Pictures of the drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi plus repeated media coverage of the thousands of people trudging towards northern Europe have generated worldwide concern for the plight of refugees.
But that feeling-sorry emotion, and even a generous response to appeals for financial help, overlooks the often inspiring characteristics and achievements of refugees. They make significant contributions to their adopted countries and diverse lessons can learned from them, in particular from the millions so easily forgotten, who have lived in refugee camps in appalling conditions for decades.
Sixty years old Hosni Abo Taha is the chairman of the popular committee of the Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp in the southern suburbs of Beirut. The camp is a slum of improvised dwellings held together by cement likely to crumble because it has been made with salty water. One to two meters wide alleyways meander between the buildings and beneath a spaghetti maze of electric cables slung over sewers which are often open and flooded.
Hosni and his neighbours are generous and tolerant. They also have ideas for those Australian citizens who are ashamed of their government’s cruel policies toward asylum seekers.
Occupying just one square kilometre, Bourj al-Barajneh is home to 37,000 people, an increase of 15,000 thousand over the past eighteen months due mainly to the influx of Syrian refugees. The residents of this camp welcome all new arrivals. No-one is turned away. Space is created where there is none. Poor people give even though, in material terms, they have little to offer.
The only rejection comes in response to requests to bury the dead. The camp’s cemetery is overflowing. Like the garbage piled high in Beirut streets, the camp’s dead bodies will eventually have to be buried outside the city’s limits.
Although refuge is given to people who have fled a siege, famine, and violence in the Syrian Yarmouk refugee camp, safety is an illusion. The crumbling Bourj al-Barajneh buildings have been built without foundation and eight hundred homes have been condemned as likely to collapse.
There are other uncertainties. Citizens of this camp cannot obtain help from a Lebanese government which does not want them and will not allow them to work. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has no interest in them and is seen as a regime which collaborates with Israeli security forces. Most threatening of all, the UN agency UNRWA, which has a responsibility for residents of the camps, is running out of funds and is unlikely to be able to continue to support basic health and education projects.
Early Education Coordinator in the camp Suha Al-Yassir admits to a permanent state of uncertainty. “We may survive but we have no rights,” he says. The only certainty, akin to a blanket or soft toy which a child loves, hugs and depends on, is ‘shanta’. “Shanta is a bag which contains all our necessary belongings, an identity card, a Palestinian/Lebanese ID, perhaps a certificate of insurance,” Suha explains. “Every man and woman in this camp would have a shanta, ready to go at a moment’s notice and many are more than ready to become refugees again.”
Uncertainty and fear is the catalyst to escape, whatever the risks, whatever the destination. For Palestinians the uncertainty concerns the right to return to their homeland, though that prospect remains a dream. In a poem, We Travel Like Other People, the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish expressed this uncertainty; “We travel like other people, but we return to nowhere, as if travelling is the way of the clouds.” The poem finishes with these words; “We have a country of words. Speak. Speak so we may know the end of this travel.”
In a pre-school play group in the Bourj camp, a three and a half year old boy speaks, but not in the way Darwish might have hoped. The boy is crayoning blue with a dark, indistinct object in the middle of the blue. Asked what this picture is, he replies, “It is a boat so we can escape”.
Hanan, a social worker, says that the interest in taking the risk to move is increasing “because social life in the camps becomes worse day by day”. She paraphrases the despair felt by camp residents. “We are dying every minute of our lives, so why does it matter to take a risk? We die anyway.”
Despair makes some women more conservative, more dependent on their God, more likely to dress conservatively, only in black, almost completely covered.
Despair turns some young men to join Hamas or Fatah and even to consider becoming terrorists because that unknown prospect might offer hope, whereas conditions in refugee camps stifle it, as might the experience of any permanent injustice.
Suha describes the conditions which nurture terrorism. “Our education services are declining and may disappear. Classrooms are small, fifty children in each, three to a desk. If young people receive little education, if they have no prospects of work, it is no surprise if some become extremists.” In uncharacteristic annoyance she exclaims, “The world is fuming about terrorism but they create terrorism.”
In Suha and Hanan’s minds, breeding grounds for terrorism include support for the arms trade, the persistence of unemployment and poverty, and the lack of freedom under authoritarian regimes.
Such women leaders insist no country should be entitled to talk about peace unless they have nothing to do with the arms trade. They note the irony that war gives them at least one benefit. When there’s war, people start being interested in them again. During a time when there’s no war, they forget.
Although Hosni Abo Taha respects the ideals of democracy, he thinks that even elected governments, “only pay lip service to human rights, they only pretend at being democratic.”
Suha, Hanan and Hosni want all refugee camps closed. They want the international community to respect their human rights and so end their imprisonment.
Their crucial human rights are listed in paragraph two of Article One of the UN Charter which refers to respect for the principle of equal rights and self determination of peoples, and in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which refers to the right “to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”, and in Article 15 which identifies a right to nationality and to be free from arbitrary deprivation of citizenship.
Hosni makes a final appeal. “We love life. We want to live our lives in freedom, as we did before 1948. We deserve the chance to prove that we are human beings.”
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