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In Lebanon, “Palestinian identity is like an olive tree planted in our hearts”

Christina Assi Archives agency France-Presse Bourj-El-Barajneh is one of the first Palestinian refugee camps to emerge in Lebanon. It is located in the southern suburbs of Beirut, between two major roads, a few kilometers from the airport, and has around 20,000 inhabitants spread over a single square kilometer. In the photo, people demonstrated in Bourj-El-Barajneh on October 11 in support of Gaza.

Lebanon has around 250,000 Palestinian refugees, arriving during different waves of migration or from second and third generations. These Palestinians claim a strong identity, built in expectation of the right of return and in response to a country which, despite its welcome, has never ceased to marginalize them.

In the maze of streets of the Bourj-El-Barajneh camp, symbol of the anarchic urbanization of the places where Palestinian refugees live, it is difficult to navigate. Only the locals know how to find their way. In the middle of the dark and narrow streets, the flags of the political and resistance movements of Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad and sometimes Hezbollah (Lebanese) fly almost everywhere. On the walls: portraits of Yasser Arafat, the Jerusalem mosque or pretty colorful paintings contrast with the feeling of confinement that emanates from the place. This camp is located in the southern suburbs of Beirut, between two major roads, a few kilometers from the airport. It has approximately 20,000 inhabitants spread over a single square kilometer.

When asked: “Where are you from ?”, the inhabitants first talk about their village of origin. There, in Palestine, a land that they have sometimes never known, being descendants of Palestinians who fled during the Nakba – catastrophe, in Arabic -, where around 800,000 Palestinians were expelled from their land in 1948, following the creation of Israel. “I come from Sheikh Danun,” Asil, a 12-year-old girl, quickly responds. I was born in Lebanon, like my parents, but my grandparents were born in Palestine. » Whenever she can, she joins demonstrations in support of the Palestinian population. Just like Omar, 13, who plays in the street with other boys. “We all stand in solidarity with each other, that’s what being Palestinian is. And our hearts go out to Gaza,” says the young boy born in the Yarmouk camp in Syria and who emigrated to Lebanon following the 2011 war.

A man passes by Omar and his friends during the interview. A few meters further on, he stops and protests in Arabic: “He’s not Palestinian! He’s Syrian! You mustn't talk to him! » Jihad Moussa, our colleague, the fixer, smiles and lets it pass. Later, he will tell us that this incident is unusual and that all Palestinians, whether refugees in Lebanon or elsewhere, do have a common identity. Unity behind Gaza, unity to stand up.

It is for this reason, according to him, that the streets of the camp are abnormally calm on this Friday afternoon in December. Since October 7, residents have been in mourning. The music stopped. Colored clothing has disappeared to make way for black.


“Palestinian culture, from 1948 onwards, has been very focused on memories and memories of return,” underlines Rami Zurayk, interim director of the Center for Studies on the Palestinian Territory at the American University of Beirut. Elias Nasser, whose grandfather arrived in Lebanon in 1948, never saw Palestine, but grew up with it. “My grandfather brought with him the keys to his house in Palestine and clothes only for a week… because he thought he would return there quickly,” explains the refugee. Hadi Hammad's grandfather also set off for Lebanon in May 1948 with the key to his house. “The Palestinian identity is like an olive tree planted in our hearts,” explains the young man, who holds a degree in information systems management.

For Fayez Mahamid, a West Bank clinical psychologist, these speeches can be explained by the impact of the flight of Palestinians from their territory. “The Nakba forged this identity because the people who had to leave their land had a traumatic experience. Now there are the second and third generations, who always have in mind what happened with their families. For example, people always say where they come from in Palestine, not where they live now,” explains the man who is also a teacher at An-Najah University in the West Bank. So, at the twilight of what the psychologist calls “a second Nakba”, he fears that it will be added to the already existing collective trauma.

75 years of travel

Following the creation of Israel, Lebanon welcomed more than 100,000 Palestinian refugees. Some of them have settled in makeshift shelters on the outskirts of Lebanon's main cities such as Beirut, Tripoli, Saida and Tyre. Seventy-five years later, some camps were concreted, enlarged in height because they could not expand in width, and became fully part of the cities. Lebanon has 12 Palestinian refugee camps. UNRWA, an organization created by the UN in 1949, helps the 4.4 million Palestinian refugees spread across Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank. Its services, which provide access to health, education and social services, estimate that there are around 250,000 refugees still residing in Lebanon. Just over 90% of this population is estimated to live below the poverty line.

Frieza Mahamid studied the psychological impact of life in these camps. “Study results indicate that refugees suffer from many psychological problems, such as depression, anxiety and aggressive behavior,” he analyzes. The camps are not their homes. People always fear that something bad will happen to them, that their homes will be attacked, that they will have to flee again… There is always this pain and sadness linked to the trauma of colonization. »

In addition to the disastrous living conditions (read the box), Palestinians do not enjoy all the rights of the Lebanese. While some have been able to be naturalized, many Palestinians only have a refugee passport. They cannot claim to obtain Lebanese nationality. Officially, the country's authorities are waiting for Palestinians to be able to return home. But the settlement of the Palestinians, with a Sunni majority, would also modify the community balance, which would bring important changes to the political scene. Palestinians do not have access to so-called unionized professions such as lawyers, doctors, engineers or architects. And they cannot buy land or houses. Their identity is also built on this need to resist and exist. Always with this hope: that of exercising their right of return.

A camp life

“The human uprooting of Palestinians from their land has been worked on for centuries to turn them into refugees,” continues Rami Zurayk, whose wife is Palestinian. This Palestinian identity is very strong, especially for those born in the camps, because no one can continue to live like this: who wants to live without any possibility of social mobility ? Without that, without anything else, their identity is the only thing they have left. »

Faced with the impossibility of applying their right of return, Palestinians dream of elsewhere. Some emigrate abroad, but others remain in the camps. “Since 1948, we have been here: we speak the same language, we eat the same food, we have the traditions,” explains director Hicham Kayed, 51, whose grandparents immigrated during the Nakba. Things should change for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon: they don't necessarily want nationality, but at least the same rights. And of course, the right of return! »

In the streets of Bourj-El-Barajneh, the sun begins to set and sends the refugees back to their concrete prison. Inside Jihad Moussa's house, a sweet smell of mansaf (a typical Palestinian spicy rice and chicken dish) emanates from the kitchen. With his sister, he hastens to clear the coffee table to place the dishes on it. While moving the small fragile piece of furniture, Jihad almost cut himself on the broken glass. He takes it between his fingers, places it in the halo of light from the ceiling light: the small piece of glass has the almost perfect shape of the Israeli-Palestinian territory. His face lights up with a broad smile and he says: “Even in broken objects, Palestine remains present! »

This report was financed thanks to the support of the Transat International Journalism Fund-Le Devoir.

“Look at the conditions we live in”

Bourj-El-Barajneh is one of the first Palestinian refugee camps to emerge in Lebanon. It suffered from the invasion and then the Israeli occupation from 1982. Successive waves of migration also increased its population and led to its anarchic urbanization. A quick walk through the streets of this camp allows you to see this: after taking a few steps, you have to stand against a cold and damp wall to let two-wheelers pass, the only vehicles really capable of crisscrossing the camp, or other people. You also have to constantly lower your head, so as not to be trapped by the water and electricity supply cables, when they are not hanging in the middle of the street. On the ground, the paving stones are slippery, used water trickles down there due to the lack of a drainage system. “In what conditions we live ? Look around you”, says, disillusioned, Rabia Al Einein, 46, met at the entrance to his hair salon. Other camp residents complain about the quality of the water: too salty, it cannot be used for anything other than cleaning. To wash, and especially to drink, residents buy their water in stores.

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116