By Iman Azzi
Thursday, December 20, 2007
It's the Muslim holiday of Eid but women displaced from a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon are not thinking about feasts.
BEDDAWI, Lebanon (WOMENSENEWS)--When her 10-week-old son, Yousef, falls asleep, Ghalia Wehbe is finally able to start preparing dinner.
In other years she might have been working on a special meal for the festival of Eid al-Adha, one of the two main Islamic holidays, which began this year on Dec. 19.
Instead she takes five steps and sits down on the hard linoleum tiles.
There is no separate kitchen, only the floor, a small plastic table and one gas burner. Brown bananas lie on the floor next to her as she cuts vegetables and waits for the water to boil. Thin mattresses lie in the opposite corner and a clothes rack stands against the wall.
"We have no Eid this year," she says, sitting near the door of a classroom that once held 20 students.
Wehbe, 44, and her family have been living in the first classroom on the left at the elementary school in the Beddawi Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon for seven months. The refugee camp where she grew up, Nahr al-Bared, became the scene of summer clashes between the Lebanese Army and Islamic militants that killed at least 169 soldiers, 287 insurgents and 47 civilians.
Eid usually means new clothes, especially for children, and long visits with relatives and friends. This year, however, customers are few along the main alley of Beddawi, where clothes hang in windows, glittery headscarves are draped around dummies and toys line shelves.
Wehbe is not even able to visit the graves of loved ones, another Eid tradition, as she can not enter what is left of her former camp and the only home she has ever known--Nahr al-Bared--without permission from the Lebanese army.
A refugee all her life, she was raised believing in an eventual return to Palestine; her parents fled from northern Galilee after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Today she just wants to leave this school and return to life in the camp, which was home to approximately 40,000 refugees before the most recent fighting broke out.
While poverty was endemic in Nahr al-Bared, residents had more employment than they do now and less dependence on aid organizations. Most displaced families today are still dependent on relief packets or rent subsidies.
There was certainly more privacy than in their new makeshift quarters.
"I miss my house. I want to go back to the camp. There is no routine here," Wehbe says. Her two daughters, ages 5 and 6, have not attended school since the spring; families now live in the schools they should be attending. Wehbe's husband is gone every day looking for work as a house painter.
Nahr al-Bared, established by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East in 1949, was one of 12 camps remaining in Lebanon. Three other camps were destroyed during the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war and never rebuilt, a fact not lost on the newly displaced.
Nearly 2,000 families from Nahr al-Bared have sought refuge in Beddawi camp; 1,500 families have returned to destroyed, partially destroyed or temporary shelters in Nahr al-Bared with the support of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency.
The Lebanese government and aid organizations have promised the camp would be rebuilt but with winter dragging on, pressures are mounting in the extended temporary quarters, especially on women who simultaneously feel burdened and isolated.
"The men leave the house; they see their friends; they search for work. The women don't have much interaction during the day," says Roula Istanbouli, a consultant with the Christian relief organization World Vision inside Nahr al-Bared. "There is not enough gender-specific treatment. Children are the target of most organizations providing relief and support and the women are alone."
Istanbouli says domestic violence is worse now that families have lost all privacy. In addition to those living in classrooms, some of the displaced moved in with extended families in Beddawi or are renting garages or empty storerooms. "Sexual life is very bad and this is making men frustrated and embarrassed and they're taking it out on the women," she says.
Istanbouli says some organizations are starting to think about women's activities and the necessity of creating a space for women to help cope with the trauma of displacement, but it is not coming fast enough. Therapy and treatment for women in the camps is a good first step but many women there agree that no amount of aid or treatment replaces the feeling of a stable home.
Government action on reconstruction isn't expected soon, given the political turmoil of Beirut, where a feuding parliament has left the country without a president. Emile Lahoud's term expired in November and politicians are mired in negotiations over electing his replacement.
Life for Palestinians in Lebanon--400,000 refugees are registered with the United Nations but the total is widely believed to be much higher--is never easy. They are denied citizenship, the right to own property and to work in several professions such as law and medicine.
Hospitals and schools inside the camps are underfunded and electricity cuts are more frequent than not.
The arrival of new refugees to Beddawi has made every hardship more extreme.
With hundreds of families living in the schools, children are not receiving an education. Throughout the narrow, littered alleys and streets children play or run errands for their mothers, such as filling up bottles with water from the cisterns donated by the U.N. Children's Fund and other relief organizations.
While Whebbe's family has a classroom to itself, other families are crowding in together in the one-room kindergarten in the Beddawi camp. It currently holds 98 people, mostly from one extended family. Among them, Lutfia Hussein, 60, is the only one born on Palestinian land.
She left a village outside Haifa with her parents when she was 3. Her family believed they would only be in Lebanon temporarily. Instead, Hussein watched as her grandson was born in the classroom in October.
As the men in her extended family work or look for work--mostly on the black market--Hussein says more responsibilities have fallen on women, including the traditionally male role of managing money.
"We are becoming the leaders. We manage everything from cooking to the budget," Hussein says.
With children out of school, women have to keep closer watch over them, keeping them out of fights or out of the gossip circuit. It remains taboo to allow young girls to be seen with boys unsupervised. "We are losing our traditional roles. The men are focusing on finding work or shelter outside the home. In here, it's all on us."
Hussein agreed that no holiday would be celebrated this year. Not only is there no money, but there is no spirit.
"We're managing only to count days and look to the future," she says. "It's getting from worse to worse."
Iman Azzi is a freelance writer based in Beirut.
This series is supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Nahr al-Bared Camp (in Arabic):
United Nations Relief Agency for Palestinians in the Near East:
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