This weekend we had the opportunity to visit Shatila, another refugee camp in southern Beirut. It’s known partly because of a massacre that occurred in Sabra and Shatila in 1982. We were especially lucky because a friend who grew up in the camp and now works as a banker accompanied us through Shatila.
All of our group seemed to think Shatila had a somewhat different feeling to it to Bourj El-Barajneh, which we visited last weekend, but no one could really explain why. Both camps had similar conditions: jumbled electric wires are strung overhead, water drips from the buildings, and pieces of trash line the walkways. Still, the people seem cheerful and welcoming. The community we met with in Bourj El-Barajneh couldn’t have been more welcoming to us, and I could sense that kindness from people in Shatila as well. People yelled “welcome!” and “hello!” to us from inside stores. Of course it helped that we were with someone who grew up there, but I get the feeling that kindness would be there even if we were alone.
It could be because we visited Shatila during the day instead of at night, or because Ramadan had ended by the time we got there, but Shatila just seemed to have a different “personality” than Bourj El-Barajneh. After walking down a narrow and dark walkway and up the stairs, we emerged into a beautiful, light room serves as a community center for ULYP. We listened to our friend talk about the camp, the 1982 massacre, and his experiences. He gave us a tour around the camp and showed us the memorial that they built there. Listening to his experiences, specifically with the war, made the visit more somber than the light-hearted Iftar dinner that we had at Bourj El-Borajneh.
Our friend took us to the place where he grew up. Another family lives there now, whom he seems to be close with. It was incredible to be able to see his childhood home, a small structure hidden within the maze of Shatila and overshadowed by the 6 story buildings that surround it, and then go straight from there to the beautiful mountain home where his family spends their summers now. You can tell that his story gives hope to people in the camp, and everyone is incredibly proud of him.
When he lived in Shatila, his home was just a one-story structure. Now, five other floors have been built on his home and the other homes surrounding it. He described most of the families having a garden and a tree of their own behind their homes, whereas now the buildings stretch so high that the sun even has trouble reaching the street. It is commonly known that an earthquake with a magnitude of just 4.5 would destroy the camp.
The fact about the earthquake, which was repeated to us while we were in the camp, spoke to something I’ve been noticing about Lebanon in general. In multiple places, we’ve heard stories about areas or problems that have been fixed just enough so that they won’t fall apart, at least not today. With the influx of Syrian and other refugees into the camps, people built vertically and created these six-story high structures. While everyone acknowledges their fragility and instability, that’s the solution that has been created and that’s good enough—until it’s not. We saw the same thing when we visited Mleeta. Our tour guide pointed to a mountain in the distance, saying it was technically Lebanese territory but it currently houses an Israeli ski resort. He indicated displeasure with the issue, and seem to present it as something that must be addressed, and “fixed,” at some point in the future. Just like the issue of housing and safety in the camp, the territory dispute has been “patched up” just enough so that it works for now, until it doesn’t. It’s interesting that this pattern has emerged in multiple places around Lebanon, and I think it indicates something about how deeply some issues run in Lebanese society. Maybe it’s easier just to patch up the surface of the wound, although it probably grows worse under the surface.