Saturday, November 20, 2010

Our second home

I was afforded a rare and special opportunity during my time in Lebanon. A Lebanese friend who works for a youth media organization was going to interview a Palestinian refugee about the cable tv channel he and his friends created. She invited me to go with her to the refugee camp. I have spent many years studying the Arab-Israeli conflict from various angles, but never before was I given the opportunity to see for myself concrete results of the conflict. We headed just north of Tripoli to the camp. This particular camp is about 60 years old and has about 30,000 residents in about one and a half or two square kilometers. Originally, the camp was allotted one square kilometer and building was deemed illegal. Over time however, the camp was built up (illegally) and the population doubled after another camp was destroyed. The interview was conducted in the camp's youth center. They had even converted the bathroom in to a recording studio. After wards, our new friend invited us to his family's house where he insisted we stay for lunch. It was quite an interesting experience listening to him and another of his friends (a girl who was around my age) describe their struggle. They referred to Israel in quotation marks every time they used the word. What was interesting was that they never referred to their enemy as the the Jews. Rather, their opposition was to an occupying force. They spoke of the days that Jews and Palestinians lived in peace on that land, long before the occupation. Though several generations have now lived their whole lives in the camp, the residents maintain a very strong Palestinian identity. They referred to Lebanon as their second home. Palestine, even if they had never seen it before, was their first home. Everyone we spoke with was passionate about returning to the land they loved. Our friend told us that for Palestinians, their relationship to the land was special. They lived on the hope of returning. Because of this, they dismissed any peace negotiations, refusing to be granted small pieces of a land they see as theirs. "Israel" was described as a tool created by the West to achieve influence in this part of the world. But, as all occupying forces do, our friend was convinced that the occupiers would eventually leave. I did not express my own points of view, I was there in their home just to listen, and to absorb a point of view I knew existed but had never seen. I should note that our hosts were very hospitable and that lunch was excellent.
From there, we toured the camp a bit. We saw all the little boys playing with very realistic toy guns. Our Palestinian friend explained that growing up with stories of violence, this is all they know. She then invited us to her family's house for coffee. There, her father explained some of the intricacies of Palestinian government. One thing I had learned earlier that day was that the governments of the West Bank and Gaza can do nothing for Palestinian refugees. In fact, many of the laws surrounding refugees were surprising. I could tell the residents struggled with how they felt about Lebanon. It is their de facto home and a place that they love. At the same time though, they are treated like second class citizens, unable to hold most jobs, and held to the utmost scrutiny when traveling. The refugees hold no passports, instead they have "documentation" or an ID card. They are of course not allowed to leave the country, and there is a check point right outside the camp in case they need to go in to the city.
Though we might have different points of view, I was very grateful for the kindness showed to me in the camp. I was happy to have the opportunity to hear first hand about their struggle and impressed with their ability to maintain their identity. The experience was both humbling and enlightening in terms of furthering my understanding of this deep-rooted and what I see now as a very real conflict.

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