Every day throughout the month of October, the Humans Of New York-inspired Humans of Al Rashidiya page will feature one story from the Al Rashidiya Palestinian Camp south of Tyre, South Lebanon. Founded by Mary Mitchell, a British Media Arts PhD student at Royal Holloway University in London who first went to Al Rashidiya and Al Bass camps with the British charity UNIPAL, and Mohammad El-Assad, her student at the time and a student at the German Lebanese University in Tyre, the project intends to dispel the numerous myths and stereotypes plaguing Lebanon’s Palestinian society. It is done with support from Al Rashidiya’s Sawaaed youth group.
“The project is a framework through which people in Al Rashidiya can share their stories with the wider world, and one another,” Mitchell told Hummus For Thought. “The camp is very isolated with many preconceptions and stereotypes in Lebanon about Palestinian refugees, and so we hope to counter some of these by showing the common experiences of humanity. In the West, very few people know there are Palestinian refugees in Lebanon – they think only of the West Bank and Gaza – so we hope that this project will present new stories in an easily accessible way.”
Being a refugee in Lebanon is no easy matter, as I’m sure you all know. Besides the conditions within the camps themselves, which vary from camp to camp but never surpass the barely tolerable, discrimination within Lebanese society – the supposedly multicultural country par excellence – is still very prevalent. At least 20 major professions are denied to the 450,000 or so Palestinians living in 12 refugee camps across the country regardless of their educational background – one notable example is Iqbal Assad, the world’s youngest doctor, having to travel to the USA to practice medicine.
According to Visualizing Palestine and the International Labor Organization (ILO), only 2% of the 75,000 Palestinians who are part of Lebanon’s workforce have an official work permit, only 20% have a written contract, 66% are below the poverty line, 75% earn less than the minimal wage ($305 for Palestinian women, $369 for men) and 95% have no health insurance. Despite having contributed $14 million dollars to Lebanon’s National Social Security Fund, Palestinian workers are denied benefits of health coverage (unlike, say, French workers.) Discrimination against Palestinians will be the topic of an upcoming post.
“Lebanon is our second homeland and will remain forever in our hearts.”
Stereotypes that have lingered since the end of the civil war contribute greatly to the situation of Palestinians in Lebanon. Mohammad, a Palestinian refugee himself born and living in Al Rashidiya, co-launched this project in the hope of countering such stereotypes with real stories from real people.
“Many people think that our camps are security time bombs, while others haven’t even heard of us,” he said. “Stereotypes dating back to the Civil War haven’t really faded away and recent events such as the 2007 Nahr Al-Bared War [War between the Lebanese Army and Fatah Al Islam in Nothern Lebanon] haven’t exactly helped us, despite the fact that most of us have always opposed all forms of violence.”
Al Rashidiya is the most recent of the Palestinian camps built to accommodate the Palestinians who escaped the Nakba. According to the Electronic Intifada, “the older part of the camp was built by the French Government in 1936 to accommodate Armenian refugees. The “new camp” was built by UNRWA in 1963 for Palestine refugees evacuated from Gouraud camp in Baalbeck and who originally came from Deir al-Qassi, Alma an-Naher and other villages in northern Palestine.”
Despite the tough circumstances, the camps’ inhabitants are trying to make the best out of their situation. “We help each other out,” Mohammad said. “We were 28,000 in 2012, but since the Syrian crisis started, the number of Palestinian refugees from Syria increased our numbers.” But despite it all, the security situation remains stable, and in no small part thanks to the inhabitants themselves. “We’ve opened more classes in our schools (run by UNRWA) and have included a curriculum close to the Syrian one for some of our most recent students. Our literacy rates are far higher than our illiteracy ones and they’re increasing every year. We are opening more classes, especially for secondary school. The uneducated youths usually resort to immigration, most legally but some illegally. This is due to the unemployment crisis which not only affects our camps but Lebanon as a whole.”
“We have several awareness-raising programs run by the youth of our camps on the importance of the work of the army and its sovereignty. Lebanon is our second homeland and will remain forever in our hearts. It has welcomed us for the past 68 years.”
And finally, for those of you who want to contribute: “we are accepting submissions from anyone around the world who has had a relationship with the camp in some way, and also from other camps, and that they can submit them to firstname.lastname@example.org” You can visit their Facebook Page here, and their Website Here.