A Young Palestinian-American Encounters the Palestinian
Refugee Camps in Lebanon
"It is Always Eid in Palestine"
Yasmine Subhi Ali
Yasmine Subhi Ali is a Palestinian-American medical student
who traveled to Beirut, Lebanon in the summer of 1999. During her visit she
toured several Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. She wrote the following
article about her impressions of the camps, especially the children living in
* * *
"…a generation that desperately wanted and hoped to build
a settled and solid future in their ancestral land, not in squalid refugee camps
strewn over the Arab world; who, in their diaspora, tried to get on with their
lives and whatever opportunities they could carve out of their determination and
their dedication to study and work and to contribute even to their society in
exile. I hate to think how many of them were… butchered in the Sabra and
Chatila massacres that September…."
--Dina Abdel Hamid
Duet for Freedom
I must admit that I was a bit surprised
when a friend suggested that I visit the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila
during my first trip to Beirut. I now think it was the best advice anyone has
given me in a long time. I told him again that I wanted to visit
Shatila, so we headed there first. We had to make our way down from the
mountains and through the city, passing many damaged remnants of the civil war
and the Israeli invasion all along our route. I expected that we would have to
stop at some gate signifying the entrance to the camp when we reached it, but I
saw nothing of the sort. I didn’t need to: the contrast between the camp and
the surrounding area (which was not the nicest part of town in the first place)
was so striking that there could be no mistaking it. There were piles upon piles
of trash, junk, and stones lining both sides of the road – matching all the
worst descriptions I had heard about the refugee camps over the years.
I arrived in Beirut at midnight on July 2, 1999. The very
next morning, I was fortunate enough to achieve contact with the General
Director of the National Institution of Social Care and Vocational Training (NISCVT),
Mr. Kassem Aina, whose work focuses on the refugee camps in Lebanon. He told me
that he would meet me at 9:00 a.m. the following day. I nearly drove my mother
insane trying to get her there with me on time, because, although this was the
Arab world, I just had a feeling that this man would not be late. And he was not
– in fact, he was early.
Kassem told us that the street onto which we had pulled, the
one entering the camp, was the one on which the horrific 1982 massacre had taken
place. That shook me up. Crowded shops line the street now, but in the distance
behind them reminders remain: those bullet-hole-ridden, gunpowder-stained
buildings that are ubiquitous in Lebanon, and a graveyard for which (we were
told) the camp inhabitants were not allowed to build any memorials or even
Kassem led the way to Beit Atfal Assumoud (the "House of
Enduring Children"), a center for refugee children and a beneficiary of
NISCVT. NISCVT, one of several non-governmental organizations (NGO’s)
operating in the camps, was established on August 12, 1976, by an initiative of
the Secretariat of the General Union of Palestinian Women as well as some
Lebanese and Palestinian professionals. Beit Atfal Assumoud was designed to host
the children left parentless after the utter and merciless destruction of Tal
El-Zaatar camp in 1976.
You haven’t seen pain until you’ve looked into the eyes
of a refugee and heard his or her story. And you haven’t witnessed
determination until you’ve watched children who have nothing to sing about
stand up and raise their voices in song, never missing a beat or a clap as they
fill the air with ballads of their homeland. We were to find an abundance of
both in the camps of Beirut.
When we walked into the Beit Atfal Assumoud center in Shatila,
I was taken aback by the cleanliness, friendliness, and secure feeling of the
place – a striking contrast to the camp alleyway just outside the door. We
first entered a waiting room, and Kassem introduced us to the resident dentist.
Apparently, there are a large number of dentists working in the camps, which my
mother, a physician, attributed to the poor dental health often seen in Arab
children. Much to our delight, we later saw several signs and posters directed
toward children, instructing them in methods of proper dental hygiene.
Next we met Jamileh, the principal of
this particular center. She began showing us the classrooms where the children
were engaged in summer-camp activities. I think the first group we met were the
nine- and ten-year-old children. To my surprise, they all stood up – there
were about 20 of them – when they saw us standing in the doorway. It had been
over a decade since I had last been privy to such a display of courtesy from a
group of children that age; it was certainly the last thing I expected to see in
a poverty-stricken refugee camp.
They sang a brief song of welcome for us, and then they sang
an Arabic folk tune. They ended with a series of forceful, rhythmic claps and
cheers. We soon discovered that this was to set the trend for every group in
every classroom. The next group, in the adjacent room, were the seven- and
eight-year-old children. They had a song for us as well… The strength and
unity of their little voices – voices of Palestinian refugee children who have
little left in the world besides themselves – coupled with their impossibly
happy faces was moving enough, but then I recognized the song they were singing:
"Fed’ai" (the word itself means "one who sacrifices
himself [for his country]"; the song has been considered as a potential
national anthem for a Palestinian state). It took everything I had to keep the
tears that were filling my eyes from streaming down my face. The children would
never have understood, though, so I did my best to smile instead. Smiling was
appropriate, too, because they made me so proud. I was flooded with feelings –
love foremost among them – for these kids.
We went from room to room like this, visiting a different age
group (ranging from seven to seventeen, I believe) in each one. Activities
centered around Palestinian culture and history were taking place in every room:
in one, for instance, the teachers told us that the day had been dedicated to
the study of Mahmoud Darwish and his hometown in Palestine – the children had
learned a song about him, which of course we were awarded the privilege of
hearing. In another room, they were celebrating Palestinian writers and poets;
one boy, who looked about 14, rose from his seat and confidently yelled out
their names ("Ghassan Kanafani… Mahmoud Darwish…") as his
classmates sang in the background. In yet another room, the children were
learning about Palestinian cities and towns; although I am certain none of these
children have ever been to Palestine, they can tell you about every village and
every city, every year of its history and every struggle of its people – and
they can do so without apology or regret, but rather with the simple
matter-of-factness so often unique to children.
Finally, in one of the last rooms we visited, a girl
(15 years old, perhaps) stood up and briefed us on their burnamaj
("program/schedule"). She was beautiful. They were all beautiful.
Everywhere you looked a sea of bright, inquisitive faces looked back at you. I
noticed several girls with dark, curly hair like my own – "Palestinian
hair," as my Syrian mother affectionately calls it. Their most striking
features by far, however, were their eyes. Big, shining Palestinian eyes. Girls
with almond-shaped eyes that you hear about in songs and read about in poems.
Boys with impossibly long eyelashes framing indescribable brilliance. Later, in
Burj al-Barajneh camp, I saw a girl in a hijab with the clearest blue
eyes I have ever seen. So these were the forgotten children of Palestine:
beautiful, brilliant, and above all, proud. Fawaz Turki’s words marched
through my mind: "I belong to no nation, but… I belong to a people, a
versatile and ingenious people…" (Fateh, 21 Aug. 1970). An
ingenious people. God, these kids defined ingenious.
The last room we were shown in the
Shatila center was a little library that doubled as a conference room. There
were interesting decorations covering the walls – drawings and other assorted
creations done by the children, posters of Jerusalem and other Palestinian
cities (the coordinators are truly amazing in this – in every regard: they do
not want these third-generation refugees to forget where they are really from,
lest they begin to think that they are merely from a camp; the teachers and
supervisors want them to know Palestine, whether they are ever able to
visit it or not). There was even a hand-drawn chart for recording the number of
books read by each child, designed in a most creative and empowering way: the
top of the chart issued a challenge of sorts: "We are what we do, not what
we say – Are you Palestinian??" Below this was a list of the children’s
names and boxes to be checked off with each book read, one for every letter of
the word "Palestinian." But what really caught my eye was the
"Wall Magazine," which consisted of writings by Shatila children.
There were several pages tacked to the bulletin board, listing qualities that
the children had, in their minds, attributed to Palestine: "Palestine is a
very, very beautiful land… There is a sea of chocolate in Palestine…
Children are always happy in Palestine… Women don’t gossip in Palestine…
The streets are very clean in Palestine… It is always Eid ["Feast
Day"] in Palestine… Parents don’t die in Palestine." I stared at
that for a long time.
It was indescribably poignant, how this
obviously reflected their situation in Shatila camp. It reminded me of how the
Jews in the ghettos of Poland and Germany and numerous other countries used to
imagine Palestine as the Promised Land – indeed, how it has been imagined by
so many the world over for thousands of years. And now by Palestinians
themselves. Palestine, the Promised Land, once and forever. The irony was too
We left the building, exiting to the
narrow alleyway outside. Kassem pointed beyond a gate to a little enclave that
had once been a trash dump; now it contained a see-saw, swing set and slide –
he and his organization had turned it into a playground. My mother turned to me
and said (in Arabic), "From nothing they are making something." And I
thought then, as I think again now and have often thought before, how amazing
the Palestinian people are. How they always, somehow, manage to do more than
merely survive. How time and again I have come across a phoenix risen from the
ashes. I recalled the words of Thomas Borge and Louis Godoy, sung by Jackson
Browne: "My personal revenge will be to show you/ The kindness in the eyes
of my people/ Who have always fought relentlessly in battle/ And been generous
and firm in victory… And when you who have applied your hands in torture/ Are
unable to look up at what surrounds you/ My personal revenge will be to give
you/ These hands that once you so mistreated/ But have failed to take away their
As we stood there in the alley, about
to be led by Jamileh on a brief tour of the camp, we heard the children singing
again inside. They shook the walls with their loud and forceful rendition of Mawtini"
("My Homeland"). And it came to me again, for the second or third time
that day, that, in the final analysis, Israel has failed, failed miserably. For
as long as there are children like this – die-hard Palestinians to the core,
persisting in spite of every difficulty and consumed by thoughts and dreams of a
homeland they have yet to see – Palestine lives. Palestine lives. As Ali
Abunimah wrote in a recent issue of the Link, "Palestine exists
because Palestinians have chosen to remember it." Those children have no
idea what a gift they have given to my heart.
Jamileh showed us around the camp for a
short while. Conditions were very crowded and rather abysmal. Pools of dirty
water filled the narrow streets. I wondered how many children got sick from
playing in and around such filth. We passed a couple of boys wrestling in the
dust; that reminded me of my father’s tales of his childhood in Palestine. The
tall stone walls provided shade in most places – perhaps the only blessing in
this miniature hell. Graffiti covered the walls, and I took a picture of one on
which the words "NO MONY" had been painted in orange and red. We
walked past a man sitting in a wheelchair; he had had both legs amputated below
the knee. Most of the people in the streets, however, were children.
We returned finally to the place from
which our visit had begun: the street where the massacre had occurred in
September 1982. Kassem pointed to where the Israeli soldiers had stood, blocking
off the entrance to the camp. Chills ran down my spine. I remembered being six
years old and knowing that something very bad had happened when my parents came
home, turned on the news, and started cursing in Arabic. The TV screen had been
filled with images of smoke and blood. And now there I was, 17 years later. And
I still didn’t understand.
We went next to Burj al-Barajneh, where
we again visited the Beit Atfal Assumoud center, filled with more clever and
delightful children. Some of them were occupied with the task of gluing
matchsticks to cardboard to form the borders of a large, painted map of
Palestine. Others were finger-painting birds to trees. All of them were polite
and friendly and angelic – very humbling to find in children who have every
reason to be rude and to hate the world. And, of course, all of them had a song
In one room we met an absolutely
beautiful young woman who had lost her father during the civil war and who now
worked with her mother at the Beit Atfal Assumoud center. She was in charge of
making nametags for the children participating in the summer camp. Each tag had
the child’s picture in one corner of an index card, and on the rest of the
card was written information about the Palestinian city or village from which
the child’s family originally came. We were told that one of the children’s
homework assignments had been to go home and ask their parents or grandparents
for this information. Once again, it was an effort to give the children an
identity other than that of the camp.
In another room, we found a large group
of children who looked to be anywhere from 7 o 10 years of age. One of them, a
boy in a blue football jersey and with jet-black hair, heard me speaking English
to my mother and asked (in English), "Do you speak Arabic?" I told him
what I tell everyone who asks that question: "Shway shway" ("a
little"). Then I asked him, just to see how he would respond: "Do you
speak English?" He nodded his head with street-wise self-assurance. I told
him, "You are better than me, then." He again nodded his head, this
time in nonchalant agreement, as if to say, "Well, obviously." I just
laughed – mainly at myself.
The woman who was overseeing the
activities in this particular room was speaking to my mother, explaining things
with great excitement in rapid-fire Arabic, and I heard her mention that these
kids learn the names of all the camps in Lebanon .. 13 total now. A couple of
boys around a desk in the corner also heard her, and they began trying to name
them off. This interested me (I was hoping I could learn from them), so I left
my mother and the woman to themselves and went to talk to the boys. They seemed
delighted that somebody actually cared to hear what they had to say. I counted
off on my fingers for them as they recited the list: "Shatila, Sabra, Burj
al-Barajneh, Ain al-Halweh, Rashidieh, Mar Elias, Dbayeh, Nahr al-Bared, Mieh
Mieh, Al-Buss, Burj al-Shemali, Beddawi, Wavell." By the time we finished,
we had gathered quite a large group of curious little faces around us. I turned
to the more outspoken of the two boys, the one in the red T-shirt and with
sun-bleached hair, and asked him, "Shoo ismak?" ("What is
your name?"). He looked away, suddenly shy before his peers. Finally he
answered, "Ahmed." I said, "Ahlayn, ya Ahmed! Ana Yasmine"
("Hello, Ahmed! I’m Yasmine"), and stuck out my hand to shake. He
wouldn’t shake my hand – whether from shyness or religious teachings, I don’t
know – so I just raised my eyebrows in mock surprise, smiled, and said,
"Okay, itsharrafna!" ("it was an honor [to meet
you]"). All the other kids seemed to get a big kick out of that. I turned
to go, but could not resist looking back over my shoulder as I reached the
doorway. Ahmed was still watching me, and two pairs of Palestinian eyes locked
for the briefest but most memorable of moments.
One of the supervisors, a lady in a
flowery hijab, took it upon herself to show us around Burj al-Barajneh. I
walked behind her and my mother as they chatted away in Arabic, largely tuning
them out while wishing for the millionth time that I were fluent in Arabic. I
focused on my surroundings instead, allowing the melodious rise and fall of our
guide’s animated voice to wash over me as I tried to take in the sights and
sounds of the camp. I noticed that the graffiti here was more elaborate than
that which I had seen in Shatila: many walls actually framed large paintings of
the Ka’aba, complete with religious calligraphy. The streets also seemed just
the slightest bit wider than those of Shatila, which, dirty and confined as they
were, had actually reminded me of the now-neglected streets in some parts of Old
Jerusalem. I preferred not to contemplate the implications of the comparison.
We passed a little girl, maybe two or
three years old, with a head full of light-brown, curly hair ("Palestinian
hair!"), and I had to smile in spite of myself. Like many of the girls I
had seen that day, she had pretty gold earrings in her ears – I kept wondering
how any of them could afford such jewelry. I suppose it may not have been real
gold, but it was beautiful nonetheless.
Coming upon some shops, we ran into an
older woman in traditional Palestinian dress who apparently knew our guide. This
woman was unbelievable friendly and hospitable; she invited us to dinner about
half a dozen times, until our guide finally managed to convince her that we
really would not be able to make it, thank you. It was kind of funny to watch
these two refugee women yelling back and forth to one another from one end of
the long alley to the other, as though they were the best of friends. Another
quote of Fawaz Turki’s came to mind, this one from his book The
Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile: "The Palestinians. We
smile together. We share together."
On our way back to the Beit Atfal
Assumoud center, we passed a little boy, five years old at most, sitting on the
edge of a doorstep reading an illustrated Arabic book. A five-year-old refugee reading
a book. I wondered about his future, found myself hoping that he would
become a doctor one day, yet knowing all the while how slim was the chance of
that ever happening… and realizing with the heaviest of hearts that there were
hundreds more like him.
We headed to Mar Elias after we
finished with Burj al-Barajneh. We asked Kassem out of curiosity, if Mar Elias
was a predominantly Christian camp (judging from the name). He explained that,
although it had been at one time, it was "mixed" now – and then we
walked into the Beit Atfal Assumoud center and found every girl wearing a hijab.
No doubt a fluke, a chance circumstance of that particular day, but amusing
The Mar Elias center was much smaller
than the other two centers we had just visited, and the principal was out, so we
did not stay long. The children – both boys and girls – were gathered around
a long wooden table in a large room, cross-stitching patterns on pieces of
burlap from old rice sacks. On the walls were truly elegant paintings with
Palestinian themes – done by the children themselves, Kassem told us.
Postcards of every major city and town in Palestine covered the bulletin boards,
further highlighting the all-important goal of reinforcing the children’s
An adjoining room held a bed and bath
for the purpose of housing one of the various volunteers who come, often from
abroad, to work with the children. I was impressed with the diversity of nations
involved in supporting the programs of NISCVT: Japan, Malaysia, Belgium, France,
Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Finland, Qatar, Italy, Norway, Germany, to name
but a few. It was encouraging to learn that not everyone in the world has
totally abandoned the Palestinian refugees, even if, ironically enough, those
closest to the region have.
Kassem took us next to a small set of
offices in Beirut proper, apparently belonging to NISCVT. One building contained
a small storage center for books and tapes donated or otherwise procured for use
in camp educational programs. This was, effectively, the central library for all
the Beit Atfal Assumoud centers. I scanned some of the book titles; in addition
to classic works of fiction and histories of the world, there were many medical
guides and manuals. I picked up one on first aid; it was a British field guide
with a copyright dating back to the 1960’s. Another book outlined the
principles of dentistry, while yet another addressed the treatment of burns.
There were even several books on women’s health.
Pictures of the children’s dabkeh troupes
from the camps lined the walls of one of the offices. Each had been taken in a
different country in which they had performed – as far away as Malaysia.
Kassem also drew our attention to a poster showing children working at computer
stations in an NISCVT center in one of the camps. He explained that computer
literacy was one the skills that NISCVT hoped to cultivate in the refugee
population, beginning with teenagers as well as younger children. As we were
walking out, I noticed a report lying on a desk beside a computer, amidst a pile
of literature and brochures highlighting the uplifting activities sponsored by
NISCVT. A closer look revealed it to be a recent report on torture. Its presence
here, amongst pictures of dancing children and posters of modern technology, was
surreal. It served as a reminder, however, of the countless complicated layers
that comprise life – in this case, Palestinian life – in the Middle East.
We finally returned to the hotel where
Kassem had met us that morning. I did not have the words – in Arabic or
English – to tell him how much these visits to the camps had meant to me, and
how crucial I believed this work, and that of all the NGO’s to be. So I told
him exactly that: I grabbed his arm and said, "I can’t tell you how much
this has meant to me… I have learned so much. You are doing a wonderful,
wonderful job… Thank you again." He just smiled at me and replied that it
was no problem, that it was "our duty."
While riding the elevator back to my
hotel room, I overheard some fellow passengers, dressed to the hilt in fine
clothes and (real) gold jewelry, whining about some trivial inconvenience or
other. I suddenly felt sick. No doubt they were all good people in their own
right, but I simple was not in the mood for rich, spoiled peopl while images of
Palestinian children like Ahmed filled my mind.
As I opened the door to my room, the
lights went out yet again – another brief power outage, compliments of the
Israelis’ June bombing of Beirut, their worst bombing attack on the city since
1996. I heard somebody yell in frustration, "I hate the Israelis!" I
recalled a scene from Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins, the one in
which Liam Neeson’s character, Collins, says to his companion, Harry Boland
(played by Aidan Quinn): "And you know what I think then? I hate them… I
hate them because they leave us no way out… I hate them for making hate
My first impulse when I entered my room
was to collapse on my bed, but something made me pull out my tape player
instead. I put in Fairuz. The strains of "Li Beirut" ("To
Beirut") filled the room… and proved to be my undoing. I put my head in
my hands as I sat there on the edge of the bed, and wept, wept bitter tears that
I had been holding back all day. I was overwhelmed with more guilt than I had
ever felt at one time in my entire life. Why should I have been born into such
privilege while other Palestinians, just as smart and talented – if not more
so – should be relegated to lives of poverty and bleak futures inside these
camps? What separated them from me? Fairuz’s voice drifted to me: "To
Beirut:/ Glory from the ashes to Beirut,/ From the blood of a child carried upon
her hand… The wounds of my people have blossomed…"
I keep trying to tell myself that doing
and being the best I can in my chosen profession is the optimum way for me,
right now, to being to give back what I have been given, to become a credible
representative for my people. I believe that we Palestinians here in the United
States are so fortunate in relation to our sisters and brothers in the Middle
East; we have so much – the least we can do is do a good job, whatever that
may be. But somehow it still seems so inadequate, so incredibly inadequate, as
if nothing I do could ever possibly be enough. I have to keep trying, though; we
all do… "for the sake of the children’s eyes," as my mother put
I took several pictures during our
visit to Shatila. There is one in particular that I carry with me always, in a
pocket of my white coat: it is the one of the trash-dump-turned-playground, the
something from nothing. Folded over it is a copy of a page from God Cried,
an extraordinary book by Tony Clifton and Catherine Leroy about the siege of
Beirut by the Israelis in 1982; the page consists of two pictures, one of Tal
El-Zaatar camp under attack in August 1976 and one of the survivors of that
massacre. Together, they remind me not to complain.
Many of my American friends and medical
school classmates ask me, sometimes just to make conversation, about my trip to
Beirut. When I tell them that I had the opportunity to visit some of the
Palestinian refugee camps that have been there since 1948, they all, without
exception, stare at me in disbelief, as though they could not possibly have
heard me correctly. And then, inevitably, with Kosovo fresh in their minds, they
say something like, "1948?!? You mean there have been refugees from
Palestine since 1948?? That’s over 50 years, for God’s
sake!!" Yes, I know. Do I ever know. There are many who would desire you to
believe that they do not exist. But they do. And I have pictures to prove it.
Here – would you like to see some of the most beautiful children on earth?
Abdel Hamid, Dina. Duet for Freedom. London: Quartet
Abunimah, Ali. "Dear NPR News…" The Link,
Ashrawi, Hanan. This Side of Peace: A Personal Account.
New York and London: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Browne, Jackson. World in Motion. Audio cassette.
Elektra/Asylum Records, 9 60830-4, 1989.
Clifton, Tony and Catherine Leroy. God Cried. London:
Quartet Books, 1983.
Darwish, Mahmoud. "A Lover from Palestine." A
Lover from Palestine and Other Poems. Ed. Abdul Wahab Al Messiri. Free
Palestine P: 1970.
Jayyusi, Salma Khadra. Introduction. Anthology of Modern
Palestinian Literature. Ed. Salma Khadra Jayyusi. New York: Columbia UP,
Michael Collins. Dir. Neil Jordan. Geffen Pictures, 1996.
Said, Edward. "Defamation, Zionist-style." Al-Ahram
Weekly, 26 Aug – 1 Sep 1999.
Turki, Fawaz. The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian
Exile. New York and London: Monthly Review P, 1972.
---. Fateh, 21 Aug. 1970.
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