Seated in his chilly office decorated with Palestinian flags and memorabilia, the elderly man with a thick white moustache listens calmly and attentively as a woman sitting on the other side of his desk pleads, close to tears.
“We just want to go back to Syria. We don’t want anything else. We just want to go home,” she says.
Right now, however, she and her family need somewhere to stay – urgently.
Palestinians are among the approximately half a million refugees from Syria who have fled to neighbouring Lebanon in recent months. The figure is from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The unofficial number is thought to be higher, with the situation growing more desperate every day. Accommodation is limited and food prices are high.
Fatima wants to know if her family can stay here, at Shatila camp, on the outskirts of Beirut. The man in charge, Abu Moujahed, knows what it is like to be a refugee. He and his family fled their home on the West Bank in 1948 at the creation of the state of Israel – a time known to Palestinians as the naqba, the Day of Catastrophe. He has dedicated his life to helping the people of Shatila. But in the face of new arrivals every day, he is painfully aware of how little he has to offer. “Yaani, I understand, believe me, I understand,” he tells the woman softly.
Abu went to prison four more times - twice in Syria.
Outside his window, a small crowd of refugees has gathered and he steps out for a moment to speak to them. Dozens immediately surround him, begging. “No one is helping us,” they shout. “No one is listening to us.” Abu closes his eyes for a moment and places both hands on top of his head in frustration, before heading back inside as the shouts continue. He turns to me and says, slightly raising his voice: “If the UN won’t take responsibility, what can we do? We don’t have a place for everyone here.”
A bomb waiting to explode.
Abu, aged 64, is director of Shatila’s Children and Youth Centre, which focuses on the educational and emotional development of children aged 6-18, but his responsibilities in the camp stretch farther than that. With the Lebanese government refusing to take responsibility for Shatila, he is de facto the man in charge. It is a heavy responsibility. The camp, covering one square kilometer, was originally built for 3,000 Palestinian occupants in 1949. By expanding upwards over the years, capacity increased to 18,000, with refugees from a number of different countries. Now those fleeing the Syrian conflict have pushed numbers up above 20,000, with new families arriving on a daily basis.
“I went through this. I lost many homes and moved to many places,” says Abu. “So, I have to keep calm, and keep smiling, and keep moving. But to see these mothers and sisters rush here for a blanket, a plate of food, a home, I feel ashamed. They’re losing their dignity. With the Syrian crisis, things are different. We are stressed. Shatila is going to explode.”
In the absence of financial assistance from the Lebanese government, the camp is reliant on aid from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) – set up to help Palestinian refugees who fled their homes at Israel’s inception – as well as funds from various European governments, and private donors. Some 455,000 Palestinians are registered with UNWRA in Lebanon, with another 399,203 Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR, which says a further 89,313 arrivals from Syria are still waiting to be registered. Life for the Palestinians already in Lebanon was tough enough. Government fears that integration would upset the fragile sectarian balance that already exists. This means that they have been denied a number of basic freedoms – including citizenship.
For Abu, Lebanon will never be his home.
“No place can be my home except Palestine,” he says, suddenly animated. “I will struggle for the liberation of my homeland as long as I can. I trust the future, I trust the youth and the new generation - my children in Shatila and everywhere.”
Abu’s centre was built after a visit he made to Save the Children in Sweden in 1996. At that time, the children of Shatila were a vulnerable and neglected group. Youngsters went missing, and some were forced to be messengers for the camp’s drug dealers. “It was a catastrophe; the kids had no life anymore,” he says. Today there are other challenges. Abu says Shatila is not Shatila anymore. Whereas once 90 per cent of the camp’s population was made up of Palestinians, the demographics have changed. Today 60 per cent are Palestinians, 20 per cent Lebanese, more than 12 per cent Syrians and the rest Roma.
“There used to be dignity and discipline amongst the people,” he says. “Everyone is welcome here but these people have different traditions and behaviors. When you have no life, no space, no sun, no place, garbage everywhere, open sewage, what do you expect from the way they think? We have to start with the children.”
The pace is telling.
“I can’t believe I’ve got to 64 years old,” he says later, quietly reflecting on the day’s events. “Like today, I didn’t have time for myself. I didn’t have time for me. I didn’t have any minute for me. You don’t have time to think about other things. This life is all the same. You can’t believe we pass all these days normal. We always run. I can get sick, die at any time, but I don’t have time to think about these things.”
Abu sighs and leans back on his chair. He slightly turns his head to look at a Palestinian map posted to a cabinet. He chuckles and says,
“My wife and everyone say to me, ‘you shouldn’t have children and you shouldn’t have a home. They say ‘your people are your children, your people are your home and your children are in Shatila.’ And I’m proud of that. I’m cursed with the refugee life.”
That curse began for Abu with his family’s flight from Israel when he was a baby. They arrived first at the village of Bent Jbeil in southern Lebanon, living in the caves and under trees.
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In 1954, they were able to purchase a home - a one room house for all of them. But their time there was cut short when, with thousands of other families, they were ordered to move back from the Israeli border, to a village called Adloun 20 kilometers further north.
Abu remembers packing up the few items he and his family owned, sitting on the pile of mattresses at the back of a truck and driving away hoping for a new life.
“Like any child, they dream for a better life,” he says. “ But we didn’t know what poverty was, what poverty felt like although I remember my father coming home after working the land with dirty clothes and squeezing out the sweat.”
However, as he got older, he became more aware of the family’s impoverished circumstances, and ran away from home twice, once all the way to Beirut to work in a factory at the age of 10.
Although they were poor, Abu remembers it was a time when there was more discipline, more time to listen to the parents and for the parents to talk to their children. The conversations then didn’t revolve much around Palestine.
“What’s Palestine? What’s this struggle? What’s this movement?” he would say. “I heard stories but I didn’t really know.”
That changed in 1964 when the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was founded and Abu found himself arrested at one of the early rallies. He was just 16.
He felt he had found his future in the Palestinian movement. And in prison, he realised his role was to be a leader.
Trying to remember the number of times he went to prison for his political activities with the PLO, he looks tired, the dark circles under his eyes testament to the difficulties of the present crisis.
During that first spell of imprisonment, he spent a month listening to political lectures, stories of recent revolutions and the theoretical framework of Marxism from his fellow prisoners.
He immersed himself in the literature, and devoted his time to the Palestinian movement.
“I thank the Lebanese government for this. I realised I am Palestinian. I have a country and I have to fight for this country,” he says. “I’m never tired, not when I’m struggling for my people. I’m not sorry for these things.”
Abu went to prison four more times - twice in Syria.
The treatment there was particularly bad. “It was real hell,” he says. “They would put us in cold water. The others would beg to me ‘Abu Moujahed, what do we do? We’re dying.’ If you’re a leader, you have to be a leader everywhere. I told them ‘take off your clothes and be naked. Warm yourself.”
Abu remembers at night, the officers would force the men to run around in their underwear, hitting them as they turned every corner.
“I would tell the men, ‘don’t worry! Don’t be afraid! Show your determination!”
“An officer came and gave me a strong lash on my face. He said, ‘You think you are an Arab national? You think you’re a leader? Nobody here is a leader.’”
“I said to him ‘you don’t have a star on your shoulder for this lash, but your lash gives me ten stars in the eyes of my colleagues. And if you think you’re hurting me, you’re wrong.’”
Abu pauses, puts his glasses on and begins to shuffle through the paperwork the refugees had filled out earlier that day.
“My greatest fear is the Palestinians will forget they have a home. This isn’t about Abu Moujahed, this is about the future of Palestine and its people. I can’t let them forget this,” he says.
EDITOR'S PICK My name is Salma