The legendary piano of Yarmouk

Submitted by Moe Ali Nayel on Tue, 10/14/2014 – Electronic Intifada

There is a piano that continues to survive alongside the Palestinians in besieged Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus.

Earlier this year the piano appeared in the above YouTube video; it was the first time I learned of its existence. A favorite musical instrument, my ears were absorbed and my eyes followed each stroke of its keys.

That decrepit piano from Yarmouk appeared on the screen in front of me as a living, breathing thing. As I watched, the piano sang, directed by cold, dry fingers which appeared almost fossilized.

A young Palestinian pianist from Yarmouk dropped his head to the keyboard and his music spoke. The tune that came from the piano did not have the same effect the piano usually triggers in my psyche; the melody created a feeling of discomfort, sweaty palms and a dull anxiety, causing my teeth to clench throughout the four-minute video.

My usual joy in the piano gave way to melancholy as I watched a dystopian reality unfold in the video: five young men stand shoulder to shoulder facing the piano; they sing along despite the bitter cold that shivered in their malnourished bodies. They tuck their hands in their pockets and sing along with the angry piano notes: “O displaced come back, the traveling has been far too long.”

The Yarmouk piano surfaced again on social media on 3 October, in a video titled “Blue.”

Just like the first time, my second encounter with the piano was by coincidence while I scrolled aimlessly on a social media timeline. Produced by Bidayyat and Rad Fael (Reaction), the short video work is a personal story narrated by its director, Abo Gabi, who is displaced tries to Skype with his friend who has remained in Yarmouk.

The video begins on a gray street in Yarmouk refugee camp as a screaming ambulance zips by. The camera walks the viewer through the grim reality of the besieged camp and settles on the pianist who is accompanied by several youths who sing “Promises, promises, promises! While our people are dying.”

At 9:39, during a scene showing a funeral procession, the camera stops at a handwritten sign hanging on the windshield of an ambulance, reading; “I’m the 80th person to die from starvation because of the oppressive siege of Yarmouk.” The video ends with a note that reads: “Yarmouk camp has been under siege for the last 450 days,” followed by Aeham Ahmad playing his piano, destruction in the background.

In the video’s description on YouTube, Abo Gabi describes his motivation for creating the video:

“I’ve had a recurring dream since I fled the Yarmouk Refugee Camp and came to Beirut. The dream takes me back to besieged Yarmouk, where death and destruction have found a way to settle in all its details. I am not sure whether it is a dream or a nightmare. But I live in this open-ended waiting with images of that place and the difficulty of abandoning it. Maybe the sound of my friend Aeham’s piano changed the nightmare into dream and the place into a legend. Here, there is no geography, a place between two times, the first is a tent and the second is bags packed for other conquests. These conquests stimulate the hardness and bitterness of our catastrophes and previous disappointments. We pack our luggage to find only our memory that tells the stories of our relation with the wind. We, as witnesses of disappointment and hope.”

The pianist of Yarmouk appeared to me again three days ago. This time he is alone, his piano painted white and decorated with Palestinian colors and trademarked by Naji Al-Ali’s iconic cartoon character Handala. In this third video, Aeham plays his latest piece, “Ends.” On Facebook he describes the song as “(a) melody of the Levant mixed with Yarmouk’s wretched streets compressed into three minutes.”

This latest video compelled me to find and contact Yarmouk’s pianist. I felt that I needed to meet him, virtually at least, and learn how he is surviving. I wrote to Aeham and he responded. The 27-year-old Palestinian refugee from Yarmouk shared bits of his story:

“At the start of the siege in the camp, I decided to isolate myself from music and decided to stay neutral to the Syrian conflict. I sold falafel for six months, and kept music in my soul. But I couldn’t help it so I took out my piano and fixed it onto my uncle’s vegetable cart and started moving it between depressing neighborhoods in the camp.

“The camp’s streets were desolate; all the beloved ones who used to fill the street with their noise and joy were gone. I started playing my piano and moving in the streets of Yarmouk to bring back hope. That’s why I roamed the streets because I couldn’t keep the music quiet. I fed my body on falafel but I had to nourish my spirit and so despite hunger and siege I kept playing my piano.

“I started playing the piano when I was five; I studied music in the Arab conservatory from the age of six until I was sixteen. I usually play academic music on my piano but the current circumstances have inspired me to compose music that speaks about the siege and the crisis in a camp besieged for two years and a half.”

When we finished chatting, I was left wishing that I could simply take that familiar two-hour taxi ride from Beirut to Damascus, meet Aeham in person and invite him for a thick cup of tea in the rambling old streets of Syria’s ancient capital.

Someday the Palestinians and Syrians who survived the war will tell stories about what happened in Yarmouk. People will recall how they ate grass to remain alive during the siege. In survivors’ collective memory, Aeham and his piano will live. In the future, some might say Aeham’s piano was a legend.

When people recall Yarmouk, perhaps they will say:

Remember while snipers shot anything that moved and in the middle of this destruction, one young man broke the silence, fixed his piano on his uncle’s vegetable cart and rolled around the camp playing music in those bleak streets? Remember when one young man defied death by blasting his piano notes over the deafening sounds of bombs and bullets?

Palestinians fleeing Syria charged $400 per month to rent garages in Beirut

Moe Ali Nayel The Electronic Intifada Beirut 18 September 2014 protest at unhcr

On Tuesday, 9 September, Palestinian refugees from Syria descended from acrossLebanon to Beirut. They gathered in a group of approximately two hundred to protest outside the UN refugee agency UNHCR’s headquarters in the capital’s Jnah neighborhood.

The protest was called by Syria’s Palestinians in Lebanon, an organization that draws attention “to all the humiliation and insults” they are subject to in Lebanon.

At the protest, Palestinian refugees described the dire conditions they face in Lebanon.

A middle-aged man, Omar, stood warily on the sidewalk facing the UNHCR building. A resident of Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus, which has been under siege since June 2013, Omar was sandwiched between his teenaged son and daughter. He held onto his family in the absence of his wife who he said was “taken by death in Yarmouk last year.”

Omar explained that “it’s very difficult for a father to support his family.” Then he went silent.

He began to grow uncomfortable as his son and daughter looked at him from both sides, waiting for him to continue. The widowed father’s sleep-deprived eyes broke into tears as he spoke again.

“We don’t know what to do,” he said. “We’ve lost everything in Syria and we can’t return to Yarmouk. No one wants to help us; we can’t stay in Lebanon.”

Firm demands

Palestinian refugees from Syria came to the protest with a list of demands they delivered to UNHCR representatives. The demands include lifting the ban on renewing residency permits for those who have been in Lebanon for more than a year; endingforced deportation; lifting the closure of the Syrian-Lebanese border; addressing the lack of adequate financial support from UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees; and securing the right to asylum in European countries.

Tarik Sakhnin, 23, was studying journalism at Damascus University before he fled to Lebanon two years ago. He told The Electronic Intifada: “This is not a protest. This is us trying to confront the world, trying to say we are here we are living in hard times. We are here because we refuse to die silent.”

Sakhnin said that Palestinians from Yarmouk and other refugee camps in Syria want to return to Palestine, not to “the unknown of today’s Syria.”

Most Palestinians in Syria are refugees from the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine and their descendants. Israel refuses to respect the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their land and property.

“The majority of us came here today in the hope we can get the right to apply for asylum to Europe, and once we get a European passport, we want to return to Palestine,” Sakhnin added.

The severity of circumstances Palestinians have experienced has pushed many to take desperate measures in hope of a better life, including undertaking treacherous journeys by small boats to other countries across the Mediterranean.

“Many of us have nothing left to live for in life so we take the only option available now, we go and take death boats, risk it all and hope we get to Europe alive,” explained Sakhnin.

The plight of Palestinian refugees from Gaza and Syria came to the fore in recent days. Approximately five hundred refugees, many of them Palestinians, were drowned during the deliberate sinking of a vessel by human traffickers in the Mediterranean.

Subjected to violence

Refugees from Syria sheltering in Lebanon have been subjected to public, violent resentment from Lebanese citizens as well as raids in which security forces look for the most trivial pretext to attack, arrest or deport people back to Syria.

The violence in Syria has impacted Lebanon. Most recently, Lebanese soldiers have been captured by the group Islamic State in the town of Arsal, close to Lebanon’s border with Syria, in multiple incidents over the past two months. There has also beenfighting between the Lebanese army and the Islamic State in the Bekaa Valley, where Arsal is located.

Um Muhammad, 48 years old, is another Palestinian refugee to have fled Syria. She and her family have been living in Lebanon’s Rashidieh refugee camp for the past two years.

“In Rashidieh, there is no security or safety — my six girls and only son and I live in a garage,” she said. “We pay a monthly rent of $100 and another $50 for electricity.”

She explained that they are forced to search for food every day, foraging for edible plants to eat.

“A Palestinian mother will have to come up with a miracle,” she added, to nourish her family under such circumstances. Throughout the month of Ramadan earlier this summer, Um Muhammad said that she only received one portion of food aid which only lasted a few days, and UNRWA stopped giving her family financial aid to pay their rent.

“Our people, those political factions in the camp, are against us,” she said. “They raised the rent for everyone and then turned to us and blamed us. They said, you Syrians raised the prices, and so in turn, Palestinians from Lebanon believe that it was us who made their situation worse than it was.”

Deprived of education

Um Muhammad’s children will not be going to school this year. This is the second school year they have missed.

The Lebanese education ministry announced recently that priority will be given to Lebanese children. The other 400,000 non-Lebanese pupils will have to wait and see if there will be available teachers and seats in government-run schools.

According to UNRWA, more than 53,000 Palestine refugees from Syria were seeking safety and shelter in Lebanon in April this year. Most of them have gone to the coastal city of Saida and to refugee camps further south.

Some Palestinians who fled from Syria now residing in Shatila camp in Beirut live inside garages and pay a steep rent of up to $400 a month for such inadequate spaces.


According to one international aid worker who operates relief programs in the south of Lebanon, Palestinian refugees from Syria have been excluded from the relief programs funded by UNHCR.

“One day last winter, we were distributing winter kits [containing thick blankets and mattresses] at the area of distribution for Syrian refugees,” said the worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Our team was approached by two Palestinian families from Syria,” the aid worker recounted. “They were obviously eligible to get a kit, but our team leader was faced with a moral dilemma: UNHCR provides us with data of beneficiaries from the program and those two families were not listed because they are [Palestinian refugees from Syria]. We knew if we gave them kits and listed them as additional beneficiaries, UNHCR might stop our funding and we would all lose our jobs. Finally, we decide to give both families kits without listing them.”

UNHCR is only mandated to offer relief to Syrians fleeing from Syria, and not Palestinians, even though they are fleeing the same war.

Majida is a 34-year-old schoolteacher and mother of three who once had her own two-bedroom apartment in Yarmouk. Today, she shares a one-bedroom apartment with her brother-in-law and his family in Saida refugee camp.

“My three children and I risked deportation by coming here [to the protest] today. Our residency permit expired last year and if we are stopped at a checkpoint we will get deported back to Syria,” she said.

Majida bitterly denounced the favoritism that influences decisions about which families receive aid. She said that some families who know aid workers or who are affiliated with certain political parties receive monthly help.

“I am not going to beg this or that man from the political parties,” she exclaimed. “We will not die from hunger … We are forced to be in Lebanon in exile — it is not as if we are here on a vacation.”

Moe Ali Nayel is a freelance journalist based in Beirut. Follow him on Twitter:@MoeAliN.

مقابلة مع “الراس”، وتقرير عن إطلاق “آدم، داروين والبطريق” (Arabic)

عن حفل إطلاق اسطوانة “آدم داروين والبطريق”

كتب المقال محمد علي

ترجمته عن الإنجليزيّة سماح جعفر

يوم السبت 24 أيّار/ مايو 2014، وقف مازن السيد، الملقب بالراس، على خشبة مسرح مترو المدينة، باصقاً المقاطع اللفظية من فمه كالرشاش، مطلقاً اسطوانته الثانية: آدم داروين والبطريق، كالقذيفة. لم يقف الراس وحيداً تلك الليلة؛ فمقابله وقف جمهور من جميع الأعمار وإلى جانبه وقف “الفرعي” الذي حضر من عمّان، وناصر طفار الذي ينحدر من محيط جبال بعلبك. وكما هو الحال دائماً، احتلّ طرف الخشبة الموسيقي، الجندي المجهول كما سمّاه ناصر الطفار لاحقاً في الحفل، “مونما”.

بدت ليلة السبت تلك كأي عطلة نهاية أسبوع أخرى في بيروت، كان شارع الحمرا يختنق بالاختناقات المروريّة المزدانة باللاجئين السوريين الأطفال الذين يبيعون الزهور ويلمعون الأحذية لرواد الليل. على السطح بدا كل شيء طبيعياً ومملاً في تكلّفه بينما تُهدم هوية بيروت بفعالية كبيرة من قبل آلة النيو-الليبراليّة الوحشية المسماة “تنمية”.

كان التباين ما بين دواخل شارع الحمرا وطرقها الرئيسيّة واضحاً. وفي أروقة مسرح مترو المدينة، تجمّعت وجوه متنوّعة لترى ما سيقدمه الراس من جديد. تبادل البعض الآراء حول ما سمعوه حتى تلك اللحظة من الاسطوانة الجديدة على ساوند كلاود. إذ توقّع البعض أن تكون الاسطوانة تكراراً لعمله الأوّل “كشف المحجوب”، بينما كان البعض الآخر أكثر حماساً تجاه العمل الجديد.

كانت هناك أيضاً وجوه جديدة حائرة لم تحضر حفلاً من هذا النوع من قبل. من هؤلاء برز ثلاثة شبان تتراوح أعمارهم بين 12 و14 عاماً على الأكثر، جاؤوا برفقة أمهاتهم. أحد الشبان الصغار سحب والدته المحجبة، والتي ربما كانت في أواخر الأربعينيّات، إلى كشك التذاكر وأخبرها بحماس “ماما هون بنشتري التذاكر” ثم تابع محاولاً إقناع والدته الحذرة “بيعطونا سي دي كمان”. استهجنت الأم ذلك وقالت “منُّه ناقصنا سي ديات” ولكنها شرت التذاكر لإبنها الذي كاد يطير فرحاً.

بعد انتظار طال بعض الشيء خرج الفرعي من وراء الستائر وافتتح العرض بأغنية “صاحب الراعي”، من اسطوانته “صوت من خشب” التي تبدأ بـ”قلي يا وليدي ايش هالون اللي تغنيه”، والتي هي بداية مناسبة جداً من باب أنها تطرح السؤال حول نوع الموسيقى الذي يتعاون فيها هؤلاء الشباب، وخصوصاً في الاسطوانة التي كان الراس على وشك إطلاقها.

تتراوح النقاشات وتختلف حول الاسم المناسب لهذا النوع الجديد والناشئ: “هيب هوب”، أو “راب عربي” كما يسميه الأكثرية، وهو ما لا يوافق الكثيرون- بمن فيهم الراس- على أنها تسمية مناسبة. ذكر الراس في عدة مناسبات أنه يفضل تسمية “تعليق”. تسمية التعليق مفيدة لعدة أسباب أهمها ربط العمل هذا النوع من الموسيقى بإرثها العربي اللغوي، الأمر الذي تحدث عنه الراس بتوسّع في مقاله “الراب والنص القرآني، بين الموروث الانقلابي والاشتباك” ورفْض تحجيمه كمجرد تنويع على تقليد الغربي.

واصل الفرعي عرضه بغناء “بحة بدوية” ثم انتقل إلى مقطع شعري أداه بدون موسيقى آلاتيّة “أكابيلا” حمّس فيه الجمهور. أداء الفرعي القوي مهّد الطريق للراس الذي ظهر من وراء الستائر وثبّت قدميه أمام الميكروفون. تحته كان انقسام الجمهور واضحاً؛ كان هناك من يهتف ويصفّر وكان هناك من بقوا في مقاعدهم وصفّقوا بتهذيب وخجل. بدأ مونما تأدية ألحانه وانبثقت كلمات الأغنية الأولى في الاسطوانة “معركتي” من فم الراس الذي بدا متوتّراً بعض الشيء. شد الراس حامل المايكروفون بيد واحدة وتابع تدفقه: “مخنوق بكيت كتير جوا”. على الرغم من أنني عرفت كثيرين يحفظون كلمات الأغنية منذ أن أطلقت على ساوند كلاود، إلا أن أحداً لم يغنِّ مع الراس. كان وجوده على المسرح قويّاً وأداؤه مؤثراً.

انتقل بعدها الراس إلى أغنية “في الجليد” مع “الفرعي”، والتي يمكت اعتبارها جزءاً ثانياً لأغنيتهما التي لاقت نجاحاً كبيراً “استشراق”، والتي تتناول معاناة ومشقات المهاجرين العرب في أوروبا. هتف الحضور بعد كل مقطع وخصوصاً بعد أن أطلق الراس السطر التالي “هونيك بشغل عينيي وهون بشغل دفتري، لأنو عرب الدنمارك أسعد من عرب الزعتري”. غنى الراس دون توقف وتدفقت 12 أغنية من أصل الـ 14 في عمله الجديد. ومع كل أغنية، واصلت طاقة الجمهور نموها، وجرفت كل أغنية الجمهور أقرب إلى الفنان على خشبة المسرح. نظام الصوت بمترو المدينة تلك الليلة لم تشبه شائبة؛ وأضاف وضوحه قيمة هامة إلى ألحان مونما وأداء الراس، وحافظ على سير الحفل بسلاسة.

انضم ناصر طفار إلى الراس على خشبة المسرح لأداء ثنائي آخر من العمل. ظهور ناصر أشعل موجة من الصافرات والصيحات والتصفيق، فهو معروف بحضوره القوي على المسرح كما هو معروف بلكنته الجردية البعلبكية وكلمات أغنياته العنيدة والتي لم تفشل مرة في تأجيج حدث. معاً غنوا “أنباء هامة” الأغنية التي تعالج نفاق وسائل الإعلام وتضليلها وصاح كلاهما في مقطع غنائي يشبه هتافاً يعتبر من أكثر المقاطع قوة “الثورة عالطريق، الثورة مو عالشاشة”.

شعرت أن الراس نجح في إطلاق اسطوانة جديدة تحمل أفكاراً منعشة موسيقيّاً وغنائيّاً على حد السواء. كما لاحظت أن المشجعين الذين التزموا الحذر في البداية صارت رؤوسهم تومئ مع الألحان. أغنية واحدة على وجه الخصوص جعلت الناس يتحادثون بلهفة وهي الأغنية رقم 3 في الاسطوانة: “كشغرة”. ففي هذه الأغنية، يقدم الراس نقداً لإرث النبي محمد وللطريقة التي يتعرّض بها الإسلام ورسالة محمد للإساءة والتحريف اليوم. أكثر من شخص أخبروني عن نيتهم في العودة إلى المنزل للاستماع إلى الأغنية بتمعّن.

اليوم نشهد تغييرات واسعة في العالم العربي. منها التغيير أيضاً في فهمنا لتاريخنا العربي/ الإسلامي وثقافتنا ومعها الرؤية الفاشلة والخرافات التي وضعتها أجيال آبائنا والتي تتحطم اليوم إلى قطع. من تحت أنقاض وحشتنا المستمرة تظهر هناك أصوات جديدة لديها القدرة على الوصول إلى مختلف الأجيال.

صوت الراس، خلال عمله الجديد “آدم داروين والبطريق”، يبرز بوضوح ليقود حركة ثقافيّة عربيّة شابة. هذا الفنان العربي وزملاؤه يثبتون مراراً وتكراراً أن المواهب لا يمكن رعايتها بعائدات النفط. “آدم داروين والبطريق يدوّي مستقلّاً”، وضوحه وصدقه في التعبير هو نوع موسيقي نحن بأشد الحاجة إليه، يستطيع أن يتغنى به كل الشباب العربي التواق للتغيير.

هذا الفيديو من إنتاج Medrar.TV، وينشر بالشراكة مع معازف.

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

Moe Ali Nayel The Electronic Intifada Beirut 15 May 2014


“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.”