I stepped through the doors of the Fraternity Association for Social and Education Work (FASEW), the community center at Mukhayim Bourj Al-Barajneh that I'm going to volunteer for. "Keefkon! Keefkon! (How is everyone! How is everyone!)" I boomed. Winces, and sideways glances. It was 11:30. Naptime.
Whoops. I was just excited to see people who I recognized, & to be able to use one of my new greetings!
I climbed the stairs (where I'd be out of range of the little ones) to meet with Ghassan Hassoun, one of the coordinators of the center. He schooled me on the history of the center, its present and its future, in the context of refugee services in Lebanon.
"UNRWA (United Nations Relief & Works Agency) is the main organization for refugees," he explained. But they only provide the most basic of services.In fact, they were established after this camp. So, FASEW came about to provide some relief for the youth in the camp.
"We are not affiliated with any party or faction," he said. A fact that can complicate matters for them. As much of the aid to NGO working with Palestinians have had their funding frozen based on their political positions. (For example, if an organization supports President Mahmoud Abbas' criticism of the US for backtracking on the Israeli settlement issue, they may find that their funds have dried up). "But, most NGO work in Palestine, and not here in Lebanon," so FASEW climbs a steep hill in search of funds.
"We want to buy a bus. This way we can do two things: We can bring children to the center for preschool, because there are many mothers who don't want to walk through the camp. We can also take our young people to other camps. Last year we held some sports matches with other camps, but we had to rent the buses, and many families could not afford to pay."
After spending some time walking through the camp I can fully understand why a mother (for it is the mothers who care for the young here) would want to keep their young off of the streets. The camp wasn't exactly a planned community. There was no R. Buckminster Fuller considering the best use of this ONE square kilometer for 20,000 refugees. There was no infrastructure planned--no electricity, water, plumbing--for the first wave, in 1948, then the next wave in 1968, let alone the natural population growth. UNRWA does not provide these services, either.
Over the past 60 years, the residents have made piecemeal changes, as individuals rather than communally, to bring their own abode water and electricity. Since they can't spread out, they build up. Literally just plastering a cinderblock structure on top of the first or second floor of the family home. The electrical "grid" is more like a spider web of live wires overhead.
It's an apt metaphor for the political situation that Palestinian refugees are in, actually. Often times these wires are shaken loose, and it slithers and sparks on the ground, which is always wet because the water system is similarly rigged.
Less than a month ago a 12 year old boy was electrocuted to death by one of these wires. And he's just the most recent one, for it happens often.
Not to get too far off on a political rant, but this is one of the many unreported, uncounted costs of the Israeli Occupation of Palestine. Innocent people, denied human rights, die because of criminal governmental policies.
So Ghassan is trying to find the money for a bus. He thinks he needs $40,000. But, that's not his top priority. "Right now we can't start our most important program," he continues. "The cornerstone of our organization is the High School Dropout Intervention Program," and it's on hold until they can drum up the money to pay the staff, who are also residents of the camp. $300 per month, incidentally. To provide educational services to teenagers who, understandably see no future in the camp, in Lebanon, in the world that is worth going to school for.
High school youth are an increasingly vulnerable population. I've mentioned before that Lebanon has a complex of laws designed to "Preserve the Lebanese aspects" of Lebanon. These laws all target Palestinians, barring them from any type of professional work. So, it's easy to see why a teenager would see little point in finishing high school (at the UNRWA school). These youth who drop out are targeted by fundamentalist groups, who give them classes in secret, presumably educating them on the finer points of martyrdom. It makes perfect sense, to me. If my future is in Paradise, why in hell would I continue to toil on the sewage soaked streets, as a Refugee?
These are the fruits of enforced poverty.
These are the consequences that the vulnerable bear when the powerful are not held to account.
Ghassan is trying to save these kids. Literally. He's trying to bring the people who he was born with into a new day, every day.
But even the success stories of the organization come with strings.
"Some of our graduates get college scholarship money from Bahrain...but they have to pay it back," he chuckles. Blessings & curses. How are they supposed to pay it back, if they are legally prevented from professional employment in Lebanon?
This is the other aspect of the Israeli Occupation that is insidious beyond words.
It's worse than brain drain, because this is meant to break a People. If a Palestinian refugees gains acceptance into a university, and performs at university, then what? In order to work in their field they must leave Lebanon. They may not be permitted to return, either. And why would a person wish to, anyway? Why, after a successful university career, return to 3rd class, non-citizen status?
All of this is the backdrop for my next four weeks here in Lebanon. I'll work with the gracious people at the center. I'll do what I can, day by day, to support the good work that they have engaged in. The task is monumental, and I am but one person. My finger is in the dam.