“Suddenly my phone started ringing, some spoke to me in Arabic, others in broken Arabic, and one caller didn’t speak Arabic at all. Ya imi [O mother] there are still good-doers in this world,” Um Muhammad remarked with grace while we stood on the street of a busy vegetable market at the entrance of Shatila refugee camp in Beirut.
I had met Um Muhammad earlier this year when I was hired as a translator for a human rights professor from Harvard University who was taking her students to interview Um Muhammad in Shatila camp about her flight from Syria. However, instead of letting Um Muhammad speak about the issue most concerning her — urgently needed medical care for her 14-year-old son who was injured when their Damascus refugee camp was bombed — the Harvard group had their own agenda. The uncomfortable meeting revealed the often exploitative element of professed humanitarian work.
Outpouring of support
Three days after The Electronic Intifada published my account of the Harvard interview with Um Muhammad, I went to meet her and handed her a donation from a reader that I had met earlier that day — one of many that came as a response to her story. Her sad story was read and shared by tens of thousands and many reached out, wanting to help Um Muhammad and her injured son.
After our first bitter encounter, when we met her earlier this year, Abdallah, the aid worker who set up the interview with Um Muhammad, managed to get a donor to pay for her son’s first surgery, which was successful. In the last three weeks, much more aid and donations have also been sent to Um Muhammad to help her and her son.
Muhammad, Um Muhammad’s son, is slowly recovering at his temporary stay in Shatila camp, waiting for his doctor’s orders for his second surgery, the expenses of which will be covered by a sympathetic reader. Muhammad’s medical bills including X-rays scans and doctor check-ups were also covered by compassionate readers.
I met Um Mohammad again recently as she and other women refugees from Syria — both Palestinian and Syrian — had an exhibition in the Hamra commercial district of Beirut. These women who fled the war in Syria and are now taking shelter in Shatila camp are using their creativity and initiative to put food on their tables.
At the Metro al-Madina weekly bazaar, Um Muhammad and her friends from the Basmeh & Zeitooneh collective had their goods on display: handmade dresses and pillow cases decorated with the traditional Palestinian embroidery among other items produced by mothers and daughters just a week before the exhibition.
Um Muhammad told me that Palestinian and Syrian women in the camp got together under the roof of a space in the camp offered to them by the collective and decided to embroider, knit and produce artisan crafts. “So we wont be dependent on aid, instead we will depend on ourselves. We are not beggars,” Um Muhammad said.
Her home in Damascus’ Yarmouk camp bombed, Um Muhammad is now living in Beirut’s Shatila camp indefinitely; it seems there is no return to Syria anytime soon.