Week 1 of teaching has come to an end. I’ve gotten a glimpse of what it feels like to work in Rashidieh, a Palestinian Refugee Camp in the South Governance of Lebanon. Electricity is in and out which to everyone with thin skin means no fans or circulating air. The one entrance to the camp is guarded by a Lebanese Army Checkpoint naturally making anyone approaching a little uneasy, and living conditions at the camp are very low. The day starts off with all of our students lining up by class to sing Fida’i, the Palestinian national anthem which I’ve noticed each and every student singing out to. I teach an English class with about 17 kids in the morning, then a volleyball class in the courtyard 10 minutes after, followed again by a repeat of this schedule in the afternoon. I’ve probably used every ounce of mental and physical energy I’ve stored for each day… It’s challenging and makes me question so much about so many things. But right now, I don’t want this narrative to be about me. It should be about the 10% of Palestinians that make up Lebanon, those who are scattered throughout the country’s 12 refugee camps established over 50 years ago and many more who are living in informal gatherings. It’s about sharing the stories of grandparents and great-grandparents of kids who were forced to flee ransacked villages and homes in 1948, otherwise known as the Nakba (catastrophe). And it should be about the kids who are growing up with big dreams and ideas, to show that Palestinian children are humans too, and raising awareness about the realities these kids will face throughout their lives.
As many of you know, Lebanon as a country has suffered multiple wars and members of its population have been displaced as a result of these wars. I had the opportunity to listen to the stories of 5 Palestinian elders share their accounts from 1948, who were forced to flee as children to Lebanon. They haven’t moved from the refugee camp since. One of them voiced that had they of known they’d be displaced for this long, they would have rather died in their homeland than know that they’d be suffering every day in a country that is not their own. The UNRWA is the organization designated to provide relief and development to Palestinian refugees. But services have been cut and only reach about 1/4 of the population. These 1/4 are categorized as “needy” so the other 3/4 do not receive anything. When you think of relief and services you naturally think everything will be alright, right? Well how would you feel if now you weren’t receiving your $10/month from the UNRWA, it was cut to $10/every 3 months. How would you feel when education has declined, and your child is attending a school with limited resources and 50+ kids in one classroom. You know they aren’t getting an adequate education or one that can help them succeed in Lebanon, when kids continuously fail the Brevet exam administered in English, essential for entry into high school. In Lebanon, Palestinians are banned from working in over 70 occupations such as doctors, lawyers, engineers or accountants. When we went around the circle on the first day of school and said our names and the cliche, what we wanted to be when we grew up, over 3/4 of the kids answered something they are unable to do because they are a Palestinian in Lebanon.
The situation for Palestinians in Lebanon is dire. It has been pushed to the side by so many. Some have lost any sense of hope that the international community will stand by their side and some still hang on strongly to their “right of return”, a principle drawn from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Speaking to the UNRWA director of Rashidieh Camp, Mahmoud, he emphasized that he cannot return to his land, a home he longs for so dearly and wishes he could bring his kids to every morning, but a Jewish person from Poland or America can move there and receive full citizenship in a heartbeat. The problem is not with the Jews, he voiced, its with Zionism and those who say Palestinians were not forced out of their homes, they left willingly. “How can a young person live in dignity if they don’t even have their homeland?”
When Mahmoud talked about the younger generation and the fear of their futures, I think of my students. Drawing pictures of Palestinian flags and kids being shot at outside their homes or maps with fences running straight through them, these are the pictures hanging in my stuffy classroom in Rashidieh Camp. The nerves and anxiety of teaching before Week 1 has turned into a commitment towards my students, to give them the chance they all deserve through education. It’s Sunday night and heading into week 2, I think about Mohammed’s face as he high fives the Lebanese checkpoint guard through the window driving into the camp after our field trip on Friday or the makeshift school bus that dropped the kids off to their respective dusty ally closest to their house. A refugee camp should not be someone’s home. It should not be the memory of your childhood. And it should not be the memory of your life, for 60+ years.