A small British charity tries to help the Palestinian cause.
By Dominic MacIver
Recently, a friend I haven’t spoken to for years posted some pictures on Facebook. I clicked, and found myself face-to-face with a familiar Mideast street scene. Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian figurehead,
stares down benignly over a dusty, narrow street, with a tangled, lethal ceiling of electric cables just overhead. Rusting signs in Arabic overlook sun-bleached sheets hanging in concrete windows to block out the sun and the wind. The poverty is palpable.
And it filled me with nostalgia and longing. Last summer some fellow youngsters and I were lucky enough to be sent to Sour in southern Lebanon with Unipal, a small British educational charity. We worked as English teachers, living in local communities, refugee camps, and working with Palestinian civil society groups and UNRWA, the international organisation charged with looking after the Palestinian refugees.
Lebanon contains an estimated 400,000 Palestinian refugees, most of whom live in the silence of poverty, with stories untold. Their road to this point is widely forgotten. To get an idea of the state most of them live in, I often recall images from City Of God, without the drug-running gangsters, but with added AK47-bearing political factions. Following an old agreement with the Lebanese Army, the factions – primarily Fatah and Hamas – share control of the camps and the Lebanese do not go in.
The camps are, in effect, miniature Palestinian city-slums. They are full of ordinary people unfortunate enough to be trapped on the wrong side of the world’s ugliest and longest-running conflict. And most of
them are lovely. An outsider able to venture inside will be exhausted by the invitations to chat, smoke cigarettes, drink tea, eat dinner and meet the entire extended family. This is despite the fact that in this
country, our political forebears were partly responsible for their families’ fate.
Our Foreign Office advises against going into the camps. A diplomat admitted to me that this was targeted at the worst kind of British tourist. We all know the type; drunk, obnoxious, ignorant and uncaring
about local culture If you are travelling inside the country and are adventurous and able – you’ll have to evade the Lebanese army – don’t be afraid to go in and listen to the stories of the people inside.
On my visit I made friends with Abu Tarik, a Fatah head in the Al-Bass camp. During the Lebanese Civil War, he was imprisoned by the South Lebanon Army, a proxy militia armed, funded and organised by Israeli military intelligence. He was tortured by the forces of General Haddad, a local Christian warlord. It left his jaw jutting out by a few inches, giving him a bulldog-like air of defiance. But he was full of kindness and generosity. Meals at his home would leave us scarcely able to walk home.
Another man we met was Fatah Sharif, the headmaster of the main school in Bourj Al-Shemali, the poorest out of the three camps near Sour. Regardless of the fact that he was affiliated with Hamas, he invited us into his home, fed us generously and, in near-perfect English, told us of how he had improved standards at his school. Bourj Al-Shemali contains around 20,000 refugees living on around half a square mile in dire poverty. The unemployment, birth and exam failure rates are all sky-high. In two years since getting to the school, Sharif had halved the school’s failure rate.
When listening to the news about the peace process, we easily forget about the human cost of stagnant diplomacy. By knowing about it, we can work to improve it. Anyone young and politically engaged should do whatever they can to solve this tragic rift that divides us all. Charities such as Unipal are not a bad place to start.
Dominic MacIver graduated in 2010 from SOAS with an MA in Near and Middle East Studies. His writing focuses on the Middle East and wider international affairs.
Image courtesy Wikipedia
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.