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Violating Sanctions

An American Woman’s Listening Tour Through the Axis of Evil

Arriving In Lebanon: Visting A Refugee Camp

The Author By Kelly Hayes-Raitt | September 9th, 2007 | Comments 2 Comments »

“Are you married?” asked the precocious 10-year-old in clipped, flawless English.

“No,” I answered, laughing with her gleeful entourage who surrounded me.
Palestinian Girls Teasing in Lebanon
“Why!” she demanded, incredulous.

“I never found the right man.” I wondered how this Palestinian girl living in a refugee camp in Lebanon might understand my matrimonial pickiness.

“Good!” she exclaimed to nods all around.

“Are you married?” I asked her.

“NO!” she said emphatically, hand waving over to her pre-pubescent flat chest.

“Good!” I said, cementing our sisterly bond.
Burj al-Shamali
After skirting the Golan Heights and Israel’s well-fortified border, we arrived at Burj al-Shamali (, a refugee camp of 20,000 Palestinians.

When the camp opened in 1956 to temporarily house Palestinians displaced by the founding of Israel 8 years prior, 7,000 people moved into a square kilometer. Today, half a century later, 3 times as many people live in the same space.

The United Nations oversees and funds the 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. However, Palestinians remain frustrated that the western world’s response to the creation of the Israeli state and the displacement of thousands of Palestinians was to create a new UN agency to deal with refugees, rather than to solve the repatriation of Palestinians.
Women Wave to Delegates
Now, nearly 3 generations later, Palestinians have made the best of their “temporary” situation. Behind the armed guards and razor wire, they have used international funds donated by NGOs to create impressive libraries, pre-schools, senior, vocational, athletic and music programs, and even an oral history project to document first-generation displaced Palestinians’ stories.

Although the unemployment rate is nearly 70% at Burj al-Shamali, and only one medical clinic serves the entire community, friendliness thrives. A welcoming parade of students performing folkloric music on drums and bagpipes (blame the British, who ruled Palestine) wound through the grungy neighborhood lined with smiling, hijab-clad women and overly eager children.

Soura, soura,” the teenage boys called, pointing loudly to their chests, drawing attention in the hope they’d be photographed, while little girls chanted “wel-come,” drawing out each consonant.

It’s no surprise that children gravitate first to our American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee ( delegation of American and European camera-wielding activists: They comprise more than a quarter of the residents at Burj al-Shamali. The local betterment associations focus the youth on their future, but the elders have their concerns.

This refugee camp has been invaded and bombed repeatedly during Israel’s various incursions. In 1982, Israel destroyed most of the camp, bombing the pre-school and killing 95 people, mostly children. Last year, the community took heavy bombing.
Palestinian Girls in Refugee Camp
The children, as usual, don’t seem to worry about their future. My fellow bachelorette wants to be a doctor, her sister, a teacher, and their friend a nurse. I ask them to teach me a song and they start a jingle they’ve heard on TV. As we stumble through the cement labyrinth of their neighborhood, their voices falter at first, uncharacteristically shy, then, as I sing along with my creaky voice, they buoyantly sing out:

“Together, together, together everyone. Together, together, together we have fun.”
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2 Responses to “Arriving In Lebanon: Visting A Refugee Camp”

  1. Debbie Vanden Dungen Says:

    Kelly, great job of surmising our experience at the camp. When I was walking through the camp, I was so busy and distracted with composing shots on my video camera that I didn\’t realize that the bagpiped welcome—was actually for us. I wasn\’t thinking, I just went through and thought that we were going to a big celebration and we were just part of it.

    So, as I was walking up the steps, exhausted from a long day on the bus and emotionally drained from experiencing nearly every emotion a person could feel in one day, it occured to me that maybe the bapipes had been for us. So, I asked…and they were.

    This may not seem such a big deal. But imagine…imagine that you are a North American walking through a Palestinian refugee camp that you have never been to. As much as you know differently, you still have that reserve of fear that has been programmed into you for the last 40 years that these people are to be feared.

    The camps are not pretty, but the people are beautiful. They have nothing, but they offer you everything they have. They coordinated a hero\’s welcome for us, in the midst of struggling to survive. Can you imagine how it felt for us to have this kind of welcome from people who do not even have enough resources to fund their schools, feed themselves, doing this for us? It\’s an amazing and humbling feeling.

    When you are in these camps, you cannot help but feel that you would do anything, and I mean anything…to help these people.


  2. Mary Afifi Says:

    Kelly and Debbie,
    My husband, Mazen, also visited the camp with the ADC last year, and I am planning to go in September - were you on the trip with Mazen?
    Mary Afifi

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