What if life is in Limbo?

Article by Mohammed Akel (UWCAC 2016- 2018)

What if life is in Limbo? How would you feel if you were born into poverty? How would you feel if you were born into debt?

Reports from media are focusing on people fleeing from Syria, Myanmar and other hotspots. However, while these do indeed represent legitimate emergencies there is an almost total lack of attention to, or dialogue about, the 5 million Palestinians living in a state of perpetual Limbo in the occupied territories, or as refugees elsewhere.

The 1948 war, also called Nakba which literally translates to disaster, catastrophe or cataclysm, was the main reason behind the expulsion of the 700,000 Palestinians to the nearby Arabic countries. Where Palestinians ended up after this war has had a significant impact on their wellbeing and that of their descendants.

Compared to Palestinian refugees elsewhere, we, those in Lebanon, live with a unique degree of political, economic and social exclusion. We are not allowed to own a property and must live with numerous restrictions and social norms that severely limits where we go to school, work and get health care (if we can at all). We are not allowed to participate in the political life, neither with the Palestinian government nor with the Lebanese government. Another problem we face is the difficulty in establishing our identity and nationality because we don’t exist in papers anywhere. Palestinians by far are the largest group of stateless people in the world.

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We have to live inside camps that are scattered all over Lebanon. These camps used to be abandoned areas that were not suitable to be inhabited by people. From tents to temporary shelters to houses, a story needs to be told. Imagine walking in the streets of the camp teeming with honking cars, children on bicycles and scooter-riding teenagers, this scene resemble those in villages anywhere else in Lebanon.  But unlike other towns dotted around Lebanon the camp is in a limbo.

What is a limbo? How does it feel to live in a limbo?

Imagine entering a medieval ghetto. Imagine walking along the narrow alleyway, coming upon open sewage. Imagine passing tents and dozens of one and two-room houses each leaning on the other for support.  Now imagine that you are a family of 8 members living in a home that is only one room with a concrete floor and blankets stacked against the walls for beds and, for a toilet a closeted hole in the floor. You have to eat study, sleep and go to the bathroom there in a Middle Eastern summer.  What privacy remains inside these homes is further demolished by the fact that they are stacked either above or next door to each other. Now imagine that this limbo is further surrounded by a wall with countless watchtowers. Imagine leaving your house with the fear of being shot by a random sniper. Yes sir, you are in a limbo without streets, sidewalks, gardens, patio, trees, flowers, plazas or shops among an uprooted stateless people, scattered who, like the Jewish before them, are in tragic diaspora. 

Another problem with these camps is that the initial camps were founded by UNRWA (United Nations work and relief agency for the Palestinian refugees in the Middle East) to accommodate a specific number of people. However, in the current day, the number of inhabitants in a specific camp has doubled in the same area. For example, Al Karameh camp near Beirut was set up by UNRWA to accommodate some 5,000 Palestinians; today the same camp is inhabited by 17,000 people! 

palestine_by_graphinate.jpgA recent study that was done by scientists in the national institute of mental health (NIMH) highlighted the theory of place attachment and value of things. This theory says, “Place attachment is a set of feelings about a geographic location that emotionally binds a person to that place as a function of its role as a setting for experience. Usually, a person feels attached to the place where he/she was born. Or, a person may feel attached to the place where he/she was raised. For the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, it is not the place where they were born. It is not the place where they were raised. It is not the place where they are capable of finding the light switch in the dark. 

I remember last summer, I felt so trapped inside this camp. I wanted to go outside. I wanted to see the sun and the sea. I grabbed my blue UN card, and some dollars bills I had. I had to wait in the line at the checkpoint.  After they have asked for my ID and after they have searched each loaf of Zaatar I had, I was able to leave the camp for some time.  I was lucky enough to find a taxi nearby. I eventually had the opportunity to talk to a unique driver who was uneducated yet the wisest and most inspiring individual I have talked to in my life. He told me, “We must remain strong. Life is not easy in the camp; we have to live it as if we have no choice for the time being. We must not let despair overcome us because this will kill our dream of returning home. We should show our children that we are not weak so they will carry on with the struggle and keep this dream alive; without this we will end up here forever. This dream has to be kept alive and active in order to be fulfilled.” Perhaps what I love the most about this limbo is this unscheduled and random conversation that teaches you a lot. 

Education is another obstacle that faces the people in the camp. Almost all the students in the camp are handicapped in their attempt to study. My friend Osama once told me “I feel buried here. I know there is a world outside and my eyes seek the space beyond the wall of this limbo”. 

Actually, it is really interesting how the people in the camp are grouped.  I mean if you entered the camp you will realize that all the people that originated from the same village in Palestine are still living together in this camp as if they have created a copy of that village. In this way, many villages which the Israelis occupied by force, evacuated and demolished in Palestine are still, socially speaking, alive and coherent units. They have lost neither their social consciousness nor their family and village ties and if they returned tomorrow, this extraordinarily tenacious social factor would be of the greatest importance in the rapid re- construction of Palestinian society.  And this actually explains why the sense of being Palestinian is still so strong among the refugees. For decades the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon had been a world of their own.  Naturally, this reality doesn’t necessary lead to social cohesion. Conflicts are still there in both villages and family levels. Sometimes a few meters of land can cause huge conflict between families, and by huge I really mean huge.  Some cases result in the death of one member from a specific family and endless hatred, and the desire for revenge will be created between these two families.  Even within the same family, you will have conflicts. Such conflicts are usually created due to a struggle between authoritarian parents or grandparents and their children seeking freedom from parental restrictions.   

Maybe the only thing that inspires us to live is Mahmud Darwesh when he said; “on this earth there is that deserves life”.

I Come From There by Mahmoud Darwish

Mine is the wave, snatched by sea-gulls,
I have my own view,
And an extra blade of grass.
Mine is the moon at the far edge of the words,
And the bounty of birds,
And the immortal olive tree.
I walked this land before the swords
Turned its living body into a laden table.

I come from there.
I render the sky unto her mother
When the sky weeps for her mother.
And I weep to make myself known

To a returning cloud.
I learnt all the words worthy of the court of blood

So that I could break the rule.
I learnt all the words and broke them up

To make a single word: Homeland.

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