Soroya (age 18, Pakistani-American), in the Center. Mar Elias was located next to a beautiful large church, and an equally beautiful mosque. It is the only camp in Beirut where Muslims and Christians live together. The other two camps were mostly Muslim. But they were all Palestinians- Palestinian refugees. These were people kicked out of their homeland 52 years ago, living with no means of higher education, and no work.

Palestinians are restricted from 72 jobs in Lebanon, and have no rights as citizens. So the camps were set up, and run by NGOs (non governmental organizations). The organization Beit Atfal Assumoud was established because of the number of orphans which were a result of a huge massacre in 1979.

In Mar Elias, the narrow alleys made it difficult to get around. Not to mention the cockroaches. There were hundreds of cats in the camp, and you have to literally walk around them. Garbage (especially spoiled fruit and vegetables) mixed with sitting water was the odor that I had to quickly get used to. The biggest problem for us however was the lack of running water. There was no drinking water- it was brought into the camp and sold. The running water had its own problems- working occasionally.
Same with the electricity. We were lucky to have fans in the room we slept in. But Mar Elias is not where I would be working. It was my home to which I returned everyday. Where I volunteered, Shatilla Camp, was far worse. Every morning Shazia and I would walk 50 minutes at 9am. There was no point in taking a bus or cab because the fare in Lebanon was too expensive, and the driver can't go to the camp directly. The drop off is at the sukh (market) outside of the Camp Shatilla, where the road is filled with vendors and construction, so no vehicles are allowed to pass through it.

The camp was surrounded by bombed buildings and homes. Lebanon has experienced internal bombings for fifteen years, from 1975-1990. Shatilla camp was hit the hardest by the bombings in Beirut- in 1982, during the Israeli Invasion, 2,000 Palestinians were massacred in Shatilla alone. Because of this, there is a large cemetary in the camp for these martyrs.

Shazia and I walked through the most unsanitary conditions. I remember visiting Pakistan four years ago, and seeing a lot of congestion and poor conditions, but it was nothing compared to this.

Our walk through the sukh was tough- we jumped over puddles of blood (from the butcher shops), walked over steaming tar (from the road construction), and maneuvered around the rotting food on the ground. It doesn't rain here in the summer, which makes the smells stronger, and the heat intense. I would start to feel nauseous walking around the meat and fish. It was all over- in boxes on the ground, in the open air, covered by flies. Nothing was edible to us, unless we bought breakfast from the bakery, if we witnessed it coming out of the oven and directly into our hands. The sukh was filled with vendors, customers, and yes, cats. People from all over the city shop at the sukh around Shatilla Camp because the prices were cheaper there.

Finally Shazia and I arrive around 9:50am to the camp, which was the home to 17,000 refugees. We walked directly to the camp's Center. I didn't volunteer medically like I had intended. Instead Shazia and I now teach Palestininan children, ages 9-14, English. There are twenty children who come to our class voluntarily. Although class officially starts at 10am, they are always there waiting for us by 9:30am. Our classroom is a donated library on the third floor of the Center. Being up there wasn't comfortable when the electricity went out, and our only fan wouldn't work.

Our classroom consisted of two long tables surrounded by about 20 chairs. There are bookshelves covering the walls, with donated books, all in English, which I doubt the children can even understand. Nothing else. No chalkboard. No desks. No flashcards, workbooks, or even crayons. We were given some white paper, which didn't last long, and a few pencils, but not enough to go around.

Some how we managed everyday, because many kids brought their own pencil and a small notebook. Because of the kids, Shazia and I made it through the day. They were extremely hyper, but eager to learn. Everyday we learned that another one of our students had only one parent. I couldn't believe how many orphans were in the camps. When we asked the education level of the children, one of our 12 year old boys said he hadn't gone to school in one year, because he was working- cleaning bathrooms. The child labor and abuse was high in the camps. Malnutrition, and mental and sexual abuse was around us. This contributed to their weak education. It made us sad that some of them couldn't say or write the English alphabet properly.

In the two weeks, Shazia and I managed to teach the children "the alphabet song," how to write the capital and lower case letter, a few basic colors, and how to spell them. The kids were great- we would walk in the classroom, and they would all stand up and greet us. Everytime we gave them a task, 3 seconds later, they screamed, "Finished teacher!" It was frustrating because they needed to be disciplined, there excitement was just too much. Shazia and I somehow used our very little knowledge of Arabic to show the kids right from wrong, but realistically two weeks was not enough.

There has been a lot of volunteer effort from others like myself to far more dedicated organizations that built the camps and continuously struggle to provide the basic necessities of food, shelter, water, medical services and education to those who live in them. Yet having witnessed the situation there I know that the conditions are harsh and certainly a far cry from being a healthy environment for these loving and beautiful children who are its inhabitants.

Human beings need the least of human rights. But what about these Palestinians, who aren't even considered worthy of these basic human rights? What hope do they have for a future? May we have the strength to stand up to such injustice...