The dream of returning home

Fadi (center) with his three sisters, brother in-law, niece and nephew in the family’s home in the al-Buss refugee camp. (Mary Pole)

Fadi looked up and pointed at the rain. “This is like our life. We hate the rain. But we can’t change it so we will stay under it.”

This rain appeared all the more invasive when picking lemons in winter. It is a cold, wet and miserable task, for the equivalent of $7 a day. A task only perceived to be fit for Palestinians in Lebanon. Despite Fadi’s postgraduate qualification in accounting and fluency in English, he rightly pointed out, “I can’t be a lawyer, I can’t be a doctor … Seventy-two jobs I can’t do.”

Until 2005, 72 professions were off-limits to non-Lebanese citizens, including Palestinian refugees residing in Lebanon. This includes those working in managerial positions as well as lawyers, doctors and pharmacists and skilled vocational labor. Although 50 of these professions have now been removed from this list, the legislation requiring Palestinians to obtain yearly work permits has ensured that little has changed in practice.

Fadi is from the al-Buss refugee camp in southern Lebanon. The camp’s dusty tracks, conveniently marked in a grid system unlike some of the other camps, are heavily built up on either side by two- to four-story properties. Fadi’s father died when he was a boy and left his mother with virtually nothing. He has worked from scratch to build a modest two-bedroom, one-story house near one of the non-manned entrances of al-Buss. In addition to several non-manned entrances there are two main entrances to exit and enter the camp which are the cause of much discontent. Residents of the camp are regularly checked upon entering and leaving by Lebanese soldiers, and cars face tighter restrictions. Fadi explained, “all the camps of Lebanon have one way to enter and another one way to exit from it. So I am not in the camps, I am in a big prison.” This sense of confinement is heightened by the fact that legislation currently forbids Palestinian refugees from owning property outside the demarcated refugee camps, leaving Fadi and his neighbors little choice but to stay.

His bedroom contains three striking features. The first is a photo that hangs above the bed, the only item to adorn the bare walls aside from Quranic recitations. This photo is of Fadi overlooking his homeland, representing the only “alive dream” that his circumstances have afforded him.

He explained that “I can’t have any other dreams for the future. There are no dreams for any Palestinians in Lebanon. I dream to have a good home, a good job, a good family and a good wife, but is there a way to receive my country and my homeland? We have dreams but they are dead dreams. If you lived in this way, what could you dream for your future? Would you have any dreams? I don’t think so. All our dreams are dead, apart from this one dream: the alive dream to return to my home and country, this will not die.”

The second immediately apparent feature of Fadi’s room is a veritable library of books in English and Arabic, on subjects ranging from physics to English literature. As I admired this collection, I was reminded of Chafic, a 24-year-old I met from the neighboring Rashidieh camp outside of the southern city of Tyre. Chafic is currently studying at the Beirut Arab University. We met for a water pipe and coffee in one of the thriving nightspots of Beirut frequented by a new generation of Lebanese with money, seemingly a million miles a way from the poverty stricken camps of the south.

Chafic’s father works for Fatah, the leading Palestinian political party, and has been able to save for his education. As the oldest son it is imperative that he be able to support his family. The tragedy is that despite an excellent training as an accountant, Chafic is reduced to bribing his boss and working day-and-night in order to illegally obtain a work permit. After all, his status as a Palestinian refugee prevents him from being employed as an accountant. Palestinians can learn, attend top-tier schools and universities, but are then forced to put the books back on the shelf and turn instead to other means of achieving equality and stature.

Back in al-Buss camp, he third item in Fadi’s room that stands out is a gun: a 10-year-old Kalashnikov in pride of place complete with case knitted by his mother.

“I have this machine gun to save our rights in the camps. I don’t want Lebanese citizenship. I want to go back to my country. I don’t want to stay here. This gun protects me and all refugees from being picked up like sheep and taken to another land,” he said, adding, “It’s just an idea but we think it because we are a big problem for Lebanon and a big problem for Israel and for all the world. If they finished us like this there is a big problem solved. It will even solve their problem of our living near to Palestine. Our home.”

It is not only the Israelis that Fadi wants to protect his family from. He remembered with anger the massacres in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps during the 1982 Israeli invasion. While the Israeli army surrounded the camp, members of the Lebanese Christian Phalange militia killed between 800 to 3,000 Palestinians, including women and children. This was compounded by the “Camp Wars,” when Amal, the Lebanese Shia militia backed by the Syrian army, laid siege to the Palestinian refugee camps of Shatila and Bourj al-Barajneh. Fadi explained, “I will not throw my weapons down. I need them to save the refugees in Lebanon and save our lives. We are not terrorists, we have peaceful minds, but we have no choice.”

Mary Pole is a 24-year-old British writer, reporter and humanitarian relief worker currently based in Kyrgyzstan. She spent two months in the Palestinian refugee camps of southern Lebanon in 2008 working with UNIPAL, a British Universities Educational Exchange program. Having studied the Palestinian refugee situation in detail during her Masters Degree in Forced Migration at Oxford, she is looking forward to returning to the Middle East to work in an advocatory capacity.