Memory for Forgetfulness
“My grandfather died counting sunsets, seasons, and heartbeats on the fingers of his withered hands. He dropped like a fruit forbidden a branch to lean its age against. They destroyed his heart. He wearied of waiting here, in Damur. He said goodbye to friends, water pipe, and children and took me and went back to find what was no longer his to find there. Here the number of aliens increased, and refugee camps got bigger. A war went by, then two, three, and four. The homeland got farther and farther away, and the children got farther and farther from mother’s milk after they had tasted the milk of the UNRWA. So they bought guns to get closer to a homeland flying out of their reach. They brought their identity back into being, re-created the homeland, and followed their path, only to have it blocked by the guardians of civil wars. They defended their steps, but then path parted from path, the orphan lived in the skin of the orphan, and one refugee camp went into another.” (Translated from Arabic)
One of the spots we stopped at was Fatima’s Gate, the former border crossing between Lebanon and Israel, closed since 2000 and now known as the “Blue Line” controlled by UNIFL or the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. There were UN tanks and what looked like the Philippines task force standing right in front of us. They stared, we stared, but after a few minutes their presence was ignored as our Palestinian friends took out their kuffiyas [black and white checkered traditional Palestinian scarf] and starting taking pictures in front of their home, just yards away. The whole trip gave me a new perspective on the “Arab-Israeli Conflict” we are drilled facts about in a PSC class. It showed me a real human side to the madness. My Palestinian friends, living in the camps of Lebanon, are unable to ever step foot past this fence. They can look in the direction of their villages and point, which many of them did…from across the border over the blue helmets of the UN, but they can never go there. How can I go there? Or my Jewish friends at home? Did you know you can even get Israeli citizenship if you’re Jewish, from anywhere in the world, and move to Israel? “How can a Polish or Czech person go live in my village but I can’t?” said Mahmoud, the UNRWA director in Rashidieh Camp during a visit to his house. Someone who longs for their grandparents olive trees is forbidden, while we’re taking selfies at Masada or camping in a Kibbutz with our college friends.
In some ways, the situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is torture. You can look and point and see the clusters of settlements with your own eyes, everyone else is allowed to enter, except for you. I’m still trying to figure out the reasoning but I’m not too confident that I’ll ever get a logical answer.
Palestinian & U.S. volunteers in front of Fatima’s Gate
Border fence looking into Palestine
I remembered the words of this particular passage I read on the bus to the border, driving into the camp for work Monday morning. We leave our apartment in Burj el Shemale around 8:00am and the 7 of us are driven about 6 minutes into the camp, past the security entrance, and dropped off near a little corner store next to Beit Atfal Assmoud, the community organization we work through and hold classes at. It was week 4. The drive in the camp is now starting to seem familiar and routine, but at the same time heavy and dreary. We dodge potholes in the road, inhale the fumes of a burning tire or 2 on the left and the scent of an auto-mechanic shop on the right. We pass the same PLO/Fatah (Palestinian political parties who assert dominance in the camp) “headquarters”, right past the Lebanese Army checkpoint, with a man or two sitting outside on a lawn chair locking his eyes on your car, holding a coffee in one hand and a gun in the other. There are endless posters of martyrs faces, those who have died in the name of a party or specific cause, hung up above the bundles of low-hanging electric wires. We drive alongside faded murals of children playing, Handala (the well known cartoon representing the plight of a Palestinian refugee child), and the most noticeable…a quote in English, Arabic, and Hebrew reading “The State of Israel is evanescent”.
“Handala” by Naji Al-Ali
The vibe of the camp was starting to get to me. It was Week 4 and just looking at the week ahead made me feel tired and unmotivated to move forward. Imagine 8 years, like some of the kids I teach, or 18 years like the kids graduating high school, or the 30 year old trying to raise a family. It pulls you and sucks you in, where at points you feel like there is no way out. Palestinians did not choose to live like this, it was chosen for them. Rashidieh, the camp I have been working in, was actually built as a refugee camp by the French in 1936 for Armenian refugees. The UNRWA built the “new” section of the camp in 1963 for Palestinians. This camp does not feel temporary, like it was built to be, it feels permanent.
Rashidieh Camp (LEAP)
Week 3/4 has also been a common time to lose students enrolled in the program. They’ve participated for 1 or 2 weeks, they’ve gone on the “fun fair” trip we reward the kids with on Friday, and maybe an extra English program is just not a priority anymore. To be honest, it has made my class more manageable and I am able to provide more individual attention to students but I wonder about the kids who stopped showing up. A few were newer Syrians to the camp, a few come only once in a while, and some of them still come to class but are exhausted and hot because they woke up at 5:00am with their dad to work. This is the reality and it is frustrating… to know this situation is not something a lot of people can change. The solution is behind bars, locked away at the hands of people in power. These children’s paths have already begun parting from the original path, as Mahmoud Darwish said, and no matter how much they defend their steps, they will find it blocked by the guardians of greed and occupation.