In Beirut’s Mar Elias Camp, Palestinian Cause is Not Losing Relevance

Children walking around dark alleys of Mar Elias refugee camp. (Photo: Katarzyna Rybarczyk, Supplied)

By Katarzyna Rybarczyk

As the eyes of the entire world are on Ukraine now, it can seem like the Palestinian struggle has been fading into the background, but in Beirut’s Mar Elias camp, it remains very much alive.

Over the years, Lebanon has taken in more than 200,000 Palestinians fleeing Israeli aggression. Despite there being such a significant number of them in the country, however, Palestinians represent one of Lebanon’s most vulnerable and most oppressed communities.

And yet, although experiencing grave assaults on their human dignity, Palestinians in Lebanon have been setting an example of adaptation and have been managing to find happiness in a somewhat hostile environment.

A look inside Mar Elias camp allows one to better understand how Palestinians have been trying to overcome unfair treatment and deal with numerous obstacles to their integration.

Roots of Palestinian Exclusion

‘We do not have passports. Instead, we are issued travel documents. We also cannot access healthcare, own land, or work in certain professions such as lawyers or doctors,’ Ahmad, a Palestinian living in Lebanon told me. His parents fled Palestine before he was born but, despite his long residence in Lebanon, he is not, and never will be, entitled to Lebanese identity documents and basic freedoms.

Palestinian children playing football in front of Mar Elias camp. (Photo: Katarzyna Rybarczyk, Supplied)

Lebanon’s discriminatory policies towards Palestinians date back to Black September when, after the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) made an attempt to overthrow King Hussein of Jordan, the Jordanian Armed Forces under his command tried to oust Palestinians from the country. In turn, Palestinian fighters, as well as many civilians, were forced to flee to neighboring countries and tens of thousands arrived in Lebanon.

After that, the PLO would carry out attacks against Israel from Lebanon, which eventually became a major contributing factor to the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War. So, to this day, some Lebanese blame Palestinians for lives that were lost back then.

There is also a matter of Lebanese claiming that Palestinians are putting an additional strain on the services of the country that is already barely managing to take care of its own people.

Mar Elias Refugee Camp

 Mar Elias, spreading over an area of around two hundred square meters, is an urban refugee camp located in southern Beirut. It is home predominantly to Christian Palestinians but there is also a notable Syrian population there.

In the camp, Palestinians have been starting their own businesses, selling food and drinks, or opening car repair garages. Living in an urban refugee camp rather than a tented one gives people the chance to work, thus allowing them to reduce their dependence on NGOs.

Mural of Yasser Arafat at the entrance to Mar Elias refugee camp. (Photo: Katarzyna Rybarczyk, Supplied)

The narrow streets of Mar Elias have been painted in bright colors and the camp has become a colorful, creative space, different from what many imagine when they think of a refugee camp. Children spend most of their time outside playing and the buzz of conversations and laughter can be heard around.

The inferior status of Palestinians has become so entrenched in Lebanese society that those living in Mar Elias have lost hope of ever stopping feeling marginalized. Hence, rather than trying to escape Mar Elias and move to other parts of the city, refugees have been trying to build their lives in the camp, surrounded by people who share the same culture and experiences.

Streets of Mar Elias camp. (Photo: Katarzyna Rybarczyk, Supplied)

Dreams of Free Palestine

Palestinians living in Mar Elias remain true to their identity. In the camp, tere is a clear sense of community and brotherhood with Palestinian flags proudly hanging at every corner and murals featuring portraits of Yasser Arafat decorating the walls. One can also spot numerous signs advocating for ‘Free Palestine.’

Many young residents of the camp have never been to Palestine as they were born and raised in Mar Elias. So, for them, such imagery is a way of learning about their heritage.

‘Lebanon is home now but I hope that one day I can return to Palestine’ a woman who has been living in Mar Elias for more than ten years told me.

Because of restrictions imposed on Palestinians in Lebanon, the work most Palestinians engage in is deemed low-skilled and often provides them with very little income. ‘Things are getting very expensive now. It is becoming difficult to live here,’ Muhammad, an owner of a street food stall in Mar Elias said.

An owner of a street food stall in Mar Elias camp. (Photo: Katarzyna Rybarczyk, Supplied)

The conditions in Mar Elias are not as degrading as in other bigger camps in Lebanon but they are far from comfortable. After all, no matter how much effort is placed on doing the space up, it is impossible to forget about the fact that it is a concrete ghetto-like settlement, isolated from neighboring districts of Beirut.

After years of putting up with maltreatment and discrimination when all they ever wanted was to be safe, frustration seems to be growing amongst Palestinians living in Mar Elias. They do not demand full assimilation but simply wish to enjoy respect and fundamental civil rights.

– Katarzyna Rybarczyk is a Political Correspondent for Immigration Advice Service, an immigration law firm based in the UK but operating globally. Through her articles, she aims to raise awareness about security threats worldwide and the challenges facing communities living in low and middle-income countries. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

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