“We’re exhausted from being homeless”: recalling the Palestinians’ plight on Nakba Day

Moe Ali Nayel The Electronic Intifada Beirut 15 May 2014

nakba

“We walked and walked and walked for days until we finally settled on the beach of Damour,” said 80-year-old Um Zohair. “On the beach we fetched green banana leaves together and with bamboo sticks we made a hut that sheltered us for three months on the sand.”

Sixty-six years ago, Um Zohair — Nada Mousa — was one of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians ethnically cleansed from their homeland, Palestine.

“That was the first time we were displaced,” she said. Since the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, a series of upheavals and struggles has marked Palestinian refugees’ nomadic life in exile. A new chapter in this history of dispossession has been added by the violence against Palestinian refugees in Syria.

“Palestinians from Syria are living in sewers. Come and look,” Um Zohair told me.

Recently while I was on a visit to Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, I was told about Um Zohair’s family and the conditions they endure.

Abedlrahman, a young Palestinian refugee from Syria, led the way. At an alley’s dead end, we needed to leap over the reeking water to get into the entrance of a murky dungeon. Once inside, it seemed like we had crossed into an invisible parallel world — except that the sewer’s stench stang the nostrils as a reminder of the dark reality surrounding us.

A dim, windowless subterranean room once an underground bomb shelter in the 1980s “War of the Camps” — and later a storage room — is now home to eight members of a fragmented family. Inside sat an old woman surrounded by four smiling faces and a fifth whose permanent scowl was hard to break: arms crossed, 14-year-old Mahmoud sat on the edge of a decomposing sofa.

Daily struggle

Um Zohair’s daughter-in-law and grandchildren have fled to Lebanon without their breadwinners, their exact whereabouts in Syria remain unknown. As Um Zohair watched over her grandchildren, their mother, Um Mahmoud, left her five children (Ahmad, 10; Issa, 8; Haytham, 6; Mahmoud, 14; and Huda, 15) and went around Shatila refugee camp, hunting and gathering, looking for any menial job she could score in exchange for money or food.

The mother’s daily struggle to put food on the table is but one part of the bigger burdens of finding $200 to pay for Lebanese residency permits for each of the four family members who are over the age of ten. As if the Lebanese residency fees weren’t hard enough to find, she also has to come up with rent money for the dungeon that shelters them: $200 per month.

Six-year-old Haitham has stopped going to school because of a new-found intolerance for loud noises and overcrowded places. The eldest boy, Mahmoud, said: “I wish I could find a job; I’ll take any job so my mother won’t have to go out every morning and beg people in humiliation for money and food.”

Mahmoud pressed his lips, his frown tensed to prevent tears from gathering, and hissed, “I cannot find a job in the camp, and I’m afraid to venture outside Shatila. We don’t have residency permits. I do not want the police to catch me. I swear I’ll work at anything.”

The three meter by four meter storage room Um Zohair and her grandchildren rent comes with a faucet and a bucket hanging from it, functioning as a kitchen sink. In the corner opposite the kitchen is the toilet: a caved-in drain in the floor enclosed by a curtain made from a vintage bedsheet. The black hole in the room, a drain/toilet, continuously emits unpleasant smells.

The floor, never having seen tiles, is a clammy, uneven bumpy surface of olive green cement. The beds are but two sponge mattresses no more than five centimeters thick. When there is food to cook, Um Zohair and her daughter-in-law use a little camping stove donated by a sympathetic neighbor.

Failed promise

In 1917, Arthur James Balfour, then Britain’s foreign secretary, proclaimed that nothing should be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine. Almost one hundred years later, Zionist settlers continue to degrade the identity, history and wellbeing of the original inhabitants of Palestine.

This failed promise that nothing should be done to prejudice Palestinians’ rights has today developed into what can be safely called apartheid.

Um Zohair, like many Palestinians, is more accustomed to displacement than any human being should be. One year ago she and her family fled war-ravaged Syria. Their last home was in a Palestinian refugee camp near the Damascus international airport.

Um Zohair, who seems to suffer from numerous health problems, held her cane in one hand and rummaged through a plastic bag full of medicine in the other. When asked about Palestine she jerked her head high and her eyes sparked as she reminisced. “I am from Safed, Palestine; my village and place of birth is called al-Qatiyya. Do you know it? It is right next to Naameh. I was 13, a young girl, when we were attacked, our house burned and later forced to leave by the Haganah [a Zionist militia].

“That day is always in my memory. I remember, before the assault, elders in the village kept warning us about the Haganah gang who were coming to attack us. My father said those were rumors and we should not leave our land and house. Rumors kept increasing about the arrival of European Jews to attack our village and take our homes; this prompted some people to leave, but we stayed.”

Um Zohair went silent for a minute and looked again in her medication bag. Then, as if the memory of her hometown came back to her, she resumed talking.

“Long walk to Lebanon”

“That morning they broke into houses and forced everyone out to the streets. The Israeli Haganah soldiers started shouting for us to go out and gather in the village’s square. I remember our neighbors, they were Jews, those were our friends and we coexisted for as long as I remembered.

“It was not they, our neighbors, who attacked us; it was the nationalist Israelis, the Europeans. They pointed their guns at men who were in the village and led them to the village’s outskirts. My father was taken with two of my uncles and we never saw them again afterwards. Our Jewish neighbors came to our defense at first and I remember clearly how they shouted in Hebrew at the Israeli militants.

“However, our neighbors could not stop the Israeli militants as they started to burn down one house after another in the village. I don’t remember what happened after that but I remember my mother, my two sisters and I, together with other families, stayed put in the village’s square for two days until the European militants came again and forced us to leave. They started shouting, asking why we were still in the village, and ordered us to join the others who fled their villages from the Safed region. We fled and started the long walk towards Lebanon.”

Um Zohair can still remember her home where she was born and raised in al-Qatiyya. She recalled the serenity and simple life she took for granted at the age of 13 in her family’s stone house and her father’s wheat field.

She wished for her grandchildren to return to al-Qatiyya and have a chance to live with dignity.

“Palestinians are there for each other. Those around us in Shatila know about our plight; they too are not in a much better situation but they still share with us the food they cook. Palestinians are exhausted from being homeless for so long.

“In Syria, my sons used to work from morning until night at a brick factory. I had four boys and two girls; one of my girls was killed last year by shrapnel.

“My other daughter is still in Syria; they cannot afford to flee. Two of my four boys have been missing since last year; one of them is the father of these kids with me. Each night as the eight of us gather to sleep we hope that this will be the last night on the floor of this room.”

Being ethnically cleansed means that Palestinian refugees are estranged from their homeland. They move from one place to another, never feeling at home.

Palestine, their homeland, is still occupied and their internationally-recognized right of return is continually denied and violated by Israel.

The urgency and determination to return to Palestine was broadcast to the whole world during the attempt to return while commemorating the Nakba three years ago on 15 May 2011.

Then, more than 50,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon headed to the border with occupied Palestine. The vast majority of them were young Palestinians determined to fight for their right to return to Palestine. In response, as the whole world watched, Israeli occupation forces did what they have been doing best for the last 66 years: they hunted down and killed Palestinians with sheer cruelty, killing nearly a dozen.

Um Zohair’s story is a tale of a lifelong struggle. She is one of millions of Palestinians stuck in exile, banned by Israel from returning to their roots, their villages and orange trees.

Beirut theatre retains alternative roots

Story first published by AJE

Facing gentrification and financial struggles, al-Madina Theatre is one of Lebanon’s last non-commercial art spaces.

Bring back the theater to Beirut

Bring back the theater to Beirut

Beirut, Lebanon – In 1994, as Beirut was brushing off the dust and rubble of the country’s devastating civil war, Masrah al-Madina (al-Madina Theatre) was born. The iconic theatre was established to resuscitate the artistic and cultural life that Beirut was famous for before the war.

Now, 20 years later, Beirut is going through a different set of changes, led by unfettered real-estate giants ripping down the city’s historical landmarks. Public spaces have been privatised, and Starbucks, McDonalds and other Western food chains have sprung up across the city.

Amid this rapid change, Masrah Beirut (Beirut Theatre), one of the oldest theatres in the capital, closed its doors last year – despite popular protests to keep it open – after the building was sold to a real-estate developer. Now, al-Madina Theatre is one of only three theatres left in Lebanon to offer non-commercial, artistic events.

“We are a cultural theatre. We only host works that are based on artistic cultural expressions,” said Louay Ramadan, 39, who has managed the theatre since it was first established by artist Nidal Achkar in 1994. Speaking to Al Jazeera from his office, as artists arrived to start rehearsing for a dance show, Ramadan explained that by avoiding commercial shows, which generally bring in the most money, the theatre struggles to stay afloat financially.

“Three quarters of the Lebanese audience today look merely for entertainment at commercial shows and perhaps a quarter of people still look for cultural venues to attend; the latter are our bloodline that keeps us busy,” Ramadan said.

Facing financial troubles, and without any subsidies from the Lebanese government, al-Madina Theatre turned into al-Madina Theatre Association for Arts and Culture in March of 2005. As a non-profit organisation, the theatre receives private and institutional donations from Lebanon and across the Arab World

The theatre aims to promote dialogue and create a space of free expression. In addition to plays and performances, al-Madina Theatre organises festivals, exhibitions and film screenings, and hosts cultural events such as conferences, seminars, lectures, book signings and workshops.

Roy Dib is a Lebanese artist and art critic, whose work focuses on the subjective construction of space. The 30-year-old told Al Jazeera that while al-Madina theatre is trying to appeal to young artists and broach new ideas, the steep cost of renting theatre space remains a problem.

While there is no fixed rate, Ramadan told Al Jazeera that al-Madina charges artists between $600 and $800 to use the theatre as a rehearsal space, while rental costs can go up to $2,000 on performance days. He added that the theatre sometimes offers its space up for free when artists cannot afford to pay.

“The main problem in Lebanon for theatres is that they cannot sponsor an event or cater for events that won’t have a financial turnover. In the absence of a budget to cover logistics, this kind of theatre work becomes stagnant,” Dib said.

Al-Madina originally began in a smaller space, known as Metro al-Madina. Today, the smaller theatre is an extension of al-Madina and is under different management.

Hip-hop artist El-Rass will launch his second album, “Adam, Darwin and the Penguin” at Metro al-Madina on May 24. “I think Metro al-Madina is a much-needed kind of place in Lebanon,” El-Rass told Al Jazeera, “[for] its mantra of pushing new forms of art, its size that allows both sophisticated performances and affordable prices for artists and audience with a cozy feel.”

Lina Sahab, an artist who performs in the cabaret show Hishik Bishik at Metro al-Madina, said the theatre provides “a space to express and perform alternative shows and concerts for an audience that has been long denied such a venue”.

“Metro al-Madina brought back that spirit and art, and the more we performed our Hishik Bishik show, the more we realised our audience was growing and liking what they watched,” she said.

Throughout modern Lebanese history, theatres have served as a hub for political events. Theatres across the capital hosted politically active Lebanese artists, like Ziad al-Rahbani. They also helped resurrect Lebanon’s Hakawati (storyteller) tradition through the works of artists like Roger Assaf, who produced shows on the heroism of Fedayeen (literally, “those who sacrifice”, a reference to Palestinian fighters) and their resistance to the Israeli occupation.

Clashes also broke out during the Lebanese civil war in front of Beirut Theatre, which sits in the waterfront area of Ain al-Mraisy.

Dib told Al Jazeera about an incident that occurred in April 1969 at the Beirut Theatre that cemented the theatre’s influential role in Lebanese politics: That night, Dib said, Lebanese security services interrupted a play, Majdaloun, while the actors were still onstage.

“The actors decided to continue the play in the street and resumed acting, walking with their audience up to Hamra Street… Actors then clashed with the police one more time, finally stopping the play and ending in their arrest,” he recalled.

Issam Bou Khaled – a director, scriptwriter, actor and expert on theatre in Lebanon – told Al Jazeera that in the 1970s and 80s, theatre was more interactive with its audience, many of whom were working-class Lebanese who wanted theatre to reflect the political issues of the time.

“Back then, there was the influence of the Palestinian revolution, the Left and the movements of unions and workers’ syndicates. Then, Masrah Beirut presented artistic expressions that reflected concerns on the streets. People used to look forward for that interactive theatre,” he said.

“The artists and audience found each,” Bou Khaled added, “and that kind of theatre was a mediator [for] interacting and influencing.”

According to Ramadan, al-Madina Theatre continues to serve as a centre for culture and political expression. “The theatre became a platform for various expressions, some calling for change in the political situation, and others advocating issues that concern society,” he said. “Our theatre brings together people from all sects, from all regions in Lebanon, and [from all] political views and colours.”
Outside the theatre, in Beirut’s traffic-filled Hamra street, Mahmoud, who runs a newsstand next to al-Madina and did not give Al Jazeera his last name, agreed.

“This theatre represents a time when Beirut shone its cultural values on the world,” Mahmoud said. “Today Beirut is full of clothing shops and shopping malls. The moment theatres like al-Madina cease to exist, is the moment Beirut’s cultural image is erased.”

On the Struggle of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

First published by Jadaliyya

children at joura

Spring has just landed in Lebanon. Its warmth and colors soothing the dried winter skin of the vast majority of Syrian refugees who resisted icy temperatures and freezing to death underneath thin canvas tents. Lebanon is now home to approximately one million Syrians, displaced from their war-ravaged cities and towns in Syria. Amid unfettered exploitations, Syrian families, forced to seek refuge in Lebanon, have fought a hostile season in a hostile environment that they mistook as neighborly.

During the reign of Alexa, a polar storm that hit Lebanon at the start of December 2013, while walking between a maze of tents in Arsal, Amira grabbed my arm and said, “Sir, I need to have a word with you. You have to see my daughter. Please follow me to our tent.” Inside a two-by-two beige tent, bearing the blue sponsorship logo of disaster management specialist UNHCR, sitting on her heels, was Khadija. It was the day after the polar storm had receded, the sun was shining again over Arsal, home to over seventy thousand Syrian refugees. Inside sat Khadija wearing a black wool head cap; restless and shy as she huddled around the stove. “My daughter is suffering in here, her mental health rapidly deteriorating. She is starting to lose her hearing.” Amira then spoke in a lower tone, “My daughter Khadija is an autistic child.” Amira’s pointy mouse-face features, the sunburned, dry skin cracking on her cheeks and forehead, the long, sleepless nights visible in black rings under her eyes failed to hide how her pre-war beautiful features shone when smiled in embarrassment. Hesitantly, Amira explained, “I know it is not the most important case, as I was told before by journalists and the nations (UNHCR), but she is a special case and needs special attention beyond the Panadol pills she was given by the clinic.” Amira explained that Khadija was doing well at a convent back in Qusir. Before the Migg fighterjets shelled their neighborhood and shattered her peaceful world, “she used to walk to every day and spend her day there with other mentally challenged children.” Routine was essential to Khadija, as it is for many autistic children, and when the thunderous explosions shattered this they destabilized her already fragile world. Her mother feels helpless and lamented, “In Arsal no one wants to pay attention to Khadija, children make fun of her, and it has been one week since she stepped outside our tent.” Khadija, thirteen, finally warmed up and spoke, making evident her unstable memory and her increasing deafness. When asked about her age several times, she insisted, “I am seven.” Her failure to make eye contact and unwillingness to speak to me testified to her fear and uncertainty.

According to Arsal’s municipality, over 74,000 Syrian refugees have fled Syria in the last three years and settled in the village. It was only at the end of last summer that the Lebanese government allowed Syrians to establish camp sites. The one in Arsal, where Khadija and her mother have taken refuge, held up to seventy tents back in December. The number of Syrians packed in each tent varies. Some house up to twelve people, but in reality the two-by-two canvas tent, on a normal camping trip, is best for three people. “We sleep like sardines in a tin,” joked Khadija’s father Mohammad, fifty-four.

The increasing numbers of Syrian refugees in Arsal has created tensions with local Lebanese residents of the border village. On 12 January 2014 Syrians sheltering in Arsal woke up to read a statement calling for their eviction. The eviction notice said Syrians have forty-eight hours to return to where they came from. The municipality of Arsal dismissed the eviction threat and called it the work of agents provocateurs. Following the last wave of Syrian refugees fleeing Yabrud to Arsal the municipality issued a curfew for Syrians. They are now not allowed on the streets from seven in the evening until nine nine in the morning and again from one until three in the afternoon.

Beneath Arsal the plains of Beq‘a Valley, just ten minutes away from the Masna‘ border crossing, tents sprout from the snow-covered red earth in the town known as the gate of western Beq‘a, Marj. Shabby, flimsy tents, forty of them housing over one hundred families, sit behind a trash dump hidden from the eyes of motorists driving towards Damascus. On the arrival of visitors, Syrians crawl out from their tents. They smile and gather. Mothers’ desperate eyes instantly spot a notebook, and yell for other mothers “he is registering, go grab the kids”. Their shouts of “we need milk, diapers … we need …” points to an absence of adequate relief work. At Marj’s municipality, its chief, Nazim Yousif, was evacuating refugees out of the municipal building. Syrians, young and old, sought the warmth of the building’s indoors, sheltering from the four-degree temperature, while they awaited the distribution of tents. Yousif’s fury was evident as he barked in an authoritarian voice, “We are overwhelmed by all those Syrians; the Lebanese government is absent, not helping.” Inside the suffocating warmth of his office, grim faces of men sipped on coffee as Fairouz’s morning music played in the background. Outside, Syrian elders continued to plea extensively about conditions they were suffering from, again interrupted by the arrival of one municipal guard snarling, “Journalists are not allowed to go to any of the camps and must stop talking to refugees, orders of the chief.” The testosterone-hyped guard then turned to the Syrians and dismissed them in a shout, “Go away, leave, no tents today.”

Umm Ahmad Awad, forty-eight, fled Ghouta near Damascus at the start of December, that day she shuttled between the camp and Marj municipality in a quest for a tent. Umm Ahmad, followed by her youngest son, Ahmad, a young boy with Downs Syndrome who hid behind his mother’s black ‘abaya in front of Marj municipality, presently shares a tent with another Syrian family also from Ghouta. Her three daughters are staying across the street from the camp in an apartment with a Lebanese family. Umm Ahmad was not happy about this arrangement, “One of my daughters is feeling uncomfortable in the presence of the father of their host family.” Umm Ahmad refused to elaborate and said, “We are grateful that they offered to host my daughters, teenagers might be misunderstood by their host.” Umm Ahmad, a single mother, has been in a two-week-long struggle to find a tent to unite her family in. Her husband was unable to flee Ghouta with his family. “The regime checkpoint only let women and children pass,” she explained.

Umm Ahmad’s plight in Marj and Khadija’s bewilderment in Arsal resembles a pattern of the hard life that stretches with the Syrian refugees across the Beq‘a Valley. It is a cloud of injustice that overshadows Syrians, a specter cast upon them as they turn from citizens, fleeing barrel-bombs, to numbers in relief organizations’ books and finally to refugees as they cross into Lebanon.

In central Beq‘a sits the city of Zahle. Syrian refugees have setup a few camps down in its agricultural lands. Below the road al-Jura (pit) camp is located, next to the site of a previously torched refugee camp. Syrian refugees of al-Jura camp witnessed the arson with terror and worried they might be next. The camp is named after its landmark, a wide pit (jura) that sits in the middle of the camp where sewers directed in makeshift dug-up pathways drain from outdoors toilets and trickle down into the pit. Displaced from Idlib, Abu Said, fifty-five, manages the camp and tends to the needs of its three hundred Syrian refugees. To prevent unexpected brutal evictions in the absence of any legal or communal protection, Abu Said struck a deal with the Lebanese landowner: they provide the labor-force (from the camp) for a nearby agricultural plot and pay a rental fee of one hundred dollars per month per tent-area and they can keep their tents on the land. Al-Jura camp demonstrates the sheer negligence displaced Syrians suffer from. The corruption of NGOs as well as aid cuts by UNHCR was the main story that Syrians inhabiting al-Jura complained of. “Come look inside our tents and see how we live,” one mother shouted. The smell of damp in the tent mixed with plastic fumes emanating from the heating stove that burnt blue plastic bags and red nylon child-size flip-flops was noxious. “The nations [UNHCR] came and inspected our tent. After the inspection they said we are not a priority for aid. They told me we should look for jobs, that my husband and I are still young.” Tents in al-Jura mushroom side-by-side and form a narrow maze filled with running sewers and toddlers. Fatima, thirteen, sat on a limestone rock giving a reading lesson to children from the camp. Ten-, eight-, and seven-year-old boys and girls encircled Fatima, their attention fixated onto her lap where a shabby notebook sat. Fatima ran her feeble pointer-finger through Arabic alphabets followed by her students who shouted them in unison and then took turns writing the alphabet on the back of Fatima’s ragged notebook.

Down the road from al-Jura camp four more camps appear in the distance. In these four camps, Syrians from Aleppo, Idlib, Raqa, Homs, and Damascus coexist all the while defying the harsh circumstances imposed on them by their host. One early February morning at seven o’clock, while a thin crust of frozen dew melted on green shrubs and a lazy winter sun crawled out from behind the eastern mountain range of the Beq‘a Valley, the blue truck hummed as it awaited the arrival of women. Syrian women: mothers, sisters, and daughters left the warmth of their tents, their babies in their cribs, and trailed to the blue truck, snatched away to labor in the fields for a pitiful four dollars per day. “We have no choice. To keep our tent we have to work the land.” Displaced from Aleppo, Haytham, seventeen, remarked as he watched his mother and two sisters climb the blue truck, “He [the landlord] leaves us no choice. We cannot even bargain our wage. It is a fixed six thousand Lebanese liras [four dollars] per day. Take it or leave the campsite.” Behind Haytham in the distance a banner that reads the curfew hours for migrant workers (read Syrian refugees) waves. “Men are designated for construction sites and women plough the land,” Haytham lamented as he complained, “there are too many men for construction jobs, only few of us get a job opportunity.”

In those early hours, children hugged their books and energetically rolled into a tent that operates as a makeshift school as their mothers and sisters disappeared in the distance in the back of the blue truck. Inside one of these tents sat former Idlib resident Amina Hamzeh, fifty-seven. Amina’s tent is a built up structure, made from wood and plastic billboard sheets recycled from Zahle’s dumpsters. The makeshift tent supports two separate rooms: one functions as a living room in the day, at night it is the men’s bedroom, the second is a bedroom for women and their children. Amina’s tent hosts up to eighteen family members; they range between infants and elders. Amina suffers from numerous joints’ pain but her backache and an unpredictable menopause are her worst enemies united with all the refugees’ worst enemy: the ice-cold, bone stinging wind. Squatting down washing dishes in a blue plastic bucket, Amina was dressed in at least four layers topped by a purple Abaya, “I was forced to bend all day in the fields in spite of my protests that my back and legs cannot support me.” Amina’s second day of work was her last after she collapsed. “The landlord let us stay on his land as long we supply him with women to labor his crops.” Amina’s weary eyes water but refuse to surrender her tears, “I told my two boys that I will look after their infant children while their wives went to the field to cover for me, otherwise the landowner would not have let us keep our tent on his land. Where else can we go?” Whispering outside her tent to make sure no one is listening, Amina confides “we are forced to work for the landowner, we cannot say no. We are paid six thousand Lebanese liras [four dollars] per day to pluck potatoes from seven in the morning until four in the afternoon, and the ones who do not comply have their tents uprooted.” Amina’s family chose to flee to Lebanon instead of Turkey thinking Lebanon is “our second home” only to arrive in such an unwelcoming habitat. “We do not dare leave our camp site at night.” She frowned and continued, “I plead with my boys ‘do not even think about stepping out of this tent once it is dark.’ One night last month two of my boys were beaten up and verbally assaulted while walking back from Zahle.” The Syrians in these camps fear any police or military patrol that happen to be passing by “if they see us [Syrians] they stop to search us, we are guilty for being Syrian.” Amina’s predicament is an example visible throughout the experience of Syrians while they shelter in Lebanon. The lack of basic life necessities is only one aspect of the hardship, dignity and self-esteem are the most lacking; their subjugation by their host is tantamount to modern day slavery. If for one moment these refugees could forget their status a banner at the entrance to the camp reminds them brutally of their place “Foreign workers are not allowed movement and assembly in public places from seven in the evening until give in the morning. The municipality of Zahle also emphasizes adherence to the time of the curfew for the sake of public safety.”

[Banner reads, among other things: "Gatherings of foreign workers are forbidden in public spaces. Image by author.]

[Banner reads, among other things: "Gatherings of foreign workers are forbidden in public spaces. Image by author.]

In the past three months of winter an increasing number of Syrians have fled to Lebanon to escape escalating violence in Syria. Coinciding with this growing number of refugees are harsh aid cuts by the UNHCR which left many baffled as to why they were denied aid all of a sudden as they continued to live in the same dire conditions. UNHCR provides the funds for many NGOs working in Lebanon. I spoke with many Lebanese, Syrian, and international NGO workers who confirmed “unjust arbitrary” cuts made by the UNHCR. None of the NGO workers I spoke to were willing to provide their names for this story for fear of losing their jobs. One NGO employee, a field officer in charge of distributing aid vouchers, said “seven months ago UNHCR made arbitrary aid cuts effecting over forty percent of beneficiaries”. The aid cuts struck the most basic form of aid: the food voucher program that provided twenty-seven dollars per month worth of food for an adult in each family. The NGO employee continued saying “we were told by the UNHCR that cuts were measures in order to shake off unwanted beneficiaries that did not fit the criteria. Many donor countries, mainly in the gulf, have not fulfilled their promises of financial aid.” Refugees denied aid protested at UNHCR’s conduct and as a result a form for appeal was granted with a forty-five day deadline. Those who were not able to organize their appeals within the forty-five day deadline were thrown out of the aid-system; only ten percent who managed to appeal were back to receiving aid. “The brutal aid cuts made many Syrian refugees victims of impoverished conditions and circumstances that made a target for exploitation; prostitution and organized beggary reaped their bodies” the NGO employee lamented. Recognizing the repercussions of their move, the UNHCR implemented an evaluation program. The program cost millions of dollars and employed an army of short contracted staff (for fifty dollars per-day plus three dollars for phone calls) and fleets of rental cars to conduct the survey. Inspection units surveyed and inspected the living conditions of Syrian refugees cut from aid in order for UNHCR to re-determine who would be included again in the aid system. The field officer, who is in direct contact with the distressed Syrians stressed that, “when UNHCR decided to cut aid they did it randomly and ended up harming the most vulnerable beneficiaries. The sudden cuts prompted refugees to think it is a conspiracy meant to drive them back to their war torn country. People complained to us that it was systematic conduct to make them leave Lebanon.” Two weeks ago, I was speaking with a UNHCR employee who confided, off the record, that Lebanon is going to start taking “harsh” measures to close its borders in the face of incoming refugees from Syria and start the expulsion of those in the country. A week later Lebanon shut down eighteen “unofficial crossings” along the Lebanese Syrian borders.

Shortly after their curfew ends Syrian refugees start to assemble at 6:30 a.m. beneath the UNHCR’s building in the town of Zahle. Defying the cold temperature of the early morning hours, Syrian families wait to register, file a complaint for arbitrary aid cuts, and the sick seek medication, beyond the all-in-one Panadol pills handouts. At the registry center of UNHCR Syrian families are treated, or “managed,” like cattle. In Zahle, UNHCR’s building is fortified by at least forteen security guards; their job, obvious to any observer, is to bark through a megaphone at Syrian men, women, and children. To “control those Syrians” who came in the early hours seeking aid and registration, seeking mercy and recognition of their plight, begging for what is theirs. The security guards sport navy-blue combat uniforms bearing badges on their chest that read “Protection Security Company” (a company owned by Sa‘ad al-Hariri). The security men hound refugees from the streets to the enclosure of iron fence, a similar scene to the one Palestinians endure under Israeli occupation’s checkpoints. When the security guards were asked about their harsh practices one replied, “It is for the neighbors’ sake.” Another security guard chimed in, “It is a calm neighborhood, the residents are not happy with this sight [pointing at the group of Syrian refugees across the street]. Every day, we receive many complaints.”

Before Syrian refugees head to the UNHCR center they need to call a hotline to book an appointment. Sometimes it takes three to four days to get an appointment but at other times it can also take up to two weeks to book an appointment. Many Syrian refugees who have just arrived from Syria or live in dire, disconnected conditions do not know the drill so they go directly to the UNHCR registry office to be registered. Such refugees fall victims to all sorts of manipulations; one of many, the most common, is when refugees are charged a fee by the security guards manning the registry center to “get them an appointment.” Many refugees have complained about this extortion; a UNHCR insider confirmed that it is not uncommon for security guards to cooperate and play intermediary between the Syrian refugees and the UNHCR registration desk. Himself, one of many short-contracted but highly paid UNHCR registration officers said, “Those security guards are hustlers and they have contacts inside the building; they usually have one partner sitting on a registry desk. This is how the bargain starts: security guards see a Syrian family who has come to register without an appointment so they offer a “favor.” The “favor” is either a quick entry to bypass the long line and register or simply they give the guard their family info and then he passes it to his partner on the desk in exchange for a fee which ranges between thirty three and one hundred dollars. Later, at the end of the day, the security guard splits the extortion money with the registration employee.” Many Syrian families fall victims to this scheme because of the urgency to register, to get recognition, a status and aid while in Lebanon. Although extortion money is the only motivation for the security guard, his partner in this crime, the UNHCR employee, is looking to keep their lucrative job by increasing the number of people they register daily. It seems that the nature of this “humanitarian organization” is corporate-based; the registry employees are forced to compete on who can register the most refugees every day. The UNHCR insider explains, “At the UNHCR registering desk section there are thirty employees and twenty-seven desks. Those who arrive first score a desk, those who are late do not get a desk and instead they do photo copies for the day. Employees start to arrive one hour before work hours. At the office, a chart is set showing which employee registered the most and who came in last. Not a nice, humanitarian work environment. We are pressured by these tricks that keep us in a never-ending competition.” UNHCR’s employees compete to register more refugees as a way to keep their jobs “so in that environment competing coworkers at my office will sometimes settle on all kinds of unethical methods to increase their performance; one of many methods is the coordination with the security guards outside the UNHCR office building to bring in additional Syrian families for registration.”

Three young sisters leaving the center in frustration are snarled at by the omnipresent security guards “put out your cigarettes, I do not want to see any one smoking. Stay in line. Stop talking. Keep your children in line, hold their hands, and do not let me see any of you on the street. Where you think you are going, come back to the line.” Their daily visits have not succeeded in getting their food vouchers renewed and they have had to borrow money to feed their children and pay rent.

Inside the centre, not far from where the girls are waiting, cake, croissants, aromatic tea, roasted coffee, juices and many other refreshments were made available to foreign correspondents, their drivers, and UNHCR employees. The UNHCR’s representative in Lebanon Ninette Kelley was touring, sightseeing, the registry center in Zahle. The second day of Geneva II peace talks made a perfect occasion for Kelley’s PR stunt. International journalists swarmed the scene, most trailing Kelley but scoring hefty quotes from Syrian refugees behind their iron fences. In the middle of the hustle and bustle, a white car drove into the crowd honking hysterically. The woman behind the wheel pushed through the throng in her oversized white Grand-Cherokee SUV. She stopped at the first security guard, rolling down her window, demanding in her superior tone, “they [Syrians] ruled us for thirty years, for thirty years! Why do we keep letting them into our country? Why they are ruining our street? Send them back to their country. I do not want to see any Syrians on the street and if I hear their voice from inside my house I am calling your company. Who is in charge here? Get me your manager; we need to clean this neighborhood from this daily nuisance.”

“Back in Ghouta we owned our homes; we made an honorable living working our jobs and although bombing and destruction were all around us our dignity was unscathed. Since we fled to Lebanon our dignity had ceased to exist.” One of the three displaced sisters shrugged and decried as they left the UNHCR centre dragging their children behind them. The hostility of winter is slowly fading away now making room for the warmth of the Mediterranean sun, however the inhospitable environment of their neighboring country, now their home, remains.

Lebanon marks civil war anniversary

On the Lebanese Civil War: was first published by AJE

As Lebanon marks 39 years since the start of the country’s civil war, many feel that sectarian divides still run deep.

when will the civil war end (Lebanon)

when will the civil war end (Lebanon)

Beirut, Lebanon – During the Lebanese civil war, the Beirut National Museum (al-Mathaf, in Arabic) stood as a landmark on the dividing line between the city’s Christian-controlled east, and Muslim-controlled west.

On Sunday, people in the Lebanese capital gathered for a prayer vigil on the museum’s steps to mark the 39th anniversary of the start of the country’s bloody civil war.

“We are holding this activity to strengthen the civil peace,” Samer Mokarzil, one of the event organisers and a member of local group Joy of Giving, told Al Jazeera.

Enduring for 15 years, between 1975 and 1990, the war left around 200,000 people dead and an estimated 17,000 others missing. The Israeli army also occupied Lebanon during and after the war, only withdrawing its troops in 2000.

After the vigil, Lebanese citizens of all denominations marched towards parliament, where five children – from Tripoli, Bab al-Tibani and Jabal Mohsen – to deliver a bouquet of flowers to parliament members. “The Lebanese civil war is a painful memory, so we are trying to change this image that carries so much pain in the Lebanese society,” Mokarzil said.

The Taif agreement, brokered in Saudi Arabia, put an end to the Lebanese civil war in 1990. It resulted in a redistribution of political roles between the warring factions, and aimed to establish equal representation for Christians and Muslims in the government.

The agreement also brought Syrian security forces to Lebanon to act as a peacekeeping force. The Syrian troops were forced out of the country in 2005 after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister.

But many in Lebanon feel that the civil war never really ended.

“We are still divided and each sect still stands behind their leaders,” 31-year-old Ahmad Ossaili, who lives in Beirut’s Mousitbi area, told Al Jazeera. “Today people keep to their areas. No one is feeling safe, just like the time of the civil war [when] people were divided.”

A recent spate of car bombings, a sluggish economy and ongoing violence in Tripoli have raised fears of a return to widespread sectarianism in Lebanon. The war in neighbouring Syria has also raised concerns of a spillover of fighting.

Some also believe that the dividing lines have shifted; while the fighting was largely between Christians and Muslims during the civil war, new fault lines have emerged between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Lebanon.

“Before the civil war, Christians and Muslims did not hate each other. Our childhood neighbours were Christians, but two years after the war began they moved to east [Beirut],” recalled Mohammad Mogharbel, 58, as he sipped Turkish coffee outside his grocery store in Beirut’s Aysha Bakar neighbourhood.

“Nowadays, I keep telling my youngest son, it is just the same sentiments as the days before 1975. [The] only difference is today it’s Sunni against Shia, Muslim against Muslim.”

Members of the Secular Club at the American University in Beirut (AUB) also organised several events in the lead-up to this year’s civil war anniversary, including photography exhibits, film screenings, and talks by Lebanese political scientists and government figures from the time of the civil war.

The closing event, on Monday, will be a discussion between Assaad Chaftari and Muhieddine Chehab, former fighters who belonged to opposite groups during the civil war.

“This is the purpose – to start talking about issues… It’s not really about taking sides, but [looking at] what happened,” explained Joey Ayoub, a Beirut-based blogger and activist, and former member of the AUB Secular Club.

He explained that many people in Lebanon are tired of discussing the events of the civil war, but that dialogue is crucial to move on from what happened.

“We sort of have today a taboo, at least in my generation, when it comes to discussing the civil war because it’s something that’s not yet finished. We don’t know who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and we don’t dare discuss it much,” Ayoub told Al Jazeera.

Polarisation also led to a long-lasting stalemate in Lebanese politics, as the various political blocs were unable to form a coalition government for more than 10 months. Once finally formed, in February 2014, the government took a month to release its policy statement, which forms the basis of the state.

The March 8 political alliance is led by Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah and Christian leader Michael Aoun of the Free Patriotic Movement. The group insisted that the policy statement emphasise the right of Lebanon and the Lebanese people to resist the Israeli occupation of the Lebanese border areas of Ghajar and Sheba Farms, and defend Lebanon from Israeli violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty.

Meanwhile, the Future Party, which leads the March 14 political alliance, had demanded that resistance to Israel be carried out only by the Lebanese army and wants the clause on resistance omitted from the statement.

For many young people in Lebanon, the polarisation leaves little hope for the future.

“We will never be able to live in peace in Lebanon as long these politicians are ruling us,” said Maya Sallam, 28, a graphic designer who lives in Aramoun, a coastal village south of Beirut.

Twenty-one-year-old university student Samer Awada agreed. “I feel the next civil war is waiting to happen, and I am planning to finish university this year and leave Lebanon while I still can,” he told Al Jazeera. “This summer will be another summer without tourists [and] people like me cannot find jobs in Lebanon if the situation continues to escalate.”

Beirut’s security measures: effective deterrent or display of power?

Published first on AAE

By: Moe Ali Nayel
Published Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Ali

Many residents in Beirut today are questioning the efficiency of the latest surge in security measures across the city, claiming that while there has been a very public display of force, little is being done by the authorities to build trust with residents.

Armed men in uniform are reinforcing positions on street corners from Dahiyeh to Burj Hammoud with cement-filled barrels – often adorned with the slogans and flags of the local political leaders, including but not limited to Hezbollah, Amal, the Future Movement, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, as well as a variety of other local religious leaders – linked with chains or yellow ribbons bearing the signature of the Internal Security Forces (ISF). Oversized SUVs with black tinted windows blasting sirens while driving full speed on the narrow, traffic-jammed streets are now a daily occurrence, and random searches of citizens of a specific profile (whatever look seems to bother the patrolling officer in question) have increased significantly.

All this constitutes the government’s “show of force” in response to a soaring crime wave, which politicians of all stripes have blamed on Syrian refugees, despite the fact the ISF’s own daily arrest data, reported on its website, shows that fewer than 20 percent of those being taken into custody are from Syria. That means the vast majority of reported muggings, kidnappings for ransom, rapes, and other crimes are the work of Lebanese against Lebanese. Many crimes still go unreported, due to a lack of trust in the security forces.
The increased deployment has done little to make people feel safer, with security forces at best being seen as ineffectual, and at worst contributing to the sense of insecurity through ad hoc applications of the law, discriminatory policing practices, and corruption.

‘Waste of time’

Last month, Abu Ali, a taxi driver, was mugged at gunpoint in broad daylight. Instead of driving to the police station he drove home.

“Thank god I wasn’t harmed,” he told Al-Akhbar. “Two well-dressed men in their 20s stopped me and asked for a taxi to Khaldeh; it was a slow working day in Beirut, and I decided to take them. Soon after we crossed the Khaldeh bridge they asked me to turn into an alleyway and drop them by their house, promising an extra fee. As I started driving through the alley, I felt his pistol pushing the back of my neck. The man sitting in the backseat told me to stay calm and drive slowly. The man sitting next to me grabbed my phone, stuffed it in his pocket then rummaged through the glove compartment, taking all I had, 50,000L.L ($33).”

Abu Ali, 66, like many elderly Lebanese, has no social security or retirement savings, and rents a taxi at 45,000 L.L. ($30) per day to drive for a living.

Abu Ali did not bother reporting to the police station. “It’s a waste of time” he said. “What will the police do for me? When did they ever serve ordinary people? They always protect the big ones, the rich and the political leaders.”

Scowling, he vented his resentment towards the latest security procedures: “Every time extra security procedures are implemented they [the police] direct it at us, on the weakest, taxi drivers, looking for the smallest excuse to write a fine I can’t pay.”

Earlier this year Ziad, 25, had just finished his shift at the café where he works in Beirut. It was late at night and he was heading to the southern city of Sidon. He took a minivan from Cola bus station and while on the highway to Sidon, he was mugged at gunpoint by the van driver and another passenger, who turned out to be the driver’s partner. Infuriated by the incident and devastated at losing half of his salary and his $700 Smartphone bought on credit, he found his way to the closest police station.

“God will compensate you. Just consider yourself lucky they didn’t hurt you,” the officer on duty told him.

To Ziad’s surprise, the police officers tried to shake him off when Ziad insisted on filing a report. “The police officer started raising his voice and asked me if I was serious. He asked me ‘do you want to make us work at this late hour?’” In the end they made him wait 4 hours until they returned from their patrol at 4am before he was able to file a report.

Today Beirut resembles the Beirut of post civil war years, where the political elite – surrounded by their convoys of personal bodyguards – drive around with guns pointing out their windows, while their residences have now become fortresses of security. Policemen, under pressure to make arrests, are becoming more arbitrary in their stop and searches, increasing the level of insecurity amongst residents.

Take for example the widely reported story of a local musician, Hussein Sharafeddin, also known as Double A the Preacherman, was detained and beaten by the police in Beirut’s southern suburbs after being suspected of being a terrorist because of his beard and alternative clothing style. His detention and subsequently quick release only came about because his story went viral on social media and news outlets. Yet, many unheard stories of discrimination continue to take place on checkpoints and on streets of Beirut on a daily basis.

Women bearing the brunt

Police discrimination and sexism toward women is also a common occurrence. Last month two women in their 20s, Mariam and Joumana, were chased near the Ain el-Mraisi area, by “a man in his thirties holding his penis in his hand while chasing after us.” Both girls were traumatized by the incident and as a result they phoned the 112 emergency number, only to be told to avoid their attacker and try to not be provocative.

Both girls were outraged by this indifference to their situation. “When we insisted the police come to the place where we were harassed the operator (a man) started flirting with us, telling us he would never treat us this way.”

When another woman had her car stolen, she was so unnerved by the police officers behaviour towards her, she left and asked her father to deal with it.

“They were asking why I was still single, commenting on my looks, and staring at me in a way which made me really uncomfortable,” she said, wishing to remain anonymous. “They were being sleazy and unhelpful.”

According to a Human Rights Watch report: “Women face discrimination under personal status laws, and vulnerable groups report being mistreated or tortured by security force members during arrest and in custody.” Despite the increased security presence and heavy deployment on streets, harassment against women continues to rise.

Another case depicting neglect and inefficiency of the security forces is that of Samira, 52, who went missing from her home in Beirut’s eastern suburb of Sid al-Bouchrieh. When the police found her under a bridge with her legs broken and bruises on her face, instead of taking her to the hospital, they arrested her and took her to the police station, where she died a few hours later.

Recently, Lebanon witnessed the birth of a new government. Like previous governments, they have tried to put on a new face that always begins with a show of power, focusing on “sovereignty” and “security.”

Yet in reality, the extra security measures have resulted in more inconvenience with little to no perceived impact on our personal security. More checkpoints means more traffic jams. Police and military on the streets arbitrarily stopping people at whim creates more bitterness and distrust among anxious citizens.

These politicians have made no attempt to identify and address the sources of societal dysfunction and instability, while at the same time expending a great deal of energy dodging the responsibility to actually governing the country by blaming our current woes on Syrian refugees, a people currently so disenfranchised that they lack the voice to cry “scapegoat!”

Visualizing the discrimination faced by Palestinian refugees in Lebanon

Moe Ali Nayel The Electronic Intifada 6 March 2014
VP-ILO-Restrictions-EN-FINAL-20140220

After more than six decades of forced displacement, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon find themselves largely excluded from the formal labor market. As a result of discriminatory laws and biased attitudes, most Palestinians face precarious working conditions and economic hardship.

In Lebanon nowadays, when asked why they are paid less, many refugees can only reply “because I’m Palestinian.” Why are you banned from practicing more than 70 professions? Why can’t you travel? Why can’t you own property? Why were you arrested at every security checkpoint? Why won’t Lebanese hospitals treat you?

The answer is always the same: “because I am Palestinian.”

In the last 66 years of forced displacement caused by the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon today survive but are deprived of the freedom to really live.

Visualizing Palestinian plight

Creative organizers have recently gotten together with the Visualizing Palestine initiative to publish facts and statistics via infographics to shed much-needed light on the socioeconomic situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

This series of four infographics — based on the latest International Labor Organization research — offers an overview of the key issues facing the Palestinian refugee labor force in Lebanon, including their exclusion from high status professions and social security health benefits.

One the graphics highlights the situation of Iqbal Assad. Last year, at the age of 20, she became the world’s youngest doctor.

But, as a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, she couldn’t practice. Medicine is among several dozen professions from which Palestinian refugees are barred.

These infographics were created in partnership with the ILO and the Committee for Employment of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon.

Struggle
VP-ILO-Health-Care-EN-FINAL-20140220

To be a Palestinian in Lebanon in 2014 is a struggle to remain alive. One hopes for the least exploitation possible while surviving.

Palestinians, alienated by the Lebanese political and official discourse, are treated either as a burden, a threat, or potential agents provocateurs plotting to ruin Lebanon from inside their sunless refugee camps.

Dehumanized in the eyes of the Lebanese public, Palestinians remain isolated in their camps. They continually fend off the fire of Lebanese sectarian politics that might vent Lebanese frustration and demonstrate chauvinistic nationalism by destroying yet another Palestinian camp (as was done to Nahr al-Bared in 2007).

The most important question inside the Palestinian refugee camps is one which also has only one answer: what do you want?

The answer rings out: to return to Palestine and live in dignity.

Restrictions
VP-ILO-Facts-Figures-EN-FINAL-20140220

The struggle for return remains alive as thousands of Palestinian refugees continue to survive daily. But it is a hard life of endurance.

The “lucky” few who manage to leave Lebanon risk it all as they are trafficked by sea to Europe. As for the ones left behind, their life remains shackled under strict Lebanese laws and restrictions. Because of the harsh restrictions on professions, people do whatever they can to make a living.

Hayat Masri, a 26-year-old single woman, has been a sales clerk at a perfume and cosmetics shop in the Tarik Jdideh neighborhood of Beirut for five years. She lives a few minutes away from her home in Shatila refugee camp.

“I started this job after I dropped out of university,” Hayat told The Electronic Intifada. She realized she had wasted her time. “I had to help my mother shortly after my two brothers immigrated to Germany.” She lives with her mother in a one-bedroom apartment.

As a Palestinian, Hayat had no ability to bargain for a decent salary, so she had to take whatever was offered to her. She said her first three years at work were tough. “I was making 50,000 LBP [$36] per week until two years ago when I stood up to my boss and demanded a raise. It became better as my salary jumped to 100,000 LBP [$66] per week.”

Heavy burden
VP-ILO-Contributions-EN-FINAL-20140220

Hayat is of the fortunate ones in the camp — she has a fixed income and some money sent from her brothers in the diaspora, who contribute whenever they can spare a dime or two.

The majority of men in Palestinian camps carry the heavy burden of having to put food on the table starting at a young age. Palestinian fathers, fiancés and brothers wake up to a daily struggle and hustle inside and outside their camps.

Squatting in one sunny spot on a narrow damp ally in the Shatila camp was Emad, 24, a freelance bricklayer. Emad had not had a single day of work in the last three months. A master of his profession, he spoke in despair.

“I started laying bricks when I was thirteen. Nowadays, I’m lucky to score three to four jobs a year that will pay the price for my experience,” he explained.

Due to a boom in the real-estate and construction markets, which are taking advantage of an abundant labor force caused by fleeing Syrians and Palestinians from the war in Syria, construction has seen a surge recently.

But Emad laments that “when Lebanese contractors see that [a worker] is Palestinian, they offer to pay a fixed labor rate regardless of expertise, which used to be 20,000 LBP [$13] per day two years ago — and now is between 15,000 [$10] and 10,000 [$7].”

“Daily labor rates have dropped recently because of an abundant labor force made by the fleeing Syrians and Palestinians from the war in Syria.”

The plight of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is so severe that it is not easy to visualize, imagine or contextualize the daily suffering.

Yet these infographics help us to understand a situation that is too often hidden from view.