Promises of an unpredicatable future

Bourj el Barajneh Refugee Camp, Beirut, Lebanon, 15 June 2003 — There is no work this summer for the majority of people in Bourj el Barajneh refugee camp. Less work than last summer, I am told, when local NGOs estimated unemployment rates were around 60- 80% for those Palestinians living here. With hope of Return looking bleaker under current negotiations, people here—especially the young men—are doing whatever they can to leave.

My friend Bilal and his brother Ahmad are one of around 20 young men who have taken illegal channels to get out of Bourj el Barajneh in the hope of finding work in Europe. They are being taken through Moscow and snuck across borders until they reach Germany, Italy and other more prosperous EU countries.

Lara and I went to visit Bilal’s family in our first week in the camp, to see their new baby and find out any news we could about the brothers’ well being. Ahmad, we are told, made it through all the borders and is safe with his family in Germany. Bilal, however, is not so lucky.

Last news from Bilal was almost 2 weeks ago. He is stuck in the Ukraine. Homeless. With no money. Although Bilal left with a group of young men from the camp, they think he is now alone and the men are dispersed in neighboring countries. The family has no way to find him, and the collection agent was coming to the camp that very day so that all the families could pay the hefty fee (I have been told it can reach 8 000 U.S$) for their services.

Bilal’s father has been keeping a diet of cigarettes and coffee. His mother, with her 6 month old daughter, has hardly slept. Like most families in the camp, they are living off of next to nothing. The father had to close his tailoring shop this year, and all the other children are too young to work. They are not so worried about their own health, as that of their baby and 2 young daughters.

My friend Mahmoud tells me this situation is not unique. Families in the camp have literally sold their houses and jewelry to send their sons on these illegal crossings. Many have been returned to the camp, often after being jailed, sometimes tortured in prison, and even shot at while crossing borders illegally. Yet, people still feel the risk (both monetarily and physically) is better than the other option: staying here.

Another man, Mahmoud says, came to the camp to offer a similar escape. He guaranteed families their sons would get in to the Ukraine, and would not collect the payment of 3000 US$ until they safely arrived. He only needed 800 U.S$ to get their visas and tickets. Eight families paid the 800$. The man was never seen again. This is not the first time, he informed me, such things have happened.

The situation of Palestinians in Lebanon is worsening. For 55 years the people of Bourj al Barajneh have lived in 1 square kilometer of concrete houses and thin alleyways. Most are very aware that their remaining in these conditions only serves the political purposes of corrupt politicians and governments; that after 55 years of promises they remain faceless and forgotten. Their Right to Return is irrefutable, and does not require them to suffer further injustice.

The young men - my age, a simple twist of fate- do not want to grow old waiting on empty promises. They are willing to risk what little they have in order to seek out some kind of future. One, at least, they cannot so easily predict.

Jordan Topp is an organizer with the Coalition Against the Deportation of Palestinian Refugees in Montreal, which was formed a couple of month ago to fight against the deportation of over 100 Palestinian refugees from the camps of Lebanon and the Occupied Territories. Currently in Montreal there are over 100 Palestinian refugees facing deportation in the coming days, weeks and months. Most of the refugees are from refugee camp in Lebanon such as Bourj el Barajneh and from Occupied Palestine. They have claimed refugee status in Canada over the last couple of years. Systematically Palestinian refugee claims are being rejected by Immigration Canada post September 11th. To fight against the deportation of Palestinian refugees from Montreal, the Coalition Against the Deportation of Palestinian Refugees is calling on groups, organizations and individuals in Montreal and beyond to support & get involved in the fight against the unjust deportation of Palestinian refugees living in Montreal. For more information contact: or ring +1 (514) 591-3171.

Information and facts on Bourj El Barajneh Refugee Camp

  • Bourj el Barajneh is one of 12 UNRWA registered refugee camps in Lebanon. The number of UN registered refugees in Lebanon is 359,005. Over half the refugees (54.4%) live in the recognized camps, with an unknown number living both inside and outside the camps. It is unknown how many of these refugees have fled Lebanon.
  • There are estimated 17 unofficial camps in Lebanon, housing an estimated 38,200 (1994) people. These camps receive minimal UNRWA assistance, and suffer from conditions much worse than those found in official camps.
  • The average size of camp dwellings is 40 square meters, with 2.2 rooms and 5.6 inhabitants per unit. Ninety percent of homes have access to water and electricity, while less than 2/3rds are connected to basic sewage systems.
  • Lebanon has the highest proportion of refugees classified as “special hardship cases” by UNRWA (10.5 %, compared to 8.7% in Gaza and 6.5% in Syria).
  • Among families of 3 or less, 79% are estimated to live below the poverty line; in families of 4-6 this rises to 98%; in families of 7-9, those living below the poverty line is 96%.

    Source: The Institute for Palestine Studies. Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon.