Palestinian refugees are not at your service

17 May 2013

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Scene of alley in Shatila refugee camp

Palestinian refugees have seen little benefit from the many researchers who have visited their camps.

(Mohammed Asad / APA images)

“Are you enjoying filming our misery? Film: it’s fine, you are like the others. You show up in the camp, film, leave, and we are still here.”

I used to reply: but we want to tell the world about your story. Always, with the same sarcasm, is the reply: “how much are you getting paid to tell the world our story?”

Throughout my time working as a fixer with international journalists I never understood why people on the sidewalks of the camps’ busy streets always regarded our “humanitarian” mission with skepticism. But earlier this year I came to understand this skepticism of Palestinian refugees in camps in Lebanon.

It was a gloomy day and clouds condensed above Sabra, a shanty town adjacent to Beirut’s Sports City stadium, overlooking the Palestinian refugee camp Shatila.

We walked through a maze of narrow alleys in Sabra, led by Abdullah, a young Palestinian from Syria, doing relief work for his fellow Palestinian refugees who fled violence in Syria and were now seeking safety all over Lebanon.

I had been hired as a translator for a human rights professor from Harvard University who was working on a project regarding the situation of Palestinian refugees from Syria who have fled to Jordan and Lebanon.

Walking through the dim damp alleyways of Sabra, Abdullah led the way. The Harvard professor and her two students were heading to meet a Palestinian refugee from Syria who had agreed to meet us.

“We are not here to talk about her son”

“We are going to meet a woman from Yarmouk,” said Abdullah, referring to the Palestinian refugee community near the Syrian capital. “She fled two weeks ago with her injured son who needs urgent medical care. I hope you’ll be able to aid the poor woman.” Abdullah grabbed my elbow, encouraging me to make sure I translated his announcement to the Harvard team.

At the end of a narrow alleyway we stopped at a pile of shoes by the steps of a small apartment; the heap of shoes indicated the many people who were inside. While we added our shoes to the pile the professor and her students murmured: “We are not here to talk about her son, we just want to ask about her experience fleeing from Syria to Beirut.”

And: “fine let’s just give her a quick five minutes to talk about her son and we’ll move on.” The professor decided on the matter and looked at me as to include me in this decision since I was the translator and would be introducing the team and mediating the interview.

Crammed into the tiny apartment of Mariam, a Palestinian refugee who was sheltering two families from Yarmouk, we all sat and sipped on Turkish coffee waiting for Um Muhammad.

Cigarettes were lit, breaking an awkward silence, but when the Harvard team coughed and complained the cigarettes were politely put out. The silence was broken by Um Muhammad who came rushing in, apologizing for being late, trying to catch her breath while thanking us extensively for the great humanitarian work she thought we were doing: “God bless you and may he give you strength for the charitable work you are doing.”

Introductions and shy small talk were made, while in the background the professor set the scene for her trainees. Questioning would go in turns and each woman carried her list of already prepared questions, the kind used in human rights classrooms. It became clear to me that the Harvard team led by the professor were here to conduct training sessions on how to document human rights violations in the Middle East. Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria as a training topic.

Um Muhammad, a woman in her late 40s, covered her head with a beige scarf and wore an ankle-length burgundy trench coat. A mother of four, she was born in Beirut’s Burj al-Barajneh camp. She fled to Yarmouk camp in Syria during the 1980s when, as she puts it, “being a Palestinian was enough to get a person in trouble.”

Human rights kit

Um Muhammad smiled politely, trying to hide her agony but her eyes betrayed the distress and lack of sleep. In mid-December while her youngest son was playing with his friends next to their school in Yarmouk, the Syrian regime’s MiG fighter jets dropped bombs a few meters away from them, she said. A piece of shrapnel hit the 14-year-old boy on his head.

Um Muhammad rushed her son to a government hospital in Damascus: “they wanted me to sign a paper stating that my son was injured by the terrorists but I refused and told them the terrorists don’t have MiGs. Instead I grabbed him and went running to a field hospital in Yarmouk but they were only able to clean his wound and couldn’t perform surgery.”

“I brought him to Lebanon and I have been running around trying to find anyone who can pay for his surgery or treat him,” she added. “But its the same response I keep getting, from UNRWA [the UN agency for Palestine refugees] and the political factions in the camps from Fatah to Hamas: ‘we don’t have funds.’ It’s been almost one month since his injury. Pieces of shrapnel are still stuck inside his skull, his health is deteriorating each day; now, he’s starting to lose his speech.”

A Harvard student in her early 20s with a stern manner, ready to take her human rights course from theory to practice, sat opposite Um Muhammad. Her human rights kit was out: a long list of questions laid out, voice recorder turned on and set on the coffee table, different color markers deployed, a bundle of papers next to us on the couch.

The student organized her tools, gave a nod to the professor and the round of human rights questioning started. Her quick-fire questions started with the basics: name, age, marital status, number of children and place of residency in Syria. Human rights documentation training was now in action. I was told that for accuracy purposes questions need to be repeated more than once to see whether people are telling the truth:

Why did you come to Lebanon?

How long did it take you from your house to the border?

Try to remember exactly how long the trip took you.

How did you get to the border? Did you take a taxi, a car, or a bus? What kind of car? How much did you pay?

Who paid your visa fees to Lebanon?

Where did you get the money from?

Um Muhammad answered and re-answered but she was trying hard to recall details as her mind was not in full focus on her experience while fleeing.

“Try to remember”

“Tell us how long it took you to get from Yarmouk to the hospital the day your son got injured,” one said.

Um Muhammad struggled to be exact as she replied, “The hospital was not far and there were Syrian army checkpoints on the way but they let us pass, so it took us between 20 to 30 minutes.”

“Tell us exactly how long it took you,” the trainee insisted, keen on the minutiae for her records. “Was it 20 or 30 minutes? Try to remember, and how long you waited at the checkpoint. Five minutes? Ten minutes? Try to remember.”

As this routine continued, Um Muhammad’s answers became more vague and troubled, the students desperate for details. I was told to translate that they were from Harvard and they are here to document her experience so it was important for her to remember.

After a two-hour marathon of questions, Um Muhammad shot me looks of astonishment throughout, as if her words were not credible enough for them. As she was made to repeat her answers over and over, she sighed and went on. At one point, answering politely, but tired of the tirade of questions, Um Muhammad lit a cigarette and told me “I cannot remember those minute details ya khalti,” addressing me as an aunt would a nephew.

Smoking ban

“Please tell her to put out her cigarette.” Um Muhammad didn’t need me to translate this one, she instantly noticed the grimaced looks.

The persistent human rights student, here only to conduct her by-the-book interview in the presence of her evaluating professor, continued with her tiring and condescending questioning.

“Tell us: when you got to the Lebanese border crossing how did you know which window you had to go to.”

“There was a window for Lebanese travelers, a window for Syrians, and a window for foreigners this was the one where Palestinians were getting entry permits,” she replied.

“But how did you know this particular window was for Palestinians?”

“It was not the first time I came to Lebanon — I already told you that I was born here and one of my daughters lives here so we visit Lebanon often.”

“When you are at the Lebanese border crossing how do you figure out which window to go to? Was there a sign you read? What did the sign say?”

Um Muhammad looked at me, confused.

“You can’t just talk to her”

The conduct of the student was neither easy nor graceful, papers were shuffled, questions fired. Um Muhammad answered and re-answered in the hope of getting to the part that she came for: to tell her story and find aid for her injured son.

Um Muhammad’s growing frustration became hard to miss: she grabbed at her pack of cigarettes then let go, smiling at us as she remembered that she couldn’t smoke. Finally, losing her polite manner, she interjected: “I want to talk about my son. I need to tell you the story I’m here for.” She was cut short as her host Mariam arrived with another round of coffee.

Here I took my chance, while the coffee was being served, to tell Um Muhammad about a doctor I know from Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp, a reputable orthopediatrician who I thought Um Muhammad should go to, who treats people for no charge.

The human rights trainee, who couldn’t understand our Arabic and seemed to feel as if she was being excluded, suddenly snapped: “What’s going on? You can’t just talk to her without telling me. What are you talking to her about? I need to know everything that is being said,” interrupting my conversation with Um Muhammad. Further awkwardness filled the air in the room.

Not what they came for

By now, Um Muhammad had lost any remaining patience after three hours of questioning.

“Can I talk about about my son now?” The question hung in the air, followed by silence and uncertainty from the Harvard team. It was decided that to bypass her story they would give her “five minutes to tell her son’s story quickly and move on to questions.”

As Um Muhammad told a story of humiliation and anguish, we listened and nodded. My precise translation here seemed unnecessary: I was told to sum it up. This was not what we came for.

No one came to help any one here, it seemed, this was just a professor training her students, the picture now clear for all. Once Um Muhammad’s story was done and she had noticed that the team were not interested, she leaned forward and asked how we could help. The students kept silent, looking at their professor to rescue the awkwardness left by their disconcerted silence.

The professor spoke: “We will include your son’s story in part of the study we are doing, and it will be published by Harvard.” Then, the professor asked me to tell anxious Um Muhammad that Harvard is an important university and when the report was published many people would read it.

Um Muhammad politely smiled, grabbed her bag, looked at me and said: “That’s it?” Her disappointed face was hard to ignore, although she kept smiling and asked: do they still want to ask anything? Yes, there were more questions now that her son’s story was told, came their reply.

The refugee dilemma

After two more questions, a weary Um Muhammad began fidgeting in her seat shaking her legs nervously; she answered with a defeated tone while grabbing her handbag, positioning herself to get up and leave. But the rookie eyes of the Harvard students didn’t notice her signals of departure. I asked Um Muhammad to get going and she asked me if there is “anything at all that these girls can do to help my son.” I apologized and told her not to waste her time with them.

This has been the Palestinian refugees’ dilemma since 1948: watching groups of people from across the globe stroll through the misery of their camps and and then leave. Making their personal plight and stories available to writers and advocates is for them a way to induce change and action and to advance their moral cause around the world.

But humanity is the key here. To tell stories and conduct research, one would do well to remember that refugees deserve our sensitivity when dealing with their hardships. It’s been 65 years and Palestinians in the camps are still clutching onto whatever crumbs of hope or aid they can. But ultimately they are left awaiting the day they can return to the place where their dignity and humanity can be restored: Palestine.

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