Mohammad and Mahmoud sat on an idle field on the edge of the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared in northern Lebanon. While Mahmoud sang to the songs being played on his mobile phone, Mohammad used his for gaming. Mohammad looked up and explained, “We spend our days doing nothing. We get up and sit at the cafe for a few hours. Then we go home and pray. We gather again and return to the cafe. There we sit until the evening. Every day passes like this.”
The two young men are not the only unemployed refugees in Nahr al-Bared. Formerly the most prosperous Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, Nahr al-Bared’s residents have struggled to rebuild their lives since the camp was destroyed two years ago during fighting between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam, a small Islamic militant group that had infiltrated the camp. According to a 2007 study authored by the Norway-based FAFO Institute, before the war, 63 percent of Nahr al-Bared’s labor force was working inside the camp. However, a November 2008 survey carried out by the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) estimates the current unemployment rate of the 10,000 returnees to be 40 percent. This number is based on statements with the interviewees and doesn’t reflect the large number of residents who have only temporary jobs or part-time work. A significant number of camp residents work as day laborers. Many of them work only a few days per week and are sometimes out of work for weeks.
Nahr al-Bared used to be a thriving marketplace between the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli and the Syrian border. In the UNRWA survey, three quarters of the former business owners stated that their work premises were totally destroyed. Additionally, a report prepared by the SME Working Group finds that 1,512 micro, small and medium enterprises in Nahr al-Bared Camp were damaged or destroyed in the aftermath of the conflict. During and after the war — when the camp was under sole control of the Lebanese army — machines, tools and stocks of goods were looted. Furthermore, businesses were burnt or otherwise destroyed. By October 2007, Nahr al-Bared’s economy was physically eliminated.
Mohammad’s father, Ziyad, is also unemployed. He spent a large part of his life working in pipeline construction in the Caucasus and the Persian Gulf. Last summer he worked for a short time with a Lebanese company in the nearby al-Koura district. “When work slowed down, I was the first one who had to leave. Because I’m Palestinian and was illegally employed, I could easily be kicked out,” he explained. Since then, he has tried to earn income from fishing and selling coffee, lemonade and tea in his barely-visible cafe next to the camp’s temporary housing, known as the “iron barracks.”
Ziyad has plenty of time to go fishing. Every morning between 5-7am, he walks to the shore and tries his luck for a few hours. “It depends on the wind,” he said. “The day before yesterday, I caught a lot so I could even sell fish for LBP 14,000 ($9). Yesterday, I returned empty-handed.” If the wind is favorable, he returns to the sea in the late afternoon.
Nahr al-Bared camp is situated along the Lebanese coast. As part of the camp clean-up, dump trucks have created a 10-meter strip of debris along the shore. Ziyad dropped the fishing hook into the water. Beneath his feet were the detritus of the former camp — broken toys, a shoe, kitchen appliances and pulverized brick and stone.
Ziyad’s family lives in the iron barracks. They eat fish almost daily as there is rarely money for meat. In mid-May, Ziyad decided to re-open his improvised cafe. He pointed at a box of empty lemonade bottles and said, “Look, this box contains 24 bottles. I sell them at LBP 250 [$0.16]. If I sell all of them, I’ll earn LBP 1,000 [$0.66]. At the end of the day, the profit I get from the cafe is no more than a few dollars.”
Mohammad, a young butcher, is in a similar, but slightly better situation. He invested $5,000 in his business and is now heavily in debt. He sells meat, sandwiches, snacks and popular dishes. A customer received his sandwich and handed him LBP 1,000. Mohammad turned around and said that “In Tripoli, the same sandwich sells for LBP 3,000. I don’t earn anything on 1,000. In fact, this guy gets the 1,000 back in a few days, when I buy vegetables from his shop.” Near the camp’s main street, Salim was fixing the sole of a shoe and received LBP 1,000 from a customer. Salim said, “The economic situation in Nahr al-Bared is like this: if you write your name on a LBP 1,000 note, it will make the rounds through the camp and by the end of the week, a customer returns it to you.”
The almost totally-closed economic circuit is caused by the Lebanese army’s complete siege of the camp. In the 2008 UNRWA survey, the camp’s business owners stated that before the war, about half their customers were Lebanese. The president of Nahr al-Bared’s traders committee, Abu Ali, complained, “The camp is a closed military zone. Our Lebanese neighbors are forbidden to enter. Under these conditions, how can the camp’s economy recover?” The coffee producers El-Saadi and other companies have opened small branches outside the Lebanese army checkpoints, in Abdi or along the highway. An UNRWA employee who wished to remain anonymous expressed the dilemma: “Helping the owners to open branches outside the camp is very problematic and unpopular. On the other hand, they hardly have a chance to survive inside the camp’s boundaries.”
One of the hopeless businesses inside the camp belongs to Ahmad, a young man living in the iron barracks. After having worked as a day laborer for months, he opened a small Internet cafe in mid-May. Already after a few days, he closed its doors, because he hardly had any customers and almost no returns. He sold the computers and instead bought a pool table and a squeezer to produce fresh juice. Nevertheless, he spends most of the day sitting on a plastic chair in front of his place.
Ziyad’s son Mahmoud faced a similar fate. Last autumn, he opened an Internet cafe in the metal shed besides the barracks. Since then, he has sold the computers and closed the Internet cafe. “I didn’t earn more than a few dollars, even though the computers were always in use. In the long term, it wasn’t worth the effort,” he said. Now he works in Beirut again. Every morning, Mahmoud leaves the camp between 5-6am and returns home in the evening between 7-9pm. He usually only sees his two sons when they are asleep and half his daily wage is spent on transportation and food.
It seems like there are too many cafes, sandwich shops, clothing, produce and corner shops in Nahr al-Bared. They fight for the few customers and earn revenues that are hardly worth the sweat. Accordingly, these businesses are often very short-lived. The customers’ purchasing power is low and because of the siege, incentives to invest are scarce. Abu Ali said that another factor is that “Nahr al-Bared’s economic success was partly based on debt economics. Lebanese customers could pay their goods by installments. Until now, many people from the region of Akkar haven’t paid back their debts to the camp’s business owners. In addition, during the war, not only was a lot of capital lost, but also debt registers.”
The current economic misery in Nahr al-Bared forced the former owner of several clothing stores to ask about the reasons behind the destruction of the camp. Abu Ali drew a comparison to last autumn’s clashes between the Alawis of Jabal Mohsen and the Sunnis of Bab at-Tabbaneh in Tripoli. He exclaimed that “The army positioned soldiers and tanks there, but didn’t isolate the area. Therefore, they can also leave Nahr al-Bared open! We demand that the Lebanese authorities immediately lift the siege of the camp!”
Back at the iron barracks, Ziyad had started selling fresh orange and carrot juice at his cafe. He sold a big glass of juice for LBP 500 ($0.33). In Tripoli, it would cost at least double the price. Ziyad shrugged his shoulders, smiled bitterly and said, “I hardly earn anything with this, but it’s still better than nothing.”
Only the first names of interviewees were used in this article to protect their identities, as the camp is under the tight control of the Lebanese army.
Ray Smith is an activist with the anarchist video collective a-films.