Sanctuary for children amid gruesome living conditions in Lebanon refugee camp
Dispatch from Shatila camp
Shatila, a crowded refugee camp, just a few kilometers from the bustling Beirut city, has often been associated with violence, killings, and drug abuse. The visit starts driving past a graveyard of thousands killed almost 40 years ago. We get off right into a busy market where one can find anything: fresh seasonal fruit, meat and fish, clothes, toys. The market goes down alleyways that looked like an endless game of maze. Flashbacks of my last visit to another camp throw me into a déjà vu of tangled electricity wires, dripping water pipes, and unpaved narrow roads where it’s nearly impossible not to walk shoulder to shoulder. Buildings built vertically, as narrow as the roads they are on. Floors on top of other tiny floors made me think of how real the animation film "The Tower" was.
For those among you who may have been to some of Lebanon’s 12 refugee camps, these depictions are quite familiar. There was nothing new for me either, until I walked into “Bait Atfal Al-Sumoud”. One of UNICEF’s partners in Shatila camp, the centre has been providing services for children since 1976 across Lebanon’s refugee camps. The ground floor hosts a children’s dentist clinic, the only one that offers free services in the camp.
Music fills the floors as children play and dance. Here, they learn to play music and have respite from the gruesome living conditions outside, made far worse by Lebanon’s economic crisis: the world’s worst in over a century according to the World Bank.
Kassem, a smiley kind man, told us he had fled his village in the Galilee in 1948. With a team, they provide services to children including setting up a kindergarten. The volunteers spoke of barely making ends meet and not having enough money to keep the centre going. Despite that, they come here every day to work with children. Rana, a five-year-old girl was learning how to plant in small pots, an activity that helps children’s mental health. The top floor hosted a library full of books available for children and young people. Hadi, a 12-year-old boy, sang about children’s rights including to learn and dream. Dreams and aspirations that children around the world share.
We stepped out of the centre to meet Khalidat who runs “Tadamon”, a small organisation that provides children with psychological assistance. Khalidat told us that in the past years the needs in the camps have exponentially grown with a significant population increase. Shatila, like most Palestinian camps in Lebanon, is no longer only hosting Palestine refugees. Over the years, the camps have become “home” to many: Syrian refugees fleeing the 11-year-long war in their country, Palestine refugees from Syria in particular during the peak of violence in and around the Yarmouk Camp. Over the past two years, poor Lebanese families and migrant workers including from Sub-Saharan Africa who sought refuge in camps due to the crisis in Lebanon including the aftermath of the Beirut blast and COVID-19. The camps are now even more crowded, the services are not enough and UNRWA the main service provider is running out of money not only in Lebanon but around the region.
Yet, and against all odds, Khalidat and her team keep going. In a small room, children sat around a table building houses with toyblocks thanks to a UNICEF partnership with the Lego foundation. They were there as part of summer activities. Samah, the instructor, asked the children to imagine their “dream” house. Of the 12 children, Rami was the only boy who went to school. Children coming from Syria were not always able to have the paperwork they needed. Public schools in Lebanon are struggling, including to pay salaries for teachers as the local currency plummeted to lowest records losing more than 90 per cent of its value.
The last stop was the UNRWA-run school, the only one in the camp. Immaculate, with informative flyers and posters on the walls. These schools are a ray of hope in Lebanon and across UNRWA’s areas of operations. They are probably one of the few places where more than half a million Palestine refugee children can learn, play, and just be children in a protected environment.
Despite the gruesome living conditions, the terrible economic situation, the lack of prospect for millions of Palestine’s refugees, the schools, the organisations and most importantly people like Kassem and Khalidat keep going. Until when is the question…. But until then, they deserve all the support they can get.
I left the camp thinking of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and how as important as it is, we are faced with dwindling funds for equally lifesaving and critical work the UN does around the region. The burden of all crises must be collectively shared. Most importantly, political solutions for conflicts and crises must be sought to finally bring justice and an end to decades-long suffering of millions of people.
*Juliette Touma is the UNICEF Regional Chief of Advocacy & Communications in the Middle East and North Africa. She is the incoming Director of Communications for UNRWA.